St. Charles woman recalls her days as World War II nurse

  • Virginia Cicero was a nurse near the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II and worked to save the lives of the prisoners there. She now lives at Brighton Gardens in St. Charles.

    Virginia Cicero was a nurse near the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II and worked to save the lives of the prisoners there. She now lives at Brighton Gardens in St. Charles. Rick West | Staff Photographer

Updated 1/22/2011 6:56 PM

Virginia Cicero lets out a hearty laugh when recalling something humorous about her days as an Army nurse during World War II, but also sighs and shakes her head when reliving what she witnessed when treating prisoners of war.

The 89-year-old Cicero has been a resident of Brighton Gardens in St. Charles for the past six months, after living most of her life in Chicago and its nearby suburbs, as well as some retirement years in Florida. Her story illustrates that our senior centers and nursing homes are full of people with extraordinary life experiences to share.


As a 22-year-old nurse named Virginia Cangelosi, working at Wesley Memorial Hospital (now Northwestern Memorial) in 1943, she was convinced by friends to join the service.

"They said let's go in together, and it was all rah-rah-rah," Cicero said. "But eventually, we all got split up."

Cicero ended up in a 40-member nursing unit of the 120th Evac (evacuation hospital). "We were 40 gorgeous creatures," Cicero said of her unit. "We called ourselves 'the dolls.' "

After treating servicemen in a hospital in San Francisco, she was deployed to Germany before finishing her stint in Hawaii.

Cicero will never forget her time in Germany, as her unit was assigned to a makeshift hospital setup near the Buchenwald concentration camp just after Allies freed prisoners in 1945.

"Those prisoners were in terrible shape, and we just tried to take care of what we could keep alive," Cicero said. "I saw truckloads of bodies, and it was just horrible."

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One of her prized possessions is a photo book for the 120th Evac titled "Buchenwald and Beyond." She proudly points to the few photos in which she is pictured with other nurses or doctors.

"We all had turbans on our heads," she laughed. "I haven't had one on my head since, but all of the patients had lice, so we had to spray down before going in (to the care center) and again when coming out."

The Russian, Jewish and Polish prisoners from Buchenwald hadn't had anything to eat in so long, Cicero said, they hid their food at the hospital under their pillows because they were afraid someone would steal it.

Cicero eventually was promoted to first lieutenant during her nearly four years in the service, which included treating Japanese prisoners in Hawaii near the end of the war.


"So many of those Japanese prisoners had tuberculosis, and so many of our boys had malaria," Cicero said of the common diseases being treated.

After the war, she married Michael Cicero of Chicago and went on to raise two children. She now is one of a quickly dwindling symbol of our nation's pride -- a living veteran of World War II.

Ribbons and more

If the traditional ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new business isn't on your usual list of "things to do," then the Fox Valley Repertory is offering a different twist.

Those who attend the 4 p.m. ribbon-cutting Tuesday at the Mainstage Theater at Pheasant Run will be treated to a mini-performance of the theater group's first production of "Leaving Iowa."

The ribbon cutting celebrates the new name of Fox Valley Repertory, formerly the Noble Fool Theatricals, and its new mission for bringing quality shows and providing training for young hopefuls.

Two of those emerging students, Gabriella Marzetta of St. Charles and Sydney Poss of North Aurora, will also sing at the event.

It doesn't compare

Area football fans were excited back in 1985 when the Green Bay Packers played the Chicago Bears because former St. Charles High School star quarterback Randy Wright was under center for the Packers.

That was fun because we followed Wright's career through St. Charles and the University of Wisconsin.

But, as we have been hearing all week, nothing holds a candle to the enormity of today's game for all of the NFC marbles.

Predicting the outcome of an outdoor sporting event in Chicago in late January is quite difficult, to be sure. But let me say this: Very strange and very positive things have occurred for the Bears in most championship endeavors in Chicago. Just try to blot out the memory of Joe Montana and his 49ers dismantling the Bears 28-3 in the NFC title game in January 1989 at Soldier Field, and you'll be fine.

We know frenzy

Area football fans also know what it is like to be part of the frenzy of an intense football rivalry with the highest of stakes in one game.

We had Geneva and Batavia square off for the right to reach the Class 6A state football championship in 2006, and it involved plenty of hoopla. Batavia won that 2006 showdown, but Geneva made it to the state final game two years later in Class 7A.

Marathon with a cause

It wasn't that long ago that Kelsey Balance, a 2006 St. Charles East graduate, was a member of the Saints' dance team. Her dancing skills will come in handy Feb. 19 and 20 when she participates in a 26-hour dance marathon at UCLA, where she is a senior, in a fundraiser for fighting Pediatric AIDS.

I mentioned Balance in a column a couple of years ago when she took a trip to Africa to raise money and awareness of fighting the spread of AIDS in that country.

Now you can help her cause for the dance marathon in what she described as "the largest philanthropic event on the West Coast."

Her link to make donations is at