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The Homefront, Then and Now

Nightengales Storm the Beaches

After taking part in the invasion of North Africa, an Army nurse in Morocco washes clothes in her helmet.
Among the 40,000 troops wading onto North Africa beaches the morning of Nov. 8, 1942, were 57 nurses who would staff the US Army’s 48th Surgical Hospital. The Allied troops who made up Operation Torch, the first Allied attempt at an amphibious invasion, would learn many hard lessons; the nurses crowded into the landing crafts were no exception.

Wearing life jackets, 26 lb. backpacks, and each carrying 15 lbs. of medical equipment, many were forced to wade or swim ashore when their landing craft capsized or stopped short of the beach. They spent the day huddled in a shack. It was nearly midnight when word came that a battalion aid station a few miles away in the town of Arzew was desperate for help with casualties. Lieutenants Ruth Haskell, Edna Atkins and Marie Kelly were ordered to report there for duty.

In an old, dirty building rife with rats and broken windows, without running water, and in an operating room lit by one bare bulb and flashlights, they set to work. The doctors had one scalpel, one pair of surgical scissors, a few clamps among them. They had no gowns, no gloves, no masks, no anesthesiologist. Using educated guesses about proper dosage, the nurses administered ether. They used thread from their sewing kits for sutures, then alcohol-soaked strands of their long hair. They ignored sniper fire which constantly pierced the blackout curtains. It was 48 hours before relief arrived. By then they had treated 480 casualties.

In the next months, the nurses moved with the troops, often too close to the front to light a cigarette. They were forced to move their hospital three times in eight days as the Germans counterattacked, treating terribly burned tank crews and the devastating wounds and amputations resulting from land mines. The 48th’s ten operating tables were in constant demand. Nurses worked 18- and 24-hour shifts.

The Germans surrendered in early May, 1943. Concluding that the 48th Surgical Hospital was not equipped to handle the casualties it received, the army converted it to the 128th Evacuation Hospital. The nurses of the 48th remained with the 128th and followed the troops into Sicily in July.

Nurses were never again part of an invading force, but before the invasion of France, they were sent to England to share their hard-won battlefield experience with medical units who would serve in Normandy. They joined the troops on Utah Beach on D-day plus 5, among the first nurses to arrive in France, and they cared for the wounded for the remainder of the war in Europe.

Evacuation Hospitals also served in the Pacific Theater; nurses worked on airplanes, ships, and trucks and contributed significantly to the low mortality rate among American wounded. Sixteen nurses died as a result of enemy fire; the Axis did not always respect the red crosses that marked their venues. In all, 201 nurses died while serving during the war. But their success under difficult conditions demonstrated their abilities to society, and established them as newlyrespected professionals in the field of medicine.

For further information see www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/72-14/HTML.
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