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Local: Being an Army nurse seemed 'the thing to do'

When her father, Dr. John W. McClain, made house calls in Mitchell County, Elizabeth would run to the barn to turn the starting crank handle on his Model T Ford, thrilled she was allowed to drive the old "Tin Lizzie" around to the front of their house.

"The other town doctor in Pelham wouldn't make house calls when he played bridge, so my father got the business," Elizabeth McClain recalled, adding that her grandfather was also a doctor.

"I knew by the fifth grade, I'd either be a nurse or a missionary," she said.

During the Depression, her father was paid with chickens and corn, an occasional hog, sometimes even money.

"We had a vegetable garden, and my mother made lye soap in the backyard," McClain said. "Our neighbor's small child had difficulty pronouncing words. She called my grandfather ‘Doc,' my father ‘Doctor Me Doc' and my mother ‘McMomma.' She called me ‘Bubba.' I don't know why; I never chewed tobacco or drove a pickup truck."

Pelham was thinly populated, and the central gathering place was the four-storied Hand Trading Company.

"It served as our post office, grocery store, drug store, funeral home, and a few other things." McClain said. "One of my brothers delivered mail from there in a horse and buggy."

McClain remained in Pelham after graduating from high school in 1929. She studied advanced courses in biology and chemistry while caring for her ailing parents. When her six siblings eventually took over the parental care, McClain moved to Atlanta in 1939 to study nursing at the old Piedmont Hospital on Capitol Avenue. While in her second year at Piedmont, America was attacked.

"I remember being in Davison's department store when they announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor," McClain said. "I don't remember what people were saying in the store, but I knew a war had started. An Army nurse spoke to our graduating class. I liked her presentation, so I joined up."

Already an R.N., McClain bypassed basic training and was commissioned a second lieutenant on Sept. 5, 1942.

"My first assignment was Camp Wheeler, Ga., where most of the boys were hospitalized for heat-related problems during training," she said.

After two years at Camp Wheeler, McClain was sent to Fort McPherson for three years.

"I was at Fort Mac when the war ended. We treated combat veterans as well as boys hospitalized for other illnesses," she explained.

McClain stayed in the Army after World War II. When asked why she stayed in, she said, "It seemed like the thing to do."

Asked if she liked the Army, she said, "I'm not sorry I went in." When asked about Army food, she said, "Well, I ate it."

Her next port-of-call was Manila in the Philippines. Sailing from San Francisco, McClain said, "Our ship crossed the Pacific to Manila. That's a long voyage, but after we arrived in Manila, they told us some would stay and some of us would be going to Okinawa."

McClain was sent to the island of Okinawa to treat the sick and injured.

"I didn't like the typhoons on Okinawa," she complained. "One typhoon destroyed half of our barracks. Luckily, I bunked in the other half."

The typhoon reversed course the next day. "It came right back through Okinawa and destroyed the other half of our barracks," she said.

McClain remained on Okinawa for 18 months.

Her next hospital assignment was Fort Jay on Governor's Island, New York.

"I really liked Fort Jay," she said. "That was wonderful duty."

When asked why Fort Jay was such good duty, McClain said, "It wasn't on Okinawa."

After nursing assignments in Hot Springs, Ark., Frankfurt, Germany, and five years at Fort Eustis, Va., Maj. Elizabeth "Bubba" McClain retired from the U.S. Army in December 1962.

Returning home to Pelham, this compassionate, soft-spoken veteran who never married eventually moved in with her three sisters in Atlanta. Together they nurtured two ailing brothers-in-law and in due course, each other. Bubba McClain has been a resident of Morningside Assisted Living in Conyers since 2009.

In this interview, McClain stated, "During the war when I was at Camp Wheeler a young nurse came into the ward and noticed a black soldier in one of the beds. She said, ‘What's he doing here?' The soldier pointed at me and replied, ‘She knows.' I told the young nurse, ‘He's my patient, and he's a soldier, and you can leave.' She left, and I was glad she did. That wasn't right."

Miss McClain was born on Jan. 11, 1912. She'll be 100 years old on her next birthday.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Email him at petemecca@gmail.com.