World War II vets were hardy

Published 11:59 pm Friday, July 17, 2009

I don’t know why, but the petite woman with short grey hair caught my eye when she entered the lobby at the military exchange. Despite the 99-plus degree weather outside, she looked cool and neat. She was with several other people and moved at a steady pace with the use of a cane.

Some time later, she exited alone and paused where my husband and I sat at his book signing table. I immediately spotted the campaign ribbons and words embroidered on her golf shirt: “World War II Army Nurse.” I read them aloud. She smiled and nodded. Soon she and my husband were comparing notes about their military experiences.

When he was a young soldier, he went into Leghorn, Italy, after the fighting and joined the 88th Infantry Division, which had fought its way through the Po Valley. She was familiar with that division. She named numerous places she had served, including North Africa and then Anzio.

We didn’t get her name, but while I stepped away for a few minutes, she told my husband she was 89 and lived in Marion, Ala. When I returned, they chatted only a few minutes before she said she was tired and had to sit down. My husband escorted her to a bench across the way. Soon her companions came out and they left.

I’ve had our brief meeting with that dear lady on my mind ever since.

As a former newspaper reporter, I knew a great story had slipped through my fingers. I wanted to interview her, but it was neither the time nor place for that. I could do some research about Army Nurses at Anzio when I got home, though.

I found the following information on World War II nurses in a brochure by Judith A. Bellafaire. She prepared it for the U.S. Army Center of Military History. The Anzio beachhead was 15 miles wide and seven miles deep and allowed no retreat from enemy fire. The Fifth Army command allowed nurses to remain at Anzio regardless of the danger and the mounting casualties because they were desperately needed.

From January through June 1944, the Anzio field and evacuation hospitals admitted 25,809 battle casualties, 4,245 accidental injuries, and 18,074 medical casualties.

On Feb. 7, 1944, a German plane was intercepted by a British Spitfire. While trying to gain altitude, the pilot jettisoned his antipersonnel bombs on the 95th Evacuation Hospital. The direct hit killed 26 staff and patients, including three nurses.

On Feb.10, long-range enemy artillery fire killed two nurses and one enlisted man and wounded four medical officers and seven enlisted men at the 33rd Field Hospital. Medical personnel evacuated the forty-two patients by flashlight without incident. For their bravery, four nurses received the first Silver Star medals awarded to women in the U.S. Army, one posthumously.

I am reminded once again that Americans always should never forget the sacrifices and horror people like those nurses and our fighting forces experienced to preserve our freedom through the years.