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D-Day Journeys: Nurses on the Ground and in the Sky

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June 6, 2019, marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allies’ famed invasion of the beaches of Normandy. In honor of this momentous occasion, the Veterans History Project (VHP) is publishing a special series of blog posts revealing hidden facets of D-Day illuminated within VHP’s collections.

 This post is the fourth in a six-part series, exploring the experiences of nurses—specifically those who served in field hospitals and aboard medical evacuation airplanes— in the immediate aftermath of D-Day. Read the other posts in the series here.

Black and white photograph of nurses in white dress uniforms walking in rows. Clouds and trees are seen in the background.
Army nurses of the 56th General Hospital walking in rows. Lille Magette Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/73731/PH05.

The invasion of Normandy famously incurred a high number of casualties: historians estimate that roughly 4,000 Allied troops were killed on D-Day. Many of those who survived faced life-threatening injuries. Without the efforts of doctors, corpsmen, and nurses, far more lives would have been lost on June 6, 1944.

The perspectives and accomplishments of military nurses in particular are often overlooked within historical accounts of D-Day and its aftermath. Listening to and reading through the accounts of nurses who took part in the Normandy invasion, I can’t help but marvel at the fearlessness, tenacity, and dedication of these women. As their Veterans History Project collections demonstrate, these nurses worked tirelessly and often at great risk to their own personal safety in order to preserve the lives of their patients.

One such nurse was Lille Margaret Steinmetz Magette, who served with the 56th General Hospital in France and throughout the European Theater. Hospitalized for a tonsillectomy as a child, she worshipped the nurses who treated her. As she related in her oral history, “I just thought nurses had wings.”

Widowed after only a year of marriage, Magette decided to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a nurse herself. She was in training when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and joined the service as soon as she graduated. In October, 1943, she journeyed to England for further training, and arrived at Utah Beach on June 7, 1944. There she was stationed at a field hospital where she treated patients amidst the endless mud.

By nature, field hospitals had to be located close to the front lines—so close that they sometimes weathered incoming fire.  As she recounts in her oral history, “buzz bombs” were a fact of life while she was stationed in Liege, Belgium:

“… [the bomb] would land and the concussion was terrible. It would blow your windows out and one did land right by our hospital. One of our doctors got a Purple Heart, he was injured by it. They were a terrible menace. We never knew. A lot of times we would be in the mess hall and we had Catholic chaplain and Protestant chaplains, we would dive under the tables and all, and they would pray and give us general absolution. We went through that for a long, long time.”

Sketch of field hospital
Sketch of a field hospital contained within Ruth Dorsman’s memoir. Ruth Dorsman Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/11865/MS01.

Like Magette, Ruth M. Haddick Dorsman’s dedication to her patients took her into the thick of the Normandy invasion. Initially stationed with the 58th General Hospital in England, she yearned to be closer to the action. Her petitions for a transfer finally landed her a spot with the 51st Field Hospital.

On June 12, 1944, she landed on Omaha Beach, where her unit was immediately besieged with patients. As she recalled in her memoir, “All the nurses just jumped right in and did whatever needed to be done, all urgent stuff like give IVs, administer oxygen, pass stomach tubes and set up suctions, possibly change bandages, and give shots.” Despite the fact that each nurse in a field hospital had 30 or more seriously wounded patients to attend to, she notes that the mortality rate of the 51st Field Hospital was generally under 10%, “which, all things considered, was very good.”

Full length black and white photo of a woman in full uniform standing outside
Edna Statman in uniform, Paris, France. Edna Nina Goldberg Statman Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/91916/PH01.

Unlike Magette and Dorsman, who served on the ground in field units in France and elsewhere in the European Theater, Edna Nina Goldberg Statman’s nursing duties took place aboard an airplane. As a flight nurse, she was responsible for caring for patients aboard medical evacuation flights, which ferried wounded servicemen to hospitals in England and beyond.

Along with the rest of the 817th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron, she arrived at Omaha Beach in late June, 1944. Caring for patients on a C-47 required specialized training and skill sets, particularly given the state of World War II-era aeronautics. As Statman recalled in her memoir, “At times during a flight, we would hit an air pocket, and drop several hundred feet in the air… it took a little while for our stomachs to catch up with us.”

Like field hospitals, medical evacuation flights were also at risk of enemy fire. Statman explained,

“On one flight I was scheduled to take a plane load of patients to Prestwick, Scotland and then to Iceland, but at the last minute, my dearest friend, Katie Price, replaced me. After landing in Iceland and refueling, as the plane started to fly into the air, a German U-Boat shot them down, and all aboard the plane were killed.”

Contemporary photo of woman sitting near a desk that has medals on it.
Contemporary photograph of Evelyn Kowalchuk posing with medals [2008]. Evelyn Kowalchuk Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/66174/PH01.
Evelyn Kowalchuk, another flight nurse who helped evacuate casualties from Normandy, described in her oral history interview the physical and mental challenges of caring for patients while thousands of feet in the air. Flying too high in non-pressurized planes could endanger patients with “sucking” wounds; when patients vomited, the smell overwhelmed the small cabins.

Perhaps even more difficult was the fact that patients were under her care for only a brief flight, and she never saw them again after landing. Kowalchuk hated letting them go so soon after treating them. The stress of these experiences stayed with her even after the war. She was plagued by nightmares for years after she left the service.

Nurses such as Magette, Dorsman, Statman, and Kowalchuk—along with many others whose collections are part of the Veterans History Project—saved countless lives during the Normandy invasion. Their service and accomplishments are a critical part of the story of the D-Day, and we are honored to preserve their narratives at the Library of Congress.

Stay tuned for a special D-Day Story Map, as well as a new Experiencing War online exhibit, debuting in early May 2019.

For more on D-Day collections at VHP, see previous Experiencing War online exhibits here and here.


Comments (8)

  1. Would you be so kind as to provide the name of the troop ship that transported the 56th General Hospital from the USA to the ETO during WW 2? Also, the date & location of departure from the USA?

    • Dear Mr. Horrell,
      Thanks for your comment and for reading. Because the Veterans History Project only has information relating to those who have participated in our project, we are not a good source of general military history information or unit records, and unfortunately can’t answer your question. Best of luck with your research. Thank you again for reading.

  2. My name is Michael Boyce. I have only just seen Richard Horrell’s request of July 14 2019 for information about the 56th General Hospital In the ETO. All the information he requires is contained in my book TYNTESFIELD IN WWII which details the history of the 56th & 74th GH’s in the ETO.
    I would be happy to correspond with him.

    Michael Boyce

  3. I would like to get in touch with Michael Boyce as I am very interested in his book Tyntesfield in WWII. My father was a T5 with the 56th General Hospital. I am anxious to learn all I can about his unit. He unfortunately passed away in 1974 before I could record his memoirs. Fortunately, I have over 630 letters & vmails that he sent my mother during his entire service time. In addition, I have scanned 500-600 pictures (and accompanying negatives) he took during his time in England, France, and finally in Liège, Belgium. My interest is also in being able to share these images, etc. as part of the 56th General Hospital record.
    Eric Baker

    • Dear Mr. Baker,
      Thanks for your comment and for reading. I can get in touch with Mr. Boyce to let him know of your interest. It sounds like you have quite a treasure trove of correspondence and photographs relating to your father’s service. If you are interested in finding a home for the materials, we would be absolutely thrilled to add them to the Veterans History Project archive, part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress. Please email us at [email protected] to find out more about submitting the materials. Thank you again for reading! Best regards, Megan Harris

  4. Hello thank you very much for those precious informations and testimonies. I always thought that the first nurses landed on dday beach on 10th of June and never knew some arrived earlier like Magette. Thank you for enlighting me.

  5. My mom is 99 years old and was a nurse in WWII. She was in Belgium on d day. I think she deserves recognition. She’s a great lady.

  6. The DPAA is working on a wreck site in Greenland that could be the Missing C-54 42-107470 that disappeared July 26, 1944 between Iceland and Newfoundland. Flight Nurse Lt. Catherine Ruth Price was on that aircraft with 24other souls. If anyone knows her family I would be happy to provide the information on the crash site with images. The aircraft debris has the same numbers as the missing C-54 and the other debris that matches the C-54. the word ARMY can clearly be observed.

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