On the battlefields of Vietnam, when soldiers were wounded in action, Rae Mary Leff stood ready with her fellow nurses. Behind the lines, the destruction of war was brought into her hands and only through quick thinking and action was she able to make a difference.
Born in August 1929, Leff grew up in Pittsburgh, where she later earned an RN in nursing. She earned a BSN from Syracuse University in New York before returning to Pittsburgh to join the Navy.
Leff wanted to serve her country. She chose the Naval Nurse Corps after seeing a series of TV commercials at 3 a.m. while working nights in pediatrics.
Enlisting in 1952, Leff completed basic training and served in a variety of duty stations, such as New York, Guam, Japan and Midway. As the conflict in Southeast Asia grew, she knew she would soon see service in Vietnam.
For much of her time in Vietnam, Leff served aboard the hospital ship, U.S.S. Repose, where she worked in both the surgical and neurosurgical wards. She became close with the other nurses and doctors, and the men they were treating as well. Pressure and stress were persistent companions to all those onboard the Repose, but Leff and the others were driven to give it their all.
Life aboard the Repose had the highs and lows of life on any Navy ship. Aside from crossword puzzles, movies and board games, there was little entertainment. Supplies were never an issue, and she remembered the food as outstanding with lobster served every Friday. Photographers, cooks, stewards, and a postal clerk were also present aboard the ship. She also got the chance for shore leave and got to know the area well.
By 1975, Leff had been commissioned as an officer and became an assistant chief nurse. Serving aboard the Repose taught her to never take anything for granted and to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. After leaving service, she visited a friend in Utah before returning home to California. She felt that this delay helped her to process the guilt of not being there for the patients anymore.
Long after her service ended, Leff continued to keep in touch with her friends and got to see them at reunions. She remained active in the Navy Nurse Corps of Southern California. After a long battle with lung cancer, Leff died in October 2018 and was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
We honor her service.
You can learn more about Leff’s story at the Veterans’ History Project.
Writer: Kelly Dooley
Editor: Essence McPherson
Fact Checker: Brett Raffish
Graphics: Deanna Cannon