In her latest historical novel set in World War II, author Gail Kittleson employs a handkerchief as the fabric that stitches together the stories of two women. One is Marian, a fictional English mom living in Bethnal Green at London’s East End who runs with her young child into an underground station when an air siren sounds.
The author’s lead character in “Until Then” is Dorothy, an Army surgical nurse. She was inspired by real-life Army nurse and Waterloo native Dorothy Webbeking and her military service during the Second World War.
Living in St. Ansgar, Kittleson’s historical fiction includes “In This Together,” “In Times Like These” and “Kiss Me Once Again.” She learned about Webbeking through Pinterest.
“I ‘met’ Dorothy’s daughter on Pinterest. She was pinning everything I put on my board about nurses, and she started sending me information. Dorothy was an incredible woman with so much strength. She did some incredible feats,” the author said.
At the same time, Kittleson was struck by the 2017 commemoration of the Stairway to Heaven Memorial dedicated to lives lost in the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster on March 3, 1943. As people rushed down the blackout staircase into the tube station when an air siren sounded, a woman and her child fell, causing other people to trip and fall behind them. Authorities said about 300 people were crushed on top of each other. More than 170 men, women and children suffocated to death, while more than 100 were injured. English officials censored news of the disaster for 36 hours before notifying the public.
“Those two stories gripped me at the same time. I decided to plunge in and integrate these two totally different stories into a novel. It’s something I’ve never attempted before. Readers will have to judge how well I did that,” Kittleson said.
“Dorothy is the heroine. Regardless of what she faces, she maintains a steadiness of character and a wry sense of humor. The hero is a constable in London’s East End who has to deal with his grief and loss, but he isn’t allowed to speak of the tragedy yet to anyone.”
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Dorothy Webbeking was born in Waterloo in 1916. As a child, she briefly lived in Bremen, Germany, with her family. They returned to the US aboard the steamship Stuttgart on March 30, 1927. Her father, Carl, founded Waterloo’s Webbeking Bakery in 1932.
She earned her nursing degree from Drake University in Des Moines in 1936, and earned her master’s degree at Minnesota University after the war.
Webbeking served in the U.S. Army as a surgical nurse from 1941 to 1946. She was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Lincoln Air Base and Camp Kilmer until February 1943, when she began serving as an operating room nurse in the 11th Evacuation Hospital, a mobile medical unit moving throughout North Africa, Italy, Sicily, Southern France and Germany. She was decorated with numerous ribbons and battle stars including one silver and two bronze stars. She was at the D-Day Invasion, Anzio and the Battle of the Bulge. Along the way, she learned to fly a cargo plane. She left the service as a lieutenant first class on Feb.21, 1946.
After the war, she continued her nursing career and married Bill Worst, settling near Joliet, Ill. She later became an intensive care unit director and coronary care specialist at Silver Cross Hospital, and taught at the SC School of Nursing. Bill Worst died in 2000. She died 10 days shy of her 99th birthday on Dec. 16, 2015, in Lockport, Ill.
Kittleson went to Lockport to track down more information and visited Webbeking’s home. “I saw her Eisenhower jacket and read the Florence Nightingale pledge taped to her wall. Nursing wasn’t just her job; it was her ministry,” Kittleson recalled.
When Kittleson and her husband, a retired Army chaplain, visited England for their 40th wedding anniversary, they went to Bethnal Green.
“I wanted to visit the tube station where the 1943 tragedy took place. As a writer, I want to be as accurate as I can and research every detail.”
Kittleson was most impressed by Webbeking’s indomitable spirit. “At the evac hospital in the war, she saw the absolute worst, but still managed to make it through, to make deep friendships and come out as whole a person as she possibly could.”