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At 95, Potsdam High grad remembers her service during World War II

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MALONE - Time marches on, and today the surviving veterans of World War II nmber just over one million.

And one of them is Vivian Gregware of Malone.

Gregware, 95, served as an army nurse from April 1, 1943 to Nov. 18, 1945 while she was in her mid-20s. Though MS. Gregware was not allowed to go near any of the conflict, for about a year she served on the U.S. Army Hospital Ship Wisteria and that gave her a front row seat to the men that served on the war’s front lines.

“I was born in Burke,” she said.

Ms. Gregware said she attended local schools and graduated from Potsdam High School. She then moved on to the three-year nursing program at Ogdensburg State Hospital, graduating in 1942.

However, it was before she graduated that Ms. Gregware decided to become an army nurse.

“This other classmate and I thought it was a good idea,” she said. “Before we graduated, we thought of going in.”

This decision brought Ms. Gregware to Halloran General Hospital on Staten Island and another hospital on Long Island. It was from there that Ms. Gregware ended up on the U.S.A.H.S. Wisteria.

“We made 10 crossings of the Atlantic [Ocean],” Ms. Gregware said. “It was to bring back wounded soldiers.”

Each crossing took about 13 days one way, she added.

“It was a freighter [ship] and slow moving,” she said, adding that each time, the ship would pick up around 600 soldiers. “We would just go into a port and pick them up.”

Because there wasn’t any television, Ms. Gregware said news traveled via radio.

“Our ship brought back the first batch of D-Day boys,” she said. “They had it on the radio I remember.”

Ms. Gregware said the ship was large enough to have three decks available for patients.

“There was plenty of room,” she said.

The patients were in various conditions upon boarding the ship, but were stable by that time.

“You had some surgical patients. ... Most were ambulatory,” she said, meaning that they could walk. She added that some needed a little help and some didn’t.

In thinking about the D-Day soldiers, Ms. Gregware said their inuries were more severe than soldiers on the other voyages.“They were the most wounded ones we brought back,” she said.

Ms. Gregware said working on the ship was very much like working in a hospital. She noted that she worked an eight-hour shift and was designated for the psychiatric ward “so I got to visit with them more than some of the others.”

Ms. Gregware noted that the psychiatric ward patients were “more stressed” than others, but it really came down to what they’d seen.

“When you’d hear some the stories, you knew why,” she said.

But most of the soldiers kept their war stories locked up and didn’t talk about it, she said.

Overall, she said the soldiers were excited to get home.

“Their spirits were high,” M. Gregware said. “They weren’t any problem.”

When she wasn’t working, the Potsdam High grad said she was able to go out on the deck of the ship and enjoy time with the other nurses and crew. Ms. Gregware still has many pictures of those days with her friends.

There was also church services held on the ship’s deck, according to Ms. Gregware.

Ms. Gregware said she was able to write letters home and receive letters, but all were censored. She noted that the outgoing letters were more heavily censored than the incoming ones, adding that none of the letters could say where she was.

For living quarters, Ms. Gregware said five nurses shared a compartment.

“You didn’t have much room,” she said.

When the Wisteria reached a port in either Europe or Northern Africa, Ms. Gregware said there was often time to go exploring where the ship was docked. Among her photos are views of different cities in Italy, including Rome and Naples, as well as England and Algiers, Algeria.

Ms. Gregware recalled that when she completed her time with the army in November 1945 she was sick and couldn’t enjoy time with her fellow nurses. She returned to the north country and started working at Alice Hyde Medical Center, which was Alice Hyde Hospital at the time. She added that this was shortly after her return and she hadn’t unpacked her nursing uniforms yet.

Ms. Gregware married and three of her sons also served in the armed forces. One is a Vietnam War veteran while the other two were stationed in Saudi Arabia.

On Sept. 14, Gregware was one of two Malone World War II veterans to visit the war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery through the North Country Honor Flight program. This chapter of Honor Flight is part of a national initiative that brings World War II veterans or any veteran with a terminal illness to Washington, D.C. to see the memorials.

The day started with Ms. Gregware and fellow World War II veteran Wesley Reynolds being escorted from Malone by motorcycles and flying from Plattsburgh International Airport to the nation’s capitol.

“It was amazing,” Ms. Gregware said.

They were part of a larger group of 32 World War II veterans from all over the north country; Ms. Gregware was the only woman.

Shee noted at the World War II memorial there’s a wall lined with gold stars. There’s 4,048 stars, each represents 100 fallen soldiers.

“It doesn’t seem possible,” Ms. Gregware said. “A lot of people die in the services.”

Before leaving D.C., the veterans had dinner at an American Legion chapter in Maryland. At the end of the day, each received a large envelope; inside were thank you cards recognizing the veterans for their service.

Ms. Gregware said there were several moments throughout the day that made her emotional, not just seeing the memorials but the fact that at 11:30 p.m. when she and the other veterans returned to Plattsburgh, there were soldiers standing at attention.

“That brought tears,” she said.

Thinking back to the Wisteria and her time in the army, Ms. Gregware said the ship she called home for about a year was sold for scrap metal in the ‘60s.

As for her fellow nurses, Ms. Gregware said she is the only one left.

“I’m in a world all by myself now,” she said.

Ms. Gregware said she will reflect on her service as an army nurse on Veterans Day.“You always think about it,” she said, “not just that day but every day.”

The number of living World War II veterans is decreasing at a rate of 600 people per day, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, La. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says just 1.2 million of the 16 million people that served in World War II remain alive today.

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