Angels of Mercy: The Army Nurses of World War IIby Betsy Kuhn
"You Are Needed Now," the posters proclaimed. "Join the Army Nurse Corps." And so they did: Over 59,000 American women signed up to serve their country in the war effort. Some joined expecting to experience the romance and adventure of war in faraway places while working to save lives. Many more quickly learned war's harsh realities -- and that their own/i>… See more details below
"You Are Needed Now," the posters proclaimed. "Join the Army Nurse Corps." And so they did: Over 59,000 American women signed up to serve their country in the war effort. Some joined expecting to experience the romance and adventure of war in faraway places while working to save lives. Many more quickly learned war's harsh realities -- and that their own lives could also be in danger.
The Army nurses of World War II served in the United States and abroad, in dense jungles, war-torn villages, and on barren ice fields. Many encountered hardships: bombings, crude living conditions, inadequate food. They also experienced the frustration of receiving lesser pay and privileges than their male counterparts as they worked, sometimes around the clock, to treat the wounded while confronting air raids, the threat of invasion, and capture by the enemy.
Nonetheless, in additon to their devotion to saving lives, some of the most important things the nurses brought to their units were courage and cheer. From holiday parties in makeshift hospitals to fudge making and softball games amid the grueling conditions of war, these angels of mercy brought light -- and life -- to the American forces of World War II.
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The first Army nurses to care for D day casualties were those of the 12th and 13th Hospital Train Units but they didn't reach Normandy by train. Sailing on two British hospital ships, they arrived off Omaha Beach on June 7 and Utah Beach on June 8, and began caring for the wounded before they were evacuated back to England.
On June 10, long before things had settled down, the nurses of the 128th Evacuation Hospital arrived on Utah Beach. They'd left England the day before, dressed in fatigues. "We didn't take off those clothes for a long time!" Helen Reichert remembers with a laugh.
At dawn, as her ship neared the Normandy shore, Reichert went up on deck to use the bathroom. "This glider [bomb] came down ... and it fell in between our ship and the ship that was next to us and exploded," she says. "It blew in part of our ship."
The nurses sailed to shore on small landing boats, then waded through the water and ran across the beach to safety. The soldiers had laid down a metal track on the sand for tanks and other heavy vehicles, part of the elaborate D day preparations. Says Reichert, "I looked down and I said, well, this is nice. It was an improvement over our Arzew beach."
Helen Dixon Johnson, a nurse from California, landed on Omaha Beach two weeks after D day. Even then, she remembers, "There was debris all over: tanks and trucks and parts of equipment, machine guns, everything. There were [barrage] balloons all over," large balloons that hovered over the water to help protect ships against air attacks.
The ack-ack (antiaircraft fire) was so loud, she says, "you could hardly hear yourself think." On shore, signs such as one saying "Roads Cleared of Mines to the Hedge" directed them to safe paths. Before the invasion, the enemy had littered the coast with mines, explosive devices usually laid underwater or just below the ground that can kill or maim people and destroy ships, tanks, and other equipment when run over or stepped on.
Johnson, a member of the 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Unit, was assigned to the 51st Field Hospital near the town of Saint-LÔ, close to the front lines. She worked at least twelve hours a day, usually more. Cows, abandoned by their owners, followed the nurses, hoping to be milked, bees swarmed the canned peaches in their K-rations, and enemy fire was never far away. One night the Germans bombed the hospital area, and the nurses jumped into slit trenches. "They were all full of this garbage," says Johnson, but "we didn't care."
The Allies had hoped to move quickly inland after the invasion, but they were having a terrible time pushing past the Germans, who had taken cover behind Normandy's tall, thick hedgerows. Finally, in late July, the frustrated Allies launched a massive air attack near Saint-LÔ, and the German lines began to crumble.
Text copyright © 1999 by Betsy Kuhn
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