December 27, 2009
Wordie Isbell Work’s passion for the Navy Nurse Corps was clear to her family and anyone who may have seen her favorite white sweater stitched with the words “The White Shoe Navy supports the troops.”
But the memories Mrs. Work collected during a 40-year career in civilian facilities and on military bases during war and peace were held close to her heart.
Mrs. Work, of Homewood, died Nov. 17 at South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest after a heart attack. She was 89.
Mrs. Work was orphaned at age 12. She later studied to become a nurse’s aide and took her first job as a home nurse.
Mrs. Work listened to reports of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with the rest of the country, and in 1942 she enlisted in the Navy Nurse Corps and began treating psychologically damaged soldiers in California.
“I had to find out a lot of things (about her life) on my own (through census records) before I could get her to talk about it,” said her daughter, Donna Work, of Homewood. But with a basic timeline, the stories began flowing.
Mrs. Work told her daughter that the worst part of nursing during the war was reading “Dear John” letters to injured soldiers. Her biggest medical challenge came in 1944 when a discarded cigarette ignited an ammunition ship at Pearl Harbor and caused severe burns to hundreds.
Mrs. Work also told her daughter about her train ride when the war ended, describing it as a “days-long party.” Mrs. Work returned to her civilian nursing career but returned to the Navy in 1947 at the U.S. Naval Station in Trinidad, British West Indies. She met her future husband, Marine Lt. Robert G. Work, when he arrived to transport the new nurses to base.
“I once asked her how she made it through World War II without getting married,” Donna Work said. “And she told me that she was just waiting for the right man. She found him in a Jeep in the middle of the jungle.”
The family moved frequently in typical military style, living in the southern United States and in Spain for five years while Robert served in Korea and Vietnam. The couple settled in Louisiana.
Donna Work said her mother was an early fundraiser for the Women in Military Service Memorial in Washington, D.C., and continued nursing after leaving the Navy.
Robert Work died in 1984 and was buried at the Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia. In 1992, Mrs. Work moved to the Chicago area, where her husband grew up.
“She was very proud of her service, and it really affected all of us,” said Donna Work, who followed her mother into nursing. Two of her brothers went into the military: James Work, who is retired from the Marines; and Robert Work, who is the current Undersecretary of the Navy.
“Everybody knew about my dad’s service, but not many people knew how much my mom had done,” Donna Work said.
Mrs. Work was buried at the Quantico National Cemetery next to her husband.
The pair are survived by Donna, Robert and James Work and a fourth son, John Ferguson Work; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.