Analysis & Comment

Opinion | My Mother Carried World War II Inside Her Like a Ghost

At the end of World War II, my mother, Phyllis McLaughlin, was sent home after weeks in a battlefront hospital tent, her legs wired and sutured together. She had tumbled off a mountain in the Bavarian Alps in a Jeep accident that nearly killed her. Her scars were familiar to me, born 10 years later, but I did not understand that the wounds from her service would never heal.

Her nightmares woke us nearly every night, leaving her hoarse. She had inexplicable outbursts of anger during the day. A battered army footlocker in the living room held her mementos, but my mother carried World War II inside her like a ghost. She had never been a soldier, but she volunteered to serve with the Red Cross Clubmobile Service and followed the troops into combat.

The Clubmobile Service was essentially a mobile social club for the battlefront. The “Donut Dollies” drove two and a half-ton GMC trucks, three women to a crew. In the back of the truck: a galley with huge electric urns for making coffee and a doughnut machine, a record player, sometimes letters from loved ones to be delivered. My mother was trained to always be a friendly face, ready to listen, comfort and encourage. Which meant she and the other women were also direct and secondhand witnesses to everything that happened during that brutal war. I now recognize my mother was tortured by PTSD, her nightmares and outbursts classic symptoms of something she would never understand: After all, “battle fatigue” was for the boys.

I got a brief glimpse of what she survived when she took me at age 15 to see the film “Patton.” She dragged me out of bed and we marched to the bus stop to see the first showing of the day at San Diego’s California Theater. I surreptitiously watched my mother laugh, smile and rock in her seat, weep and sigh as we sat through one, then two and finally three showings of the film. If it hadn’t been getting dark outside, we would have sat through two more.

While watching the movie my mother was alive in a way I had never known her. “That Georgie Patton was a very naughty boy,” she said with a knowing smile and faraway look. And I knew it wasn’t only about George C. Scott; she was reliving perhaps the time of her life. Though I couldn’t see the connection at the time — the film didn’t offer even a glimpse of the Clubmobile Service — clearly my mother had lived a life I did not know. After she died, I needed to understand her and how World War II affected our relationship. How did this insouciant New York sophisticate become an isolated, lonely woman battling her own memories?

Everything changed for my mother when she volunteered for duty in the European theater at the age of 27. Through her scrapbooks and diaries, I was able to piece together a rough sketch of her journey. After several weeks of training in Washington D.C., my mother arrived in Britain only to have her train bombed. She spent the weeks surrounding D-Day at a B-17 base outside London and saw the first buzz bombs hit the city.

Assigned to the Red Cross Clubmobile Cheyenne along with her friends Jill and Helen, my mother followed the troops — often assigned to General Patton’s Third Army — from Normandy to the Bavarian Alps, through the liberation of Paris to the Battle of the Bulge to the liberation of Buchenwald. When the troops made camp or took breaks from firefights, the women put up the sides of the truck and brewed vats of coffee, passed out doughnuts, listened to stories, offered smiles and an occasional hug.

The “Donut Dollies” sometimes slept under the truck in the field, ate the same rations as the soldiers and drove for hours through the European countryside, searching for the next stop. Under fire, they believed the power of the red cross on the truck would save them from an errant bomb. And yet when the women came back home, there was little thought for the horrors they carried as front-row witnesses. The Red Cross Clubmobilers were hardly mentioned at all. The women were simply shipped home. How could my mother talk about an experience no one recognized at the time? Where had she to go but her memories?

My mother’s stories came to me in small bits and pieces. Like many of “the greatest generation,” she mostly kept her war experiences to herself. She would never consider that anybody would ever care about the women who tried to bring comfort and support to those fighting the war. Why would they? ‌After all, the soldiers were the real heroes. And sadly, she was correct.

The Clubmobile Service has largely been ignored in the historical record of World War II. The‌se women‌ were not recognized as veterans. But make no mistake, they were unarmed witnesses to every bit of horror in the battle zone.

It was only when I discovered the women’s letters home, interviews with local newspapers and self-published memoirs that I had the painful realization that to find out more about the Red Cross Clubmobiles, I needed to rely only on the women themselves. These women preserved their experiences in real time through their journals and letters home. Their scrapbooks were full of letters from grateful soldiers who years later were still dreaming of the women who had handed them a cup of coffee as they left on a B17 mission or listened to their stories when they returned. Their photo albums were a memory bank of all that they lived through.

I believe all of the Clubmobile women from World War II are gone now, including my mother’s truck mate Jill Pitts Knappenberger. I was so grateful to find her in 2014 after she lost contact with my mother before I was born. We visited regularly before she passed away in 2020 at 102 years of age. Miss Jill was tremendously proud of her time in the service — she was never seen without her gold Clubmobile charm around her neck.

Miss Jill fought for the crew of the Cheyenne to be officially recognized as the forward-most women in battle in World War II. A Senate Resolution in 2012 honored the Clubmobile Service, and called upon historians to “not let this important piece of U.S. history be lost.”

In every single one of her World War II photographs and those of her friends, my mother is laughing and bright-eyed. I almost don’t recognize her. In my research trips to Europe, I saw the places she traveled and understood it was a great adventure for her — at least in the beginning. But war has a cost, and my mother paid a high price.

Luis Urrea is a novelist whose most recent book is “Good Night, Irene.”

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