The greatest generation legacy continues
A hidden gem from the Greatest Generation is nestled in the middle of Brook Manor Nursing home behind King’s Daughters Medical Center. The unassuming 94-year-old veteran has lived through defining moments in American history and is thankful for every minute of it.
“I was born in a little old town that’s already gone now. The only thing that’s left is a Baptist church and a couple of houses,” Ovia Sandifer said.
Sandifer grew up on a small farm in Alabama in the midst of the Great Depression. She lived in the same house her father grew up in with her mother, father, two brothers and a sister. They grew cotton, fruits and vegetables and raised cows, chickens and pigs.
“We didn’t have electricity; We didn’t have running water, and for bathrooms we had privies, what we called outdoor toilets or the necessary house. We drew water out of a well, and we didn’t go to the store and buy bread and things like that,” Sandifer said. “We were real close. We were all there and worked together at home. We all had our jobs. My momma and daddy were hardworking people and very loving parents.”
Sandifer was educated at a one-teacher school and then a larger school in Sweet Water, Alabama. She graduated there in 1948 and decided to leave the farm and continue her education.
“All my life I wanted to do something besides being a farmer’s wife,” Sandifer said. “My aunt was a nurse and ever since I could remember that’s what I wanted to do.”
Sandifer began nursing school the September after her high school graduation at Baptist Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. She learned a variety of fields from pediatrics to surgery.
She said even though she missed her family, and it was the longest she had ever been away from home, she loved going through the program.
After nurses’ training, she went into private duty nursing. Then in 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and Sandifer took action and began working on her army papers to join the Red Cross.
“I just thought it was the thing to do. You are excited and wanted to do your part,” Sandifer said.
She joined the army early in 1942 and was first stationed at Fort McClellan, Alabama. After working there for a year, she decided to sign up for overseas duty and was moved out to a desert training center in California then Arizona as part of the 32nd evacuation hospital.
“We took care of sick soldiers. They weren’t wounded. They got sick with measles, mumps and other routine diseases,” Sandifer said. She said the hospitals and barracks were all tents and cots in the desert.
Sandifer left for overseas in March, landing first in Belfast in North Ireland and was stationed there for three months. She said that was when the third army was getting together. While her group was stationed in Ireland, she and two doctors were sent to England to learn about penicillin, which was being mass-produced for soldiers. She returned to her unit in Ireland and the entire group went to England. Sandifer’s group was then sent to Normandy, only a month after the invasion.
“When I was in England, that was when the buzz bombs from Germany were going over all the time,” Sandifer said. “We were right behind the front lines. It was just like everything else, that was your job, and you accept it. You didn’t have time not to.”
To this day, when Sandifer hears a siren she instinctively wants to grab her helmet, duck and cover.
Sandifer worked in one of three evacuation hospitals. Her tent held about 40 patients on cots. Her group held soldiers for about 24 hours while they got their injuries treated, hot meals, gave them baths and clean clothes. From there they were transported to a field hospital.
“We got patients from the Battle of the Bulge. Most of them were frozen – feet, legs and hands,” Sandifer said. “I had a patient that’s right hand was frozen. It was practically gone. After I went home from the war, I received a letter from him that he wrote with his left hand to let me know he could still write. To me, that was one of the most wonderful things that happened.”
The horrors seen in the hospital tent right behind the front lines during World War II were unimaginable. Sandifer said the Battle of the Bulge patients and the Holocaust survivors the worst she experienced, from severe frostbite to extreme starvation.
“We got patients from one of the camps. We got patients from one that was liberated. It was pretty bad. They had lice and had to be deloused, and there was malnutrition. They was just pitiful,” Sandifer said.
Nurses in the Army Nursing Corps entered the army as second lieutenants, and while Sandifer was in France, she received her first lieutenant bar and a bronze star, which is awarded for acts of heroism and/or merit. She was one of eight nurses who received the award directly from General George Patton that day. She said he personally pinned it to her, and she has the photo to prove it.
“It’s like everything else, just another day, but now that I think about it, it was special,” Sandifer said. “I enjoy nursing. Even in the thick of it. You felt like you were doing something to help mankind.”
When asked why she received the honor she laughed and said “Well, you’ll have to ask them that.”
Sandifer was in Germany when the war ended. In 1945, she flew back to France, had a two-week European vacation and caught the ship home.
“It was an experience, and I was glad to get home and see my people. I had two brothers in the service too and one of them was missing in action. We never did know what happened to him. It was just nice getting home,” Sandifer said.
When she returned stateside, Sandifer decided to get involved with public health. She was first sent to a rapid treatment venereal disease clinic in Brookhaven where she worked for four months. She met her husband during that time, which she said was the only nice thing about that job.
Sandifer returned to school and attended Whitworth College in San Antonio Texas. She then moved to Hinds County and back to Copiah, where she worked for five years.
“Then I got my Mrs. degree,” Sandifer joked. “I raised three children, and I was married to my husband 52 years.”
Sandifer now has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren and family who visits her daily in the nursing home.
“I’m blind in this eye, and I have a cornea transplant in this one, and I can’t hear out this ear, but I can this one,” Sandifer said while pointing to her face. “So I’m thankful that I can see and I hear. I’m thankful that my mind is as good as it is. I have a lot to be thankful for. My esophagus is stopped up, so I can’t have food. I can only have liquids, but I’m still here. I am so thankful that God has been so good to me even though I haven’t been good all the time, I have made mistakes and done things that I shouldn’t have, but God forgives you. I have lived, and I am thankful.”