“Medic!”

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These pioneers had to overcome many obstacles. The first was the act of volunteering, for there was a nationwide slander campaign about women in uniform. The jokes were gross. They were told by rear-echelon soldiers and civilians. No one who had ever seen an Army nurse in action in a field hospital, or any wounded soldier, ever told those jokes. Nevertheless they slowed recruitment down to a trickle. A questionnaire showed that of those nurses who did volunteer, 41 percent had to overcome the opposition of close relatives. Only half said their closest male friends were supportive, whereas 80 percent of their closest female friends supported their decisions.

To speed up recruitment, the Army made the Army Nurse Corps more attractive. From June 1944 onward, nurses got officers’ commissions, full retirement privileges, dependents’ allowances, and equal pay. The government also paid for the education of nursing students.

In his January 1945 State of the Union Address, President Roosevelt referred to the critical shortage of nurses in Western Europe and proposed that the nurses be drafted. A bill to do so passed the House and came within one vote of enactment in the Senate.

The continuing shortage meant that those nurses who did serve at field or evacuation hospitals were badly overworked. The experiences of the 77th Evacuation Hospital were typical. By mid-1944 the 77th was a veteran outfit. It had been in England in the summer of 1942, then to Oran in November, on to Constantine in January 1943, Tebessa in February, La Meskiana in March, Tebessa again, Bône in April, Palermo in September, to Licata in October, and in November back to England to get ready for D-day. Clearly the battalion-sized team knew how to pick up and move in a hurry.

On July 7, 1944, the 77th entered Normandy at Utah Beach. It set up at Ste.-Mère-Église. It was open within a day. During the first twelve hours it treated 1,450 patients, or two per minute. In the first six days the 77th handled 6,304 patients in triage. For the first week patients came in at an aroundthe-clock rate of one per minute.

The ambulances coming from the battalion aid stations had to pull up, three abreast, in lines stretching back two hundred yards. The six doctors worked as rapidly as possible but were only just able to keep up with the litter bearers carrying patients in from the ambulance and out the back of the receiving tent. Not only were litters coming and going, but there was space for only one hundred of them in the tent, which was nearly always filled, while litters bearing wounded men lay in open spaces on the ground outside the tent. Along the sides of the tent sat the walking wounded, clutching their souvenirs. A tag showed whether and how much morphine the casualty had received from the medic. The doctors went from patient to patient, asking questions, scanning each record, lifting the dressing to check each wound.

The nurses changed dressings, administered medications, checked records, and monitored the vital signs, and while they were doing those jobs, they rearranged the blankets and gave the soldier a smile. They were too busy to do much more. As Lt. Aileen Hogan described her experiences in Normandy, “I have never worked so hard in my life. I can’t call it nursing. The boys get in, get emergency treatment, penicillin and sulfa, and are out again. It is beyond words.”

Lieutenant Hogan was forty-two years old when she volunteered for the ANC a few days after Pearl Harbor. She was with the 2d General Hospital Unit in Normandy. She described her duties on the penicillin team: “At seven [1900 hours], all the penicillin needed for the first round is mixed and two technicians and one nurse make the rounds of the hospital giving penicillin to the patients. One loads the syringes and changes needles, the other two give the hypos. At the rate of sixty to a tent, one gets groggy. It is an art to find your way around at night, not a glimmer of light anywhere, no flashlights of course, the tents just a vague silhouette against the darkness, ropes and tent pins a constant menace, syringes and precious medications, balanced precariously on one arm.”

The continuing shortage of nurses meant that those who did serve were badly overworked.
 

After its month in Ste.-Mère-Église, the 77th Evacuation Hospital moved forward first to St.-Lô, then Le Mans, next Chartres, where it arrived on August 24, close behind the advancing line. That winter, outside Verviers during the Bulge, the 77th underwent a heavy artillery bombardment and deliberate strafing from German fighters. Two dozen nurses were wounded. Even as the strafing planes returned, most of the injured nurses were being tended to; they had become patients.

During the bulge the hospital was all but overwhelmed. The capacity was supposed to be 750 patients, but by late December more than double that number were being treated. Despite the overload, the Red Cross workers and nurses managed to put up some Christmas decorations and provide wrapped presents to the patients— candy, books, toilet articles. And the cooks produced a Christmas dinner for all, featuring turkey and the works, plus grapes and apples.