A galvanizing narrative of the wartime role played by U.S. Army nurses--from the invasion of North Africa to the bloody Italian campaign to the decisive battles in France and the Rhineland.
More than 59,000 nurses volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps alone: 217 lost their lives (16 by enemy action), and more than 1,600 were decorated for meritorious service and bravery under fire. But their stories have rarely been heard. Now, drawing on never-before-published eyewitness accounts--many heroic, some mundane and comic--Monahan and Neidel-Greenlee take us to the front lines, to the withering fire on the beaches of Anzio and Normandy, and to the field and evacuation hospitals, as well as bombed and burned hospital ships. We witness the nurses--and the doctors with whom they served--coping with the physical and psychological damage done to the soldiers in combat. We see them working--often with only meager supplies and overwhelmed by the sheer number of casualties--to save the lives and limbs of thousands of wounded troops. With them we experience the almost constant packing up and moving on to keep up with advancing troops, foxholes dug under camp beds, endless mud, and treacherous minefields. The vividness and immediacy of their recollections provide us with a powerfully visceral, deeply affecting sense of their experiences--terrifying and triumphant, exhausting and exhilarating.
A revelatory work that at last gives voice to the nurses who played such an essential role in World War II.
Monahan and Neidel-Greenlee, two former military nurses who have co-written previous books about American nurses in World War II Japan and Albania, have collaborated again to produce this popular account of the Army nurses who served in the war against Germany. Based on interviews, correspondence and diaries, as well as on published sources and archival material, this book employs a descriptive, matter of fact style that makes a nice foil to its vivid use of reconstructed dialogue and primary source quotations. Though the book is divided into chapters that recount individual campaigns (e.g. "Chapter 5: Nurses in the Sicilian Campaign," "Chapter 6: The Sinking of the HMHS Newfoundland"), Monahan and Neidel-Greenlee do follow the experiences of several nurses throughout their history, bringing a narrative cohesion to what might have otherwise been a fragmented series of anecdotes. Particularly fascinating are their graphic descriptions of medical conditions, like gangrene and malaria, and of hospital procedures, such as the then-cutting-edge operation of transfusing whole blood into wounded soldiers. Though the extensive background material explaining battles and campaigns can sometimes threaten to swamp the narrative, overall this volume provides a valuable account of an often-neglected historical topic: the frontline experience of the women of the Greatest Generation.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 08, 2004
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Excerpt from And If I Perish by Evelyn Monahan
Operation Torch--U.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.