In March of 1944, Frances Etherington was in her mid-20s and just joined the American Red Cross to serve in World War II. Following a six-week course at the American University in Atlanta, she sailed to London from Brooklyn, New York.
Paper shortages, buzz bombs and blackouts did not damper France’s dedication. She qualified for an international truck driver’s license and began driving a 12-ton truck through the busy streets of London; a “horrifying” feat, in her words. She served in the Red Cross Club Mobile Unit, providing coffee, doughnuts and special meals to soldiers.
A couple months into her deployment, Frances sensed something big was about to happen. Just before what would come to be known as D-Day and the Invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1945), “London became very quiet and eerie. It wasn’t as crowded and many soldiers had been moved out,” she recalls. That night, while listening to the radio news, she learned of the attack.
Later that month, her unit sailed from Portsmouth to Utah Beach in Normandy. Etherington spent her first night on land just beyond the beach in a field that had been swept for German mines. She slept under a truck because the hedgerows were mined. In the coming weeks, her unit followed troops liberating European towns, never staying in one place for long.
While Frances’ unit avoided the immediate war zone, the devastation of the bombed French villages, images of refugees walking in hordes along the roads and a “nauseating” visit to a concentration camp were etched in her memory. “Such a methodical and scientific means of destroying human lives that I shuddered at the coldness of it all,” she remembers.
Etherington considered herself lucky to serve soldiers coffee and food. She was given a whiskey allowance, which she put towards the doughnuts fund since she didn’t drink alcohol. There was even some fun during it all, the unit was entertained by an army group of musicians and magicians.
In May 1945, victory in Europe was declared. In August, Etherington sailed back to New York on a hospital ship filled with amputee soldiers. As they entered the New York Harbor, a huge message painted on the banks of the river was there to greet them: “Welcome Home. Well done.”
Etherington returned home to her native North Carolina and remained involved in the Red Cross, donating throughout the years and establishing a Charitable Gift Annuity. She recently turned 100 years and her daughter thought to document her mother’s experiences with the Red Cross before it was lost.
Transcribed by Laurie Etherington
Written by Kathy Huston