Military nurses made sacrifices, too

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 13, 2016

Some years ago when my husband was autographing his “Alabaster Armstrong Mystery Novels” at a military exchange, a petite woman with grey hair caught my eye. She had just entered the lobby with several people. She moved at a steady pace with the use of a cane. I thought she looked cool and neat even though the temperature outside hung in the high 90s.

Sometime later, I saw her return to the lobby. She paused at my husband’s book signing table to look at his books and chat with him. I noticed 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.

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

I regret we did not get her name, but while I stepped away for a few minutes, she told my husband she was 89. She lived in Marion, Ala. When I returned, she told my husband she was tired and needed to sit down. He left his table to escort her to a bench across the way. Her companions soon came out of the exchange and they left.

I knew I had let a great story walk away from me. I really wanted to interview her, but it was neither the time nor the place to do it. The next day, I began some research about Army nurses at Anzio. A brochure about World War II Army nurses prepared for the U.S. Army Center of Military History was my source. The Anzio beachhead was 15 miles wide and seven miles deep. It allowed no retreat from enemy fire. The Fifth Army Command allowed nurses to remain at Anzio regardless of the danger. Those nurses were desperately needed because of the mounting casualties. 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 intercepted a British Spitfire. The pilot, in an attempt to gain altitude, jettisoned his antipersonnel bombs on the 95th Evacuation Hospital. It made a direct hit, killing 26 staff and patients. Three of those were nurses.

Three days later, long-range enemy artillery fire killed two nurses and one enlisted man. Four medical officers and seven enlisted men were wounded at the 33rd Field Hospital. Four nurses were among medical personnel who evacuated 42 patients by flashlight without incident. Those nurses received the first Silver Stars awarded to women in the U.S. Army, one posthumously.

How soon we forget the sacrifices paid for our freedom by brave men and women on battlefields far from home.

Nina Keenam is retired from the newspaper business. Her column appears on Saturdays.