A Southern Belle in Sardinia

“The view from here is lovely. There isn’t much left of the quaint town. It is beautiful tonight with the moon on the water.”

Faded newspaper photograph still exudes her beauty and charm – Lt. Kitty Steele-Driskell Barber

Some folks have a knack for writing exquisite letters. Their words paint a beautiful portrait of where they are or what they see. Kitty S. Driskel of Selma, Alabama had such a gift.

“Miss Kitty” as friends and family called her was born February 27, 1919 in Selma to Eugene and Corrie Driskell. From the beginning, Kit loved to entertain much like her mother. Articles in the Selma Times-Journal show that the little girl’s birthday parties were well attended. Gifts and prizes for attendees were a big part of the celebrations.

Mrs. Eugene Driskell was active in the bridge society, and daughters Kitty and Betty were soon to follow. At two years of age, according to a newspaper article, “Miss Kitty” held her first bridge party. In reality it was a birthday bash in disguise. Many more such parties were soon to follow throughout the coming years.

In 1931, one month shy of being 12, Kitty’s dad suddenly passed away from pneumonia. Her mom was left to raise two daughters as well as run the family grocery business.

At 17, she became President of her First Presbyterian Church youth group. She was actively involved in the church. One newspaper account had her being a highly sought after young lady. Kitty Driskell was definitely a Southern Belle.

In 1939, Kitty left Selma to attend nurse’s training school In New Orleans, Louisiana. By 1941, she’d graduated and returned home. When WWII broke out Kitty enlisted in the Army Nurses Corp with a rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Her duty station was Craig Field Infirmary.

While working at Craig she met Lieutenant Wendell Barber. Things got serious quite fast. They married on March 4, 1943. Two months later both were deployed overseas to different locations. Wendell went to South America, while Kitty ended up first in Africa, and then on to the enchanting island of Sardinia, Italy in the Mediterranean Sea.

The young nurse sent back a glowing letter to her husband’s parents in Rutland, Vermont describing the temporary home. On December 10, 1943, The Brattleboro Reformer newspaper in Brattleboro, Vermont saw fit to print much of it in verbatim:

“I did not know that any foreign duty could be so wonderful! This place is simply beautiful! There is a lovely yard and the hospital is as modern as I’ve ever seen.

Cream colored walls and red tiled floors, two white marble staircases – twin. They are lovely.

There are glass doors everywhere and it makes it so light. It is built like houses in Florida and California. Lots of angles for sunshine. Almost every ward opens onto a porch. The big glass doors are built on rollers so that they can be pushed out so as to enclose the porches in glass.

Nine of us are living on the fourth floor of the hospital. It is really ideal. Margaret and I have a double room. The bath is lovely with a new tub and washstand, very much like those at home except that “C” is for cold water and “F” for hot. It mixes me up.

Our room opens onto a balcony. It is a little too cold to enjoy it now but we have a clothesline there. The water is so soft the dirt just falls out of things. It is so nice to be able to get clean again and stay clean.

The rest of the nurses are quartered in a home back of the hospital. It is a two-story building with a living room fitted with comfortable furniture, a reception room and a kitchen.

The upper floor has bedrooms and two baths. It is built on the side of a hill overlooking the sea, and you can step out of the second floor window into a formal garden. Hitler probably still wants this place for his summer home.

They have beds of mint and rose geranium rose bushes, and oleanders. As soon as the electrical plant is repaired, we will have central heating. We couldn’t have asked for a better place.

The people here are of a much different class than those we had dealings with in Africa. They too are poor, nearly to the point of starving, but will do any amount of work for an old sweater or shoes.

They are proud, though, but really appreciate what you give them.

The view from here is lovely. There isn’t much left of the quaint town. It is beautiful tonight with the moon on the water. This side of the globe, though, doesn’t care much for moonlight now. The Jerries (Germans) can see far too well. It has been quiet and I hope it stays that way.

(later)

I was given two days’ leave so I spent it in Sassari. The Colonel was going up and had room for one nurse. I had a light case of ‘overseas nerves’ so the chief nurse sent me away for a rest. I did not want to go, but am so glad I did. It was quite an experience.

I can’t speak a word of Italian and expected to stay with the nuns at the Italian hospital, but was finally quartered with a woman doctor in the doctor’s quarters and didn’t even see the nuns. We took one of the boys with us who spoke the language and he was with us at all the meals except breakfast.

The young doctors practically went crazy over an American nurse as did everybody else. After dinner, which lasted from 1:30 to almost 4, all of the doctors quit work and took us shopping. It was really a riot.

Droves of people followed me up the street, even in the car. I felt like President Roosevelt must feel riding through a small town. The turnout was almost as good as he gets. The storekeeper of one of the stores had to close and lock the doors while we were in there and the people were jammed at the door and to the top of the windows.

I understand that I am the third American nurse ever to be in that town. The Italian doctors went first and cleared a path for me from the doors to the car.

I must tell you about the food. Those people ate more than anyone I’ve ever seen. For breakfast they have only bread and coffee.  Here is a sample of the other meals.

First we had Sardinian salami (no pepper or spices in it but it was good), bread and wine. Next came spaghetti. They eat as much of each thing as if it were the only course. I ate what I thought was a large helping but they were almost insulted. Kept saying that I did not eat anything. After the spaghetti came steak and French fries. That tasted like heaven after C rations. Then they brought out a fish, and it was about two feet long, and eight inches wide, and six inches thick. Head and all cooked on it. Delicious.

With the fish we had a dry wine, a salad bowl, and something that looked like onions only it tasted like licorice (horrible!) and a celery that looked like ours but tasted like the stalk of an old plant, (horrible too).

Then came the pastry and almond candy, oranges and coffee. I don’t know what they make their coffee out of but definitely not coffee.

One of the doctors was precious, silver-haired, and even though Nick had to tell us what he said, he kept us laughing. I loved him! He asked me if I liked honey. I said “Yes”. Later I realized I shouldn’t have said it so enthusiastically because he brought out a beautiful bottle and poured the honey into a cup.

I had to eat it plain with a spoon. He kept bringing it out every meal and on top of all the other food it was a little too sweet.”

Nine months after she wrote that letter, on September 19, 1944, 2nd Lieutenant Kitty Driskell-Barber was tragically killed in an aircraft accident. She’s buried in Netuno, Italy. A cenotaph (plaque) in her honor resides at the Live Oak Cemetery in Selma. In 1947 an Army Air Corp bomber was ceremoniously named after her.

Sardinia, Italy

Author: michaeldexterhankins

ordinary average guy

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