Virgene wrote a message to her father in a letter she sent home from her station in New Guinea during World War II, “You can have a jeep after the war if you want one, but when I come home I desire to ride in a car with soft seats, balloon tires and on the pavement.”
Margaret Virgene Ward was born on March 22, 1922 in Camp Point, Illinois. She graduated from Central High School and enrolled in Blessing Hospital School for Nurses on a dare from her fellow classmates. She was nicknamed “One Week Ward” because she kept a packed suitcase in her room intending to only stay one more week. She continued with the program and graduated in September of 1943.
Many nursing students, including Virgene, signed up for the Red Cross Student Nurse Reserve, mostly helping with first aid training. Virgene had a date waiting for her and neglected to read the contract carefully, missing the sentence, “I will accept military service.” In November 1943 she received a letter from President Roosevelt ordering her to report for duty.
She reported for her physical at Camp Ellis in McDonough County, Illinois. Next she reported to Camp McCoy near La Crosse, Wisconsin on December 28, 1943 for six weeks of basic training. During her training she participated in endurance training, learned how to tell military time, how to purify water, and how to prepare for a gas attack, while also working in the base hospital. She was given the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and received her uniforms at the camp.
Virgene’s next stop was Ft. Riley in Kansas where the 54th General Hospital trained as a unit. Without notice, the unit was ordered on a troop train, finding themselves in San Francisco when they disembarked. The nurses were given Typhus and Cholera shots, additional uniforms, field gear, and a physical that mostly consisted of a lice check. After five days in California, they boarded the SS Lurline, headed for New Guinea at Milne Bay.
The SS Lurline was a cruise liner refitted as a troop ship, with cabins built for two now housing 15 women in three layers of bunks. The troops were allowed on deck only twice a day for 15 minutes each time due to overcrowding on the ship. Virgene’s unit made their way to Fort Moresby and eventually to Hollandia to set up a general hospital in New Guinea. She remembered staying in large grass huts with about 40 nurses, their belongings tucked under mosquito nets. Every night before bed they would use “a flashlight and a hammer, or whatever, or a boot, or whatever you could find, and you check around to make sure there wasn’t any varmints in there before you tucked the mosquito net down,” according to an interview.
The 54th General Hospital, where Virgene arrived in October 1944, was a secret hospital constructed for casualties from the invasion of the Philippines. Temperatures in New Guinea could reach 120 degrees and fresh food was scarce, usually only had on holidays. The nurses lived on peanut butter and orange marmalade. Virgene recalled one point when it rained for 52 days straight, causing mold to grow in their hair. The hospital wards had tin roofs, cement floors, and 2 x 4’s with tarpaper nailed on them for walls. The nurses worked a ward which housed 40 beds, in 12-hour shifts. The nurses were always accompanied by a guard with a gun when off-duty, mostly for the snakes.
In May 1945 Virgene was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and received “battle credit” for participation in the New Guinea Campaign. In July she accompanied patients back to the United States, with World War II ending while she was en-route. Virgene celebrated the end of the war with friends in San Francisco, recalling the city as “the wildest place you ever saw. Nothing opened. You couldn’t get – there was no place to go eat, except on the base, because everything was shut down.” After the celebration she reported to Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco’s Presidio. She was relieved from active duty effective October 24, 1945, returning to Camp Point after working in Arizona.
Virgene enrolled in Washington University but had to wait until the fall of 1946 to attend. During this time, Virgene met William Gilkerson, marrying him in December 1945. They raised two children.
Around 1955 Virgene started working in the nursing department for Blessing Hospital, retiring in 1984 after 29 years of service. Her dedication was recognized throughout her career, and in 2001 she received the Nurse of the Year award from the Blessing Alumni Association. Virgene also continued to actively volunteer for the Red Cross, receiving her pin for 70 years of volunteering in 2013.
In 2000, tragedy struck the Gilkerson family when Virgene and her husband William were struck by a car at 14th and Maine as they were leaving a concert at Quincy Junior High School. William passed away from his injuries and Virgene was airlifted to Peoria in critical condition. At 78 years old, she wasn’t expected to live from her massive injuries, including “multiple brain hemorrhages, broken ribs, tears in her aorta and renal artery, and multiple contusions”. Virgene remained in a coma for over a month, with doctors suggesting her family find a nursing home for her. After speaking with Dr. Jumonville, the family chose to move her to Blessings Hospital’s Skilled Nursing Unit where she made a remarkable recovery, spending 31 days on the unit and 10 more days at Blessing’s Rehabilitation Unit. Virgene went home on December 27, 2000, and a month later was back to volunteering at Red Cross blood drives.
Virgene lived a full life, passing away at the age of 92 on November 11, 2014. She is buried at Greenmont Cemetery in Quincy, IL. Virgene is fondly remembered for her service to the Red Cross and her unbreakable spirit.
“27 employees retire from Blessing Hospital.” The Quincy Herald-Whig, April 8, 1984, 12D.
“Disaster services newsletter.” American Red Cross, July 2013.
Hart, Rodney. “She is a miracle.” The Quincy Herald-Whig, May 20, 2001, 1.
“Incredible, indispensible, inspirational…Virgene Gilkerson.” Personal Blessing Newsletter, Spring 2001, 4-5.
Kimbrough, Lenore. “Volunteer profile: Virgene Ward Gilkerson, RN.” Adams County Chapter of the American Red Cross Member Newsletter, 1998.
Margaret Virgene Ward Gilkerson, interviewed by Arlis Dittmer, Quincy, IL, 2000, transcript, Blessing Health Systems Archive, Quincy, Illinois.
Margaret Virgene Ward Gilkerson, interviewed by Jamie Friye at the Adams County Court House on May 28, 2014, Quincy, Illinois.
United States. Cemetery and Funeral Home Collection, 1847-2018. Digital images. http://ancestry.com.