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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.