By Richard Kerns
Tribune Staff Writer
KEYSER – Hundreds of miles and a world removed from the only life she'd known in Keyser, Reva Shirley recoiled at the sight of the open leg wound, the doctor working to mend a man broken by war.
Stepping outside in the hall, Shirley gathered herself together and summoned the resolve to go back inside and assist the doctor. It was 1945 and the wounded of the South Pacific were arriving by the trainload at Crile General Hospital near Cleveland, where Shriley was a U.S. Army medical technician in her early 20s.
She wasn't normally called on to assist with surgery, but a nurse wasn't around and the doctor needed help.
"You know you've got to do it," Shirley commanded herself in the hallway. "So go in and get at it."
Which she promptly did.
A lifelong resident of the Keyser area who raised six children in her home on F Street, Shirley is one of the few remaining World War II veterans who are active in the Boyce Houser American Legion. She has belonged to the Legion since returning home shortly after the war, except for a lapse when she gave up membership for her husband, Marvin, as the young parents were too pressed to pay dues for two.
"You can't afford anything when you have six kids," Shirley said with a laugh.
Shirley joined the Army in the summer of 1944, soon after reaching the minimum age of 20 for female enlistees. She took the enlistment paper to her father, a farmer who signed off even as he worked the field. His only condition was that she not go overseas, which Shirley assured him she would not, even though she had no idea where duty would take her.
As it turned out, after basic training and a month of medical training, she was assigned to Crile, where she would spend most of the two years of her service, mustering out in the summer of 1946 as a Staff Sergeant.
Like many recruits of that "Greatest Generation" Shirley was as green as they came when she answered Uncle Sam's call, having never traveled much farther than Cumberland. "I'd never been on a train in my life," she said of that first ride to basic training in Georgia. "Everything was strange."
After being assigned to the Medical Corps, Shirley was drilled in the basics of medical care, including how to give shots, draw blood and take a temperature. "I had to learn everything," she said.
Crile was a busy 2,000-bed hospital, with troops arriving dozens at a time, most of them soldiers wounded fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. The main job at the hospital was to stabilize the men so that they could either be released outright or transferred to facilities closer to home.
Page 2 of 3 - And that was every soldier's objective.
"You'd get them better as much as possible," she said. "They just wanted to go home."
In addition to the burns, broken bones and flesh wounds of battle, Shirley also helped treat Americans who had been liberated from Japanese prisoner of war camps notorious for their brutality and deprivation. She said one man came to Crile weighing only 80 pounds. They were nursed back to health slowly, given liquids or cream soup until they could digest regular food.
Ironically, Crile was also home to German prisoners of war who were tasked with cleaning the hospital. Shirley said the American troops harbored no resentment to their foes and would sometimes slip them extra rations. "The guys knew that they didn't want to fight in the war either," she said.
Shirley not only grew into her duties, she also excelled as a leader in the Medical Corps, attaining her sergeant's rank by running a tight ship and being willing to place friendship second to the discipline essential to any military operation.
Once a fellow technician from the South refused to treat a wounded African American soldier. Shirley would have none of it. "I told her, 'He was over there fighting for you and you'll treat him like any other soldier," the veteran recalled. "She didn't like it, but she did it."
Beyond the long days that ran from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Shirley enjoyed life in the big city. Every member of the military could travel for free throughout Cleveland, and attend movies, amusement parks, concerts and other activities at no cost. "We had a ball," she said of her time in the service.
Reminders of the war were never far, though. On stormy nights staff knew to head to the psychiatric wing of the hospital, where men with what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder became inconsolable at the onset of lightning and thunder which kindled harsh memories of combat. "They thought they were back in the war," she said of the men.
Returning to Keyser after the war, Shirley quickly settled into the life of a homemaker, welcoming her first child – Keyser citizen-activist Karol Ashenfelter – just as the family moved into its new home on F Street, where Reva still resides. Fueling the post-war baby-boom, Reva and Marvin welcomed five more children over the next decade.
When Marvin died suddenly at age 40, Reva became a single-mom, working part time in school cafeterias, and then full time once the children had grown. Her children grew up in a loving, but strict home.
"You have to have a little discipline," the former staff sergeant said. "I had four boys! If I didn't have discipline they would have run me out of here."
Page 3 of 3 - Today her family includes 15 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
Over the years Shirley also became more active in the Boyce House American Legion, where she has served on numerous committees and leadership positions over 50 plus years with the Post. At 89, she tries to attend as many of the twice-monthly meetings as possible, and still makes the punch for the Post's blood drives.
As with the military, Shirley said she never encountered any resistance in the Legion from other veterans because she was a woman. "They're like my brothers," she said.