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Operation TorchU.S. Army Nurses in the Invasion Force
D-Day North Africa
8 November 1942
I spotted Lt. Vilma Vogler descending a ladder at my side. Our eyes met for a moment in mutual shock, and then we quickly descended into a waiting barge. At that moment she and the other nurses had ceased to be "the women." We were all comrades in equally dangerous footing, trying to survive the insanity of combat.
-Edward E. Rosenbaum, MD, former captain, U.S. Army Medical Corps, "Wartime Nurses: A Tribute to the Unsung Veterans," New Choices (July 1989)
An artillery shell exploded sixty yards off the starboard side of HMS Orbita. Lieutenant Helen Molony, seated on board in the officers' mess hall, felt her hand shake as she raised her coffee mug to her mouth. It was early morning, 8 November 1942. A convoy of Allied war- and transport ships, including the Orbita, the Santa Paula, and the Monarch of Bermuda, lay two miles off the coast of Algeria. On board these British ships were not only combat troops but the men and women of the 48th Surgical Hospital, including Lieutenant Molony. She was one of 57 U.S. Army nurses who, along with the hospital's 48 officers and 273 enlisted men, were waiting to land, side by side with the combat troops, on the beachheads of Arzew and Oran in Algeria.
The sun had not risen yet and the ships were still under cover of darkness. Molony glanced around the officers' mess. The thunder of artillery had begun an hour earlier, and now, at 0515, she saw that the tables in the mess were crowded with officers, male and female, dressed in combat gear. Aside from the clanking of silverware and an occasional word or two spoken in hushed tones, the large wardroom was strangely quiet. In less than an hour, Molony knew that her part in Operation Torch-the invasion of North Africa-would begin. What she could not know was that her participation in the D-Day invasion would become a landmark in U.S. military history.
Only a few months earlier, in midsummer, the 48th Surgical Hospital had crossed the Atlantic on the USS Wakefield as part of what was, at that time, the largest convoy ever to sail from the United States. On 6 August, the 48th Surgical had disembarked at Greenock, Scotland, and taken a one-day train ride to Tidworth Barracks in the area of Shipton-Ballanger and Kangaroo Corners in southern England. The unit remained there for two and a half months, and Molony underwent the closest thing to military training the army nurses would receive, a regimen of hardening exercises of five- and ten-mile hikes, complete with field packs.
For the nurses of the 48th Surgical Hospital, as for all the army nurses sent overseas before July 1943, uniforms presented a definite problem. Before America entered World War II, the sole uniform the U.S. Army nurses had was a white duty nurse's uniform and white nurse's shoes. The only thing military about the uniform was the second lieutenant's gold bar, worn on the right lapel, and the caduceus with an "N" superimposed upon it on the left lapel. The caduceus had been a symbol of the Army Medical Department for decades. Doctors wore the caduceus plain, while nurses had a superimposed "N" for nursing, the dentists a superimposed "D," and veterinarians a superimposed "V."
As for the clothing itself, the army provided blue seersucker dresses for the nurses in combat theaters, but it was obvious that this would not be appropriate for climbing over patients, or for working in cold climates, mud, rain, or mosquito-infested areas. Long pants would at least solve some of the problems presented by cold weather, rain, and mud, but the national consensus at that time held that women did not wear slacks. Hence it would be some time before the army produced pants for women nurses; in the meanwhile, army nurses simply wore men's GI field uniforms or coveralls. Many of them could sew, and those who could helped those who could not in making alterations to male army fatigues so they would more adequately fit the smaller, shorter frames of American women. Shoes presented a separate set of problems. For the smaller army nurses who could not get GI shoes to fit their feet, blisters were a frequent and painful result of marching through the English countryside.
During the weeks of training in England, the women of the 48th Surgical Hospital got to know each other. There was Helen Molony, the tall redhead from upstate New York, who, in the words of friends and family, was "pretty enough to be a movie star." Pretty or not, Molony never had Hollywood in mind for herself and her future. Instead, she trained to become a nurse, and joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After a few months training at Fort Slocum on Long Island Sound, Molony was moved out to the New York port of embarkation. There she was assigned, along with fifty-six other nurses, to the 48th Surgical Hospital.
There was Ruth Haskell, a thirty-three-year-old divorced mother from Maine, who had left her ten-year-old son, Carl, in the care of his grandparents fourteen months earlier before setting off for Camp Forrest near Tullahoma, Tennessee, for duty as an army nurse. A heavyset woman of medium height with brown hair and intelligent brown eyes, Haskell was determined, self-initiating, and confident.
Quite the opposite of Haskell was the nurse who would become her best friend, Lieutenant Louise Miller. Miller was a fair, petite blond from Selma, Alabama, who lacked something of the assurance that Haskell had in abundance. Unlike Haskell and most of the nurses with the 48th Surgical Hospital, Miller had not volunteered for overseas duty, but had been chosen for the assignment by the chief nurse at Camp Wheeler, Georgia. Miller and Haskell had met on the train to New York. The two were a study in contrasts: the one a slight blonde, the other a sturdy brunette; one a southerner, the other a northerner; one hesitant, the other bold. Miller's soft southern accent stood out in stark contrast to the "down east" Maine accent that shaped Haskell's speech. From the moment the two women met on the train ride to New York, Haskell took the more frightened Miller under her wing, and Miller quickly began calling Haskell "Yankee." Becoming friends with Haskell and other nurses in the unit helped calm the apprehension Miller felt during the two-week trip from Georgia to England.
The 48th Surgical Hospital to which these women were attached was a field hospital, and, as such, designed to be among the "forward" hospitals-those hospitals closest to the fighting troops, including battalion aid stations, division collecting and clearing stations, field hospitals, and evacuation hospitals-rather than to the rear where station and general hospitals would be located. Each type of hospital was designed to perform a different function in an evacuation chain that would be set up to get the wounded off the battlefields and into medical care as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The first link in the chain was the battalion aid station. Battalion aid stations would be located close to frontline combat but far enough away to avoid small-arms fire. They were to be manned by battalion surgeons, medics, and corpsmen who were attached to all army divisions. Battalion aid stations were the first places surgeons would be available to wounded soldiers. Only absolutely lifesaving surgery would be performed here, since the main objective of the battalion aid stations was to stabilize and evacuate casualties brought to them by battlefield medics and litter bearers to hospitals farther back from the front.
Next in the chain of evacuation came the collecting stations, located near the command posts of the regiment they supported. Here, collecting companies would change bandages on incoming wounded, adjust splints, administer plasma, and combat shock while preparing the patient for the next step in the chain. Collecting companies would be units indigenous to infantry divisions; each collecting company would consist of a battalion surgeon or assistant battalion surgeon, medics, litter bearers, and vehicles such as jeeps to evacuate the wounded to field hospitals or evacuation hospitals farther behind the front lines.
Clearing stations would be farther back from the front, usually four to six miles behind the collecting companies. Here, medical personnel would triage the wounded, maintain wards for the care of shock and minor sickness and injuries, and transfer men needing immediate emergency surgery to adjacent field hospital platoons.
Field hospitals would be located close to the clearing stations. Personnel would consist of surgeons, nurses, medics, and litter bearers. Regular personnel were to be augmented with auxiliary surgical teams such as the 2nd Auxiliary Surgical Group, who would bring their special skills to the frontline area. Patients were to remain at field hospitals until they were stabilized, a recovery period that could take anywhere from one to two weeks, after which they would be transported to evacuation hospitals farther behind the frontline area. If necessary, field hospitals could be broken into three platoons in order to serve more battle casualties at three different locations near the front. When field hospitals were split, each of the three platoons would then have only six regularly assigned nurses.
Evacuation hospitals were 400-bed semimobile facilities that were to be located approximately ten to fifteen miles behind the front lines. They were to be staffed by, on average, about 40 army nurses and 38 officers, including doctors; 218 medics; and auxiliary surgical teams. Patients could be kept longer at evacuation hospitals than at field hospitals: those soldiers who recovered within several weeks would be sent back to the front, while patients who needed more recovery time were to be sent farther to the rear, to station or general hospitals. A 750-bed evacuation hospital was a larger version of the 400-bed evac, and thus far less mobile. It was to perform the same duties as the 400-bed evacuation hospital but might be five miles farther behind the front lines.
Farther to the rear and even less mobile than the evacuation hospitals were the station hospitals, set up usually in buildings rather than tents, and located thirty to fifty miles behind the front lines. They were to have bed capacities for 250, 500, or 750 patients. These hospitals would receive patients who needed a longer term of treatment than a field or evacuation hospital could provide, but less than 180 days. If a soldier needed more than six months to recover, he was to be sent back to the States.
General hospitals were designed to be completely nonmobile. They were to be set up in buildings containing 1,000 to 5,000 beds and would be located 70 to 100 miles behind the front lines. These hospitals would have larger staffs to deal with the large patient load and would offer specialized care in such varied areas as orthopedic, thoracic, and facial reconstruction.
The 48th Surgical Hospital was divided into three working units and a headquarters platoon. Lieutenant Alys Salter, a tall, dark-haired nurse in her mid-thirties from Pennsylvania, was the chief nurse of Unit 1, and Lieutenant Leona Henry, a quiet, retiring nurse from Camp Tyson, Tennessee, was made chief nurse of Unit 2. Unit 3-the Mobile Surgical Unit-was composed of six teams from the 2nd Auxiliary Surgical Group.
The 2nd Auxiliary was a special corps of surgeons, surgical nurses, and technicians who were not part of any one hospital. The teams were known as "floaters"; they were to move from hospital to hospital as needed. A team usually comprised a surgeon, a surgical nurse, and a corpsman. The teams of the 2nd Auxiliary Surgical Group were made up of ninety-three of the best surgeons in the country and more than sixty experienced army nurses. These teams were to supplement the surgical staffs of forward hospitals, be they battalion aid stations, division clearing stations, field hospitals, or evacuation hospitals.
The six teams of the 2nd Auxiliary Surgical Group attached to the 48th Surgical Hospital were made up of surgeons chosen for their special expertise in various surgical fields. Each of the six 2nd Auxiliary teams had one nurse, and all six army nurses were led by Chief Nurse Lieutenant Mary Ann Sullivan. The 2nd Aux teams were assigned to the specially designed mobile "operating room" vehicle known as the "Commando Truck." The Commando Truck was a regular 2.5-ton army truck with the back section modified to contain a fixed operating table, cabinets, and lights. The truck would be driven to the places at the front lines where it was needed most, then set up with a large canvas tent covering all but the cab. Dr. Kenneth Lowery, a 2nd Auxiliary Surgical Group surgeon from Ohio, commented on the shortcomings of performing surgery in that vehicle in 1943: "Frosty [Dr. Forrest Lowery, Dr. Lowery's younger brother] and I did a sucking chest wound in the truck and found that we were rather cramped for room." But the truck had its merits. "These units have certain advantages," Dr. Kenneth Lowery said, "the chief of which is the rapidity with which it can be set up and put into operation and, likewise, torn down again."
All six nurses with the mobile surgical unit had years of experience in the surgical suites of large city hospitals, but Chief Nurse Lieutenant Mary Ann Sullivan was the only one with experience in treating war casualties. A year before Pearl Harbor, she had volunteered for the Harvard Medical Red Cross Field Hospital Unit, which had gone to England to work with the British wounded. Her year's experience in London and Dunkirk with battle casualties and bombing victims qualified her to serve as the head of the other American army nurses assigned to the Commando Truck.
On 20 October 1942, the 48th Surgical Hospital returned to Greenock, Scotland, and boarded the Monarch of Bermuda, the Santa Paula, and the ancient and dirty HMS Orbita, the three troopships that had been pushed into service to carry combat troops and supporting medical personnel to the invasion site. At the time that these ships set sail, neither the troops nor the personnel of the 48th Surgical Hospital knew where they were headed. The planned Allied North African invasion was a secret; for security reasons, no one was allowed to know anything about battle strategy more than a few days or hours ahead of time.
Now, in the early morning hours of 8 November, the 48th Surgical Hospital nurses waited with combat troops and medical personnel for their turn to go ashore. The invasion was planned as a surprise attack. It was hoped that the troops and the hospital would land on the beach under the cover of predawn darkness without rousing a response from the French barracks on shore. Molony's hand shook as she held her coffee cup that morning not only out of fear but out of surprise: coming from the shore was the sound of artillery fire. With that sound, she and everyone else realized that a battle was in progress. The United States and Britain had hoped that the French would not oppose the Allied landing on the shores of France's colonies of Morocco and Algeria. However, all hopes of an unopposed landing were now dashed.