Who hasn’t heard of the terrible battle that occurred on the shores of Normandy, June 6, 1944 – D-Day. I’ve seen newsreels and movies depicting the violent scene of carnage. My heart grieved for the young men struggling up an impenetrable beach. So many men wounded, so many dying.
What I never thought of was the women who followed these men. Most just as young, just as innocent. These women were the nurses. Women who loved America and the American servicemen enough to follow them into war.
(from Gale US History)
Nurses from the 42d and 45th field hospitals and from the 91st and 128th evacuation hospitals arrived at Normandy on June 10, 1944, just four days after the assault. They waded ashore with heavy backpacks to set up care units. They dealt with a steady flow of wounded men, seeing over a hundred a day. They often worked eighteen hour days. One nurse reported, her bathtub was a helmet and the latrine a dugout ditch with a screen around it. Another reported that they had no time for laundry and ended up wearing the same undergarments for a month.
Hospitals close to the front were a relatively new idea but because of the care given less than 4% of US soldiers in WWII died from wounds or disease if they got to a medical facility.
(Picture from Liz Richardson in National Archives)
The nurses were invaluable, not only did they tend the wounded and the sick, assist doctors, set up facilities, they were also trained to listen to the soldiers stories of loss, fear and loneliness. Soldiers felt, if women could put up with everything they were doing, then they could go on a little more, too.
The government realized the importance of the women in uniform and to boast enlistment, all nurses were commissioned officers entitled to retirement and equal pay. Between the years of 1943 to 1948 the government paid the cost for all student nurses.
There were between 60,000 to 75,000 women enlisted during World War II in the army and navy. Sixty-seven of them served time as prisoners of war.
These brave nurses dealt with hardship, pain, loss, emotional turmoil and bone numbing exhaustion. But they kept on, hour after hour, day after day, month after month.
Lieutenant Frances Slanger, of the 45th field hospital, said it best in a letter she wrote to Stars and Stripes:
“You GIs say we nurses rough it. We wade ankle deep in mud. You have to lie in it. We have a stove and coal… In comparison to the way you men are taking it, we can’t complain, nor do we feel bouquets are due us. It is to you we doff our helmets. It is a privilege to receive you and a great distinction to see you open your eyes and with that swell American grin, say, “Hi ya, babe!”
Lieutenant Frances Slanger died the day after she sent this letter. Killed by a German artillery shell.