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Home : News : News
NEWS | Dec. 13, 2019

World War II nurse turns 100, recalls war experiences

By David DeKunder 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Before she marked her 100th birthday Nov. 20, Freda Haworth Coate recalled the time she was called upon to serve her country in World War II.

It was the spring of 1943 and Coate was working as a young nurse at the Soldiers Home, the Veterans Administration medical facility in Danville, Illinois. One day the chief nurse of the facility, who was a nurse in World War I, came up to Coate and a group of nurses and asked them a question.

“The chief nurse came to me and she said, ‘What are you young people doing here? You need to get into the war,’” said Coate, who resides in Leander, Texas.

Coate, age 23, joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps on May 23, 1943 and would serve for over two years as a nurse in the South Pacific, advancing to the rank of first lieutenant.

Born Nov. 20, 1919, in Union Corner, a small community in eastern Illinois near the Indiana border, Coate became a registered nurse in 1941 after earning her nursing degree at the Lakeview Hospital School of Nursing in Danville, Illinois. She stayed at Lakeview Hospital until 1942 before going to work at the Soldiers Home.

When she joined the service, Coate received her orders to go to Camp McCoy in Sparta, Wisconsin, taking a train from Danville to get to the installation. While at Camp McCoy, she learned she would be shipped overseas but didn’t know the location of her duty station because it was confidential.

From Camp McCoy, Coate and 11 other nurses boarded a train for Camp Stoneman, California, which the Army utilized as a staging area for troops headed to the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II. The nurses rode in a Pullman car attached to a series of troop trains, taking them 12 days to get to Camp Stoneman.

When the nurses finally arrived at Camp Stoneman, they were processed and ready to embark on their overseas mission. In the middle of the night, the nurses were led to a river and put on a yacht, owned by movie star Robert Taylor, to take them to the ship that would transport them overseas.

At that time there were no lights turned on because of a blackout that was put into effect over concerns the Japanese would bomb the West Coast. Because of this blackout, the nurses had to proceed to the ship by holding hands and walking in a single file to board and get to their cabins.

The nurses were at sea for 17 days before they disembarked at Brisbane, Australia on July 13. Coate said when the nurses first spotted land for the first time in 17 days, they all rushed to see it. With so many nurses standing one side of the ship, this caused a problem in that that side of the ship had too much weight on it, causing the captain to tell the nurses to go back to their cabins.

Once the nurses disembarked in Brisbane, Coate was assigned temporary duty at the 100th General Hospital. She cared for sick American troops, including those with ear, nose and throat ailments, before they were sent into combat, and patients who were combat casualties.

During her service in Australia, Coate’s accommodations was a tent with a stove in the middle of it that was shared by six nurses.

Coate worked in the hospital in Brisbane for six months before she was transferred to New Guinea in December 1943. There, she was assigned to the 117th General Hospital working in the malaria ward.

She served at the hospital in Brisbane for six months until she was transferred to the 117th General Hospital on New Guinea in December 1943. Coate was assigned to the malaria ward at the hospital.

In New Guinea, Coate had to care for sick troops in a hospital that was built through a series of huts by combat engineers. Since there were no air conditioning, it would get pretty hot inside the hospital. She describes the conditions at the hospital as pretty austere and rough.

While working at the hospital in New Guinea, Coate helped care for troops who participated and were injured in the Battle of Iwo Jima, which occurred approximately 3,000 miles away from New Guinea between February-March 1945. A lot of the troops, who had symptoms of battle fatigue, arrived in the middle of the night. There were so many troops coming from Iwo Jima that the hospital had open a new ward for them.

In addition, one of the patients she met at the hospital in New Guinea was the high school classmate of Stephen Coate, who she had dated before the war.

In July 1945, the 117th General Hospital in New Guinea was closed as the number of troops coming to the hospital dwindled due to the fighting being farther away from New Guinea as American forces advanced towards Japan. Coate was transferred to Manilla, Philippines and was there for only one month before she boarded a ship that took her back to the U.S.

While she was on that ship, Coate, the nurses and the crew heard the news that the Japanese had surrendered and that the war was over. Coate said when word got out that the war had ended, weapons on the ship were fired in celebration. She said she was exhilarated and glad when she heard the news that the war had ended.

Coate was discharged from the Army in January 1946. When she returned to Danville, Illinois, Coate went back to working at the VA hospital. She and Stephen, who served as a Navy signalman during the war, reconnected and started dating again after Stephen came back to Danville. The couple married on June 22, 1946.

Freda and Stephen Coate were married for 31 years when he passed away in 1977. They had two children.

Coate retired from the VA and nursing in 1982.

Coate said she liked being part of the nursing profession because of the people she cared for.

“The rewarding part was caring for patients and getting them better,” Coate said.

For her service in World War II, Coate was awarded the Victory Medal and Meritorious Unit Badge.

Her daughter, Alice Hathaway, said serving in the Army Nurse Corps is a source of pride for her mother.

“She’s proud of her service,” Hathaway said.

Coate was active in the veterans’ community in Danville by becoming the first female member of Jewel Whyte Veterans of Foreign War Post 728. She is also a life member of the Vermilion County War Museum, also located in Danville.

On Nov. 20, a birthday celebration for Coate was held at the assisted living center she lives at in Leander. Attending the celebration were family and friends and several guests, including Lt. Col. Karen Santiago, 228th Combat Support Hospital Alpha Company assistant chief nurse, and Lt. Col. Teresa Shiels, 228th Combat Support Hospital Bravo Company assistant chief nurse, both from San Antonio.

Shiels and Santiago presented Coate with a coin from the Army Nurse Corps Association, a nonprofit organizations that supports the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.  Also, Coate received a letter from Brig. Gen.  Jack Davis, U.S. Army Nurse Corps chief, who wished her a happy birthday.