Local News

Thursday, Dec 24 2009 06:54 PM

Veteran recalls 'Gray Ladies'

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    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian Don Murtha, 80-year-old Korean War veteran who lives in Wofford Heights, tries on his Air Force uniform, which almost fit, many years later.

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    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian An old snapshot of 80 year old Korean War veteran, Don Murtha, right, in the B26 cockpit during the war in the 50's. Murtha was a grounds crew chief at the time the photo was taken. The man on the left was a technician, but his name is unknown.

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    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian Korean War veteran and Wofford Heights resident, Don Murtha, 80, sits on top of an airplane during the war where he was a grounds crew chief.

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  4. 4 of 9

    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian Don Murtha, 80-year-old Korean War veteran who lives in Wofford Heights, tries on his Air Force uniform, which almost fit, many years later.

    click to expand click to collapse
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    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian Wofford Heights resident, Don Murtha, 80, is a Korean War veteran and has a deep appreciation for the American Red Cross since 1951.

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  6. 6 of 9

    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian An old snapshot of 80 year old Korean War veteran, Don Murtha, right, in the B26 cockpit during the war in the 50's. Murtha was a grounds crew chief at the time the photo was taken. The man on the left was a technician, but his name is unknown.

    click to expand click to collapse
  7. 7 of 9

    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian A fun photo of Don Murtha and his wife, Marilyn during the Korean War. They had not gotten married yet at the time this photo was taken.

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  8. 8 of 9

    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian Korean War veteran and Wofford Heights resident, Don Murtha, 80, sits on top of an airplane during the war where he was a grounds crew chief.

    click to expand click to collapse
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    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian Don Murtha, 80 year old Korean War veteran credits the American Red Cross with helping him during the war.

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BY STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Don Murtha was just 21 when he learned to love the Gray Ladies of the American Red Cross.

Christmas 1950 had just passed, the Korean War was in full flame, and each night, the U.S. Air Force crew chief would work in the bitter cold of a Korean winter to ready a B-26 bomber for another night mission.

Related Info

The term "Gray Ladies" refers to American Red Cross volunteers who for many years provided friendly, personal services of a non-medical nature to sick, injured, and disabled patients, including thousands of wounded American servicemen. During World War I, World War II and the Korean War, the gray ladies wrote letters and read to wounded soldiers, helped them get involved in crafts and other activities and did much to ease the loneliness and boredom of long hospital stays. They also also provided hospitality services in Red Cross blood centers and joined forces with other Red Cross workers in caring for disaster victims.

The Gray Lady service began in 1918 at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. Women volunteers acted as hostesses and provided recreational services to patients, most of whom had been injured during World War I. The women wore gray dresses and veils as uniforms and the soldiers affectionately called them "the gray ladies." The name stuck although the service did not become officially known as the Gray Lady Service until after World War II.

Gray Ladies continued to maintain a distinctive presence in American hospitals until the late 1960s when the different volunteer branches of the Red Cross were discontinued in favor of a unified concept of the Red Cross volunteer. The Gray Lady Service, as such, disappeared and volunteers who performed its traditional functions were simply called members of the Red Cross Volunteer Services.

Source: American Red Cross

THE GRAY LADIES

Now 80 and living in Wofford Heights, Murtha has had nearly six decades to think about how much he owes the Red Cross workers who made his time in Korea more bearable -- and more human.

"Ever since the war, I've always bragged about the Red Cross," the war veteran said. "But this year when I was sending them a check, I decided to write down some of those thoughts."

That's how Lorraine Castro, chief executive of the American Red Cross-Kern Chapter, found herself moved nearly to tears as she read the hand-written memories of a man who can't forget how much the Red Cross means to him.

"Thank you Red Cross," Murtha wrote, "for bringing coffee and doughnuts in the midnight snow on the flightline in Korea.

"Thank you for visiting me in the hospital in the MASH outfit when I got hurt."

In early 1951, Murtha was working the flightline at Kunsan Air Base, off the Yellow Sea, when disaster struck. A bomb in a plane had apparently not fallen free during the plane's previous bombing mission.

"It went off," Murtha remembered. "I was on fire."

Temporarily blinded, the young Air Force sergeant ran across the tarmac until he rolled into an air raid ditch.

For Murtha, the war was over. He would spend months in hospitals in Korea, Japan and San Francisco. He would undergo 18 operations and various skin grafts.

And through it all, there was one constant: The Red Cross was there.

The organization's volunteers, then known as the Gray Ladies for the gray dresses they wore as uniforms, visited him in every hospital. They brought him crafts to keep him busy during the long hours. They brought phones that could be plugged in near his bed so he could make free long-distance calls to loved ones.

Murtha remembers calling his aunt and uncle back in his home state of Iowa. They had raised him from the time he was a little boy and hadn't heard from him in months.

"I have never forgotten the kindness extended me by the Red Cross," Murtha wrote.

After the war, he would marry. The union produced six children, but his wife contracted cancer and died in their 10th year together.

He went into the automotive body and fender business in the San Fernando Valley where he opened his own shops. He married twice more, adding several stepchildren to his long list of loved ones.

Now a widower for the third time, Murtha lives a quiet life in the Kern River Valley where he sings in his church choir. He has 25 or 30 grandkids and some great-grandchildren -- he can't keep track of the exact number, he says with a chuckle.

His daughter, Bobbie Huss, lives with him and helps take care of him.

"He's gotten to a time in his life when you tend to look back," she said.

With more years behind you than ahead, you take stock of your life.

You play over your memories and, if you're lucky, you remember the faces of those who helped you through your darkest moments.

For Murtha, some of those moments were made softer and sweeter by the touch of a hand on his forehead, or by the voices of angels whispering in his eFor some of his comrades in arms, the kindness of the Gray Ladies may have been the last kindness they would ever know.

"Those ladies may not have been pretty, but they sure looked like angels to us guys on the flightline," he said.

"The last touch of home some of those crews ever saw," he wrote, "was two angels in a jeep" on a snow-lined tarmac far from home.

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