Emma’s Song: A Story of Love, Part 4
The old sergeant, before leaving, told Emma about a few hospitals that treated soldiers who could not communicate. This gave Emma new hope of finding Paul. A few days after Christmas, she made her way to the local Red Cross office. She remembered, from her search while in Washington City, that the Army had tasked the Red Cross with organizing both combat field hospitals and permanent hospitals during and after the war. The Red Cross had the knowledge to treat large numbers of people when natural disasters displaced thousands or disease epidemics occurred. The Army had directed its attention to training troops and not undertaking such a task as dealing with mass injuries. When war came, the Army concentrated on drafting skilled people they would need to care for the wounded near the front. The task of creating the hospital organizations with beds and supplies would be left to the Red Cross.
Emma sat all day in the lobby of the Red Cross field office waiting to see the head administrator. Finally, near five o’clock, a tired looking doctor, and a nurse in a heavily starched uniform, came into the waiting room.
“Mrs. Nobel, we have contacted the main office of our organization,” said the doctor.
“You have to understand there are thousands of men that have returned home during and after the war. It is a daunting task to get the information to the families. Why, just last week two hospital ships came into New York with over seven thousand injured. The main office has not received the list of those onboard yet,” he added.
“Mrs. Nobel, I will have to tell you that those on board were first treated in field hospitals and the Red Cross would have contacted their families weeks ago. If your husband has been identified among the injured, you would have been contacted by our organization or the Army. I am sorry, but I am not sure what we can do for you. There are just so many.”
Emma sat down and removed the yellowing note from her purse. She carefully unfolded it.
She looked up at the doctor as tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Please read this,” she asked. “My husband was lost in June 1917. I have not heard a word until his sergeant brought me this note. I know he is alive. I just know it. I would know if he were dead.”
The doctor carefully studied the short note and handed it back as he kneeled down in front of her.
“Mrs. Nobel, I thought you were looking for someone lost in the last few months of the war. Your husband has been gone for a very long time. I’m sorry, but since your husband went missing, there have been nearly 116,000 soldiers killed or missing in France.”
The doctor continued, “Influenza killed nearly as many as were killed in action. Some were buried in foreign cemeteries and some are just missing. I am afraid your husband is one of those who maybe listed as missing. The truth, you may never know what became of him.” He took her hand.
She wiped her eyes and looked at the doctor.
“I will not believe he is dead until I check every ward and every hospital I can find. Someone has to know something, and I am going to find them,” she said.
The doctor said nothing for a few moments and then the nurse touched his shoulder, asking “Sir, what about the hospital near Allentown. Weren’t the wounded from prison camps at the wars end sent there? I heard some of the men had been there since the beginning of the war?”
Again the doctor paused, “Yes, they brought back some of the badly injured, but still the Red Cross would have notified the families. It is not like they would know any more than we do.”
Emma took the doctors hands and held them as tears streamed down her face.
“I want to go there, just maybe one of those men knew Paul and what happened. Your nurse said, they were there from the beginning of the war, maybe someone would know.”
The doctor breathed deep and then wipe the tears from Emma’s eyes. “Mrs. Nobel, I will make arrangement for you to go and see if your husband is there. But please, do not get your hopes up. The chances are almost impossible.”
Emma gave a bit of a smile as she said, “I have to try, can you understand that?” The doctor shook his head as he understood.
A week later the approval came for Emma to visit the hospital just outside Allentown.
It was a dark place where steel furnaces belched great clouds of black smoke into the air. As she stepped off the train, the acidy smell from coke ovens made her cough. She looked towards the depot office and saw a short man with a black mustache working at a desk. She tapped the glass, “Sir, can you tell me where Hospital #67 is?”
The man slid the glass slowly aside as he adjusted his glasses to see Emma’s face. “You say you’re lookin’ for the army hospital? Well, I don’t know if it’s still a hospital, but there is a bunch of wooden buildings far side of the river. Heard tell they be treatin’ them brought back from the war. That what your lookin’ for?”
Emma shook her head, yes. The man pointed toward the south, down a muddy empty street.
Emma made her way towards the river and an old wooden bridge that led to the other side. She could see long rows of wooden barracks, dirty with soot ash from the mills. Before long she made her way to a building that looked like it had an office in the front. As she opened the door three people in the room froze, as she walked in. One of the nurses asked, “Ma’am, are you lost?”
Emma opened the note and showed the people in the room, who now had gathered around.
“My husband, Paul Nobel, he disappeared in June of 1917. No one knows what happened to him.” She hesitated before saying, “This place may be my last hope.” One nurse who had a gentle smile said, “Tell me about your Paul – his hair, his eyes, did he have a birthmark or scar? Anything that may help us to identify your husband.”
Emma thought for a minute; then she said, “His hair is brown in the summer sun, and his eyes are blue when he smiles… Oh yes? He plays the piano.”
One of the nurses glanced at the others as she said, “Well, there is William… that’s what we named him. He doesn’t speak, not sure why, but he sometimes sits at an old piano and stares at the keys. He is one of the soldiers returned after the war from a hospital prison camp. No ID, or any way of knowing who he is.”
Emma eagerly asked, “May I see him?”
The nurse took her hand and said, “Of course you may, but I have to warn you… that ward of men is a difficult place to visit. The moaning and crying never stops. And the smell, you must prepare yourself for the reality of suffering.”
Emma nodded, she understood. It had begun to rain as they made their way along a boardwalk covered in mud. They passed nine buildings until they came to the far end and the last barracks. It was a dismal place even before they went in.
As the nurse opened the door, she paused and turned to Emma, “Prepare yourself.”
Emma glimpsed in to what seemed to be a long endless room with rows of beds along each side. The high ceiling lights dimly lit the ward. The room seemed to intensify the sounds of pain. Worse than the sounds, the smell of death and disease. For just a moment, she held onto the door to steady herself as all her senses were over whelmed. Never in her darkest dreams had she ever envisioned a place like this existed. And even worse… the thought Paul could be among the hundreds of poor souls lost in this place.