Life comes full circle for Kilbuck resident

Kilbuck Township resident Florence Mertz, 97, started her life on a farm in Missouri, detoured through the South Pacific as a nurse in World War II, and returned to the farm life. Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

While age and a recent illness have taken a toll on some of her long lifetime of memories, there remain with Florence Mertz of Kilbuck a glint in her eyes and a passion in her voice as she looks back on nearly a century of a life filled with family, friends and service to her country.

Born in December, 1919 in Chariton County, Missouri, about 100 miles east of Kansas City, Florence Anna Louise Kloehn's growing up years could have been scripted by a Hollywood writer: living in the family farmhouse, working the farm, attending a one-room schoolhouse which she walked one mile to and from each day.

But unlike many young people of those days, boys as well as girls, Florence -- Flo preferred --aspired to do more than to launch another generation on the family farm.

As her daughter, Karen Moore, explains, “After graduating in 1937 from Salisbury High School, to which she traveled via wagon pulled by pony, her desire to become a nurse led her to Lutheran Hospital in St. Louis, where she trained from 1937 to 1940. After graduation, she worked as an anesthetist, dripping ether in the operating room.”

Flo's decision to enlist in service to her country was made the instant she heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“It made everybody fighting mad,” she recalls. “Everyone realized that we could not allow them to do something like that. We had to go after them!”

The Army already had a sufficient number of registered nurses, so only the Navy would take professional women. And so in May, 1942, Flo joined the Navy as a Junior Grade Naval Officer, first training at the Great Lakes Naval Station in North Chicago, IL, and then transferring to New York before shipping off to the New Hebrides Islands in the South Pacific where she was stationed, 1943-44.

The journey to that remote post took 30 days, starting with cross-country train rides, New York to St. Louis to San Francisco, and then setting sail.

“Sharks were following the ship all the way,” Flo recalls. “I hated the water, so the Navy was not really my first choice.”

But she knew that she would be needed where she was headed, and a little bit of history and geography explain the importance of her mission.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, the New Hebrides became vital in maintaining the sea lanes between Australia and the United States. The 3rd Construction Battalion -- called Seabees for short -- unit was sent to Efate, an island in the New Hebrides. The island of Espiritu Santo, also in the New Hebrides, was an Allied-held island closest to Japanese-held Guadalcanal Island. Intent on controlling the sea lanes to Australia, the Japanese set about building an air base on Guadalcanal to support operations to sever the sea lanes, making Espiritu Santo critical to the Allied defense of Australia.

The Seabee detachment was moved from Efate` to Espiritu Santo and assigned to prepare a bomber strip as rapidly as possible, which they did in only 20 days, building a 6,000-foot airstrip in the jungle, thereby enabling the United States to launch air attacks that disrupted Japan's construction of an air base.

Flo said that despite the hard work of the medics and the Seabees, “The island people didn't really want the Americans to be there.”

To make life even more difficult, Flo did not work in an island hospital, mainly because there was no hospital on the island. Instead, she and the staff performed what might be described as “makeshift” care for those who had been wounded until they could be moved to a fully equipped medical facility.

One of her patients was a Marine from Pittsburgh, Louis Edward Mertz Jr. who, as a flight mechanic, was the flight engineer on a B-24, flying photographic missions in the South Pacific. During some “down time,” he was assigned to a tree-harvesting project. Unfortunately, one of the trees fell on him, crushing his leg. He spent six weeks in recovery and then, unfortunately again, he re-broke his leg while using crutches as he tried to move about on coral pathways.

But then, fortunately, he met Flo, who became his caretaker.

Again, a Hollywood writer could take over.

As daughter Karen tells the story, “After the war, Lou and Flo married on Jan. 20, 1945 in Missouri. They lived in a small apartment on the North Side of Pittsburgh until July, 1947, when they moved to 560 Roosevelt Rd. where they raised their seven children.”

So it was full circle, back to farming life, not totally unlike her years in Missouri. “560,” as the residence has come to be called, is a 10-acre homestead which became home for Lou and Flo as well as for a “…myriad of goats, cows, sheep, horses, donkeys., chickens, geese, dogs, ducks, rabbits, cats, and a guinea pig,” Karen said, adding, “It is a place where something is always growing or blooming in the once two acres of gardens. The gardens are smaller now, but growing, hoeing, weeding, mowing, harvesting, and enjoying the fruit of working hands continues, never forgetting to share with others the blessing of the bounty.”

Like mother, like daughters, Karen and her sisters tend to Flo's needs these days, especially since their father's passing in June of 2011, just shy of his 95th birthday.

At 97 years on, though, Flo, accompanied by her constant companion, Sadie, (The Fat Cat!), does as well as she can for herself,

Maybe her spirit goes back to the Hebrides, as she recalls, again with a faint smile, “I did the best that I could.”