Part one of three.
Author’s note: I recently visited the Nassau County photo archives at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. They had a World War I display featuring Rusha “Billie” Williams of Lynbrook. Williams was an Army nurse from California who served two years at the height of America’s involvement in the war. After her service, she got married in Lynbrook and lived there for 50 years. The exhibit had vintage photos of her, her enlistment papers, and other documents. Williams’ Army Nurse Corp uniform was also on display, and the uniform and medals were in pristine condition. Because I am Lynbrook’s official historian, I asked Iris Levin, the archive’s director, to allow me to dive into their behind-the-scenes file on Williams. What I discovered there, and through the Internet, was an even richer story of heroic war service . . . and love.
Rusha (pronounced ROO’-sha) “Billie” Williams was born in 1885, in Huntsville, Ala. At a time when most people never travelled more than 100 miles from the place they were born, she would become one of the most-traveled women of her era. When she was 20, she took a train to Toledo, Ohio, where she studied to be a registered nurse. Next she went out to Los Angeles along with her widowed mother, and got a job with the Red Cross. When Williams reached her early 30s, she was still unmarried and probably imagined spending her life in sunny California as an “old maid.” She could never have guessed how different her life would become. In 1917, the U.S. entered World War I and Williams, then-32, signed up for the Army Nurse Corp without hesitation. And that is where our war story — and our love story — began.
Williams’ initial assignment before being sent overseas was at Camp Wadsworth, S.C., for basic training. For a nurse, this meant preparing to deal with the devastating injuries she would encounter at a hospital in France. There were wounds from artillery bombardments, machine guns and poison gas. She also drilled as a soldier because hospitals could conceivably come under attack. It was at the camp that she met a dashing lieutenant from Lynbrook, Harley “Bob” Cooper. Cooper was training men of the 60th Infantry Regiment to prepare for action in France. It is quite possible that he had trained with Lynbrook’s own Pearsall Brigade, a private militia that was preparing men for war, thus giving them an edge over most volunteers and draftees.
In a matter of weeks at Camp Wadsworth, “Bob” and “Billie” fell in love. But they were quickly separated when she was the first of the two to be sent overseas. When Williams arrived in England, she sent a Western Union telegram to her lieutenant back at Camp Wadsworth saying simply, “ARRIVED LOVE WILLAMS.” Her sending location was shown as, “OMITTED,” thanks to the military censors. Her next stop after England was a makeshift hospital in France, where she would deal with unimaginable horrors for over a year.
Part 2 of this story will appear in next week’s issue.