In the final days of World War II, the Girl Scouts of the USA dispatched six professional workers to war-torn Europe. Their official status was “on loan” to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).
Two of the six women worked for the national organization. By far the best-known of the group, Catherine T. Hammett was a renowned expert in camping. She was joined by Katherine McCullough a GSUSA field adviser.
The other four women had been council executive directors: Eleanor Ault, (Albany, New York); Dorothy Donnell (Orange, New Jersey); Grace Hast (Lincoln, Nebraska); and Marion Sloan (Kansas City, Missouri).
Hammett became director of social services at a Greek refugee camp in Palestine. She wrote a lengthy article in the December 1944 issue of Leader, with vivid descriptions of the terrain, flora, and fauna. The author of Campcraft ABCs, Hammett also wrote about the tents, makeshift stoves, and more in the refugee camps.
Ault, Donnell, and Hast took charge of welfare needs at smaller refugee camps, reporting to Hammett. McCullough and Sloan were posted to Yugoslav refugee camps in Egypt.
While international relief organizations set up schools, hospitals, sewing rooms, the Girl Scouts organized recreation and vocational training for refugee children. In time, they laid the groundwork for establishing Girl Scout and Boy Scout programs in the region.
On September 29, 1945, Eleanor Ault and 2nd Lt. Arlene Waldhaus of the US Public Health Service were aboard a 3,330-ton British ship, the Empire Patrol, accompanying 562 Greek refugees, including 200 children, across the Mediterranean Sea.
Around noon, as Eleanor locked the recreation room, she heard a commotion on a lower deck. She rushed to the scene to see flames sprouting from the starboard side of the ship.
Instead of paraphrasing the ensuing events, I will reprint the cable that UNRAA sent to GSUSA following the incident:
Immediately [Eleanor] began directing refugees in use of fire extinguishers. Flames starred coming from starboard side. Ault was one of those who prevented panic among refugees by calming, answering questions, distributing lifebelts, helping load lifeboats. Fire spread rapidly.
Captain asked Ault to accompany refugees in lifeboat and therein take charge. Line jammed on her boat as it was lowered, pulley had to be knocked off and boat dropped into sea. At this time whole ship was blazing.
At short distance from ship she picked up old man, young man and boy. Little farther off found several more and overtook another lifeboat overloaded with survivors. She transferred some, instructed others how to bail, get out oars. …
Altogether she rescued 35 — many been clinging defective rafts. Sea was very rough, consequently there was danger capsizing. At 4:oo P.M. Aircraft Carrier Trouncer arrived near burning ship; but as darkness fell lifeboats and rafts drifted apart, Ault being steadied by refugee men at oars.
As red distress lantern in boat failed, Ault improvised flare from kapok ripped out of life preserver which she soaked in kerosene and hung on boat hook which led plane circling overhead locating position of lifeboat. At 8:oo P.M. searchlights of Afghanistan picked out lifeboat and after Ault and man and boys climbed aboard, baskets were lowered for women and children. Afghanistan was one of first to reach Port Said [Egypt]Leader (November 1945): 11.
Of the 913 passengers, only 57 perished.
Wow. Let’s pause and take that in for a moment ….
Makes surviving cookie season pretty tame, doesn’t it?
The Girl Scouts were extremely proud of Eleanor, awarding her a citation reading “For distinguished service rendered in the saving of lives on the ill-fated “Empire Patrol.”
Born in Chicago in 1909, Eleanor graduated from De Pauw University. She became a Girl Scout professional in 1932. Following her stint with UNRRA, she moved to England, where she became one of the first participants in a US-UK trainer exchange program. During that time, she also attended the International Training Conference at Our Chalet, Switzerland.
Eleanor returned to the United States in 1947, taking a volunteer development post in Oklahoma. She eventually returned to Albany, New York, where she died in 1994.
©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian