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And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War IIby Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee
Synopses & Reviews
Operation Torch--U.S. Army Nurses in the Invasion Force
D-Day North Africa
8 November 1942
I spotted Lt. Vilma Vogler descending a ladder at my side. Our eyes met for a moment in mutual shock, and then we quickly descended into a waiting barge. At that moment she and the other nurses had ceased to be "the women." We were all comrades in equally dangerous footing, trying to survive the insanity of combat.
-Edward E. Rosenbaum, MD, former captain, U.S. Army Medical Corps, "Wartime Nurses: A Tribute to the Unsung Veterans," New Choices (July 1989)
An artillery shell exploded sixty yards off the starboard side of HMS Orbita. Lieutenant Helen Molony, seated on board in the officers' mess hall, felt her hand shake as she raised her coffee mug to her mouth. It was early morning, 8 November 1942. A convoy of Allied war- and transport ships, including the Orbita, the Santa Paula, and the Monarch of Bermuda, lay two miles off the coast of Algeria. On board these British ships were not only combat troops but the men and women of the 48th Surgical Hospital, including Lieutenant Molony. She was one of 57 U.S. Army nurses who, along with the hospital's 48 officers and 273 enlisted men, were waiting to land, side by side with the combat troops, on the beachheads of Arzew and Oran in Algeria.
The sun had not risen yet and the ships were still under cover of darkness. Molony glanced around the officers' mess. The thunder of artillery had begun an hour earlier, and now, at 0515, she saw that the tables in the mess were crowded with officers, male and female, dressed in combat gear. Aside from the clanking of silverware and an occasional word or two spoken in hushed tones, the large wardroom was strangely quiet. In less than an hour, Molony knew that her part in Operation Torch-the invasion of North Africa-would begin. What she could not know was that her participation in the D-Day invasion would become a landmark in U.S. military history.
Only a few months earlier, in midsummer, the 48th Surgical Hospital had crossed the Atlantic on the USS Wakefield as part of what was, at that time, the largest convoy ever to sail from the United States. On 6 August, the 48th Surgical had disembarked at Greenock, Scotland, and taken a one-day train ride to Tidworth Barracks in the area of Shipton-Ballanger and Kangaroo Corners in southern England. The unit remained there for two and a half months, and Molony underwent the closest thing to military training the army nurses would receive, a regimen of hardening exercises of five- and ten-mile hikes, complete with field packs.
For the nurses of the 48th Surgical Hospital, as for all the army nurses sent overseas before July 1943, uniforms presented a definite problem. Before America entered World War II, the sole uniform the U.S. Army nurses had was a white duty nurse's uniform and white nurse's shoes. The only thing military about the uniform was the second lieutenant's gold bar, worn on the right lapel, and the caduceus with an "N" superimposed upon it on the left lapel. The caduceus had been a symbol of the Army Medical Department for decades. Doctors wore the caduceus plain, while nurses had a superimposed "N" for nursing, the dentists a superimposed "D," and veterinarians a superimposed "V."
As for the clothing itself, the army provided blue seersucker dresses for the nurses in
In World War II, 59,000 women voluntarily risked their lives for their country as U.S. Army nurses. When the war began, some of them had so little idea of what to expect that they packed party dresses; but the reality of service quickly caught up with them, whether they waded through the water in the historic landings on North African and Normandy beaches, or worked around the clock in hospital tents on the Italian front as bombs fell all around them.
For more than half a century these women’s experiences remained untold, almost without reference in books, historical societies, or military archives. After years of reasearch and hundreds of hours of interviews, Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee have created a dramatic narrative that at last brings to light the critical role that women played throughout the war. From the North African and Italian Campaigns to the Liberation of France and the Conquest of Germany, U.S. Army nurses rose to the demands of war on the frontlines with grit, humor, and great heroism. A long overdue work of history, And If I Perish is also a powerful tribute to these women and their inspiring legacy.
A galvanizing narrative of the wartime role played by U.S. Army nurses—from the invasion of North Africa to the bloody Italian campaign to the decisive battles in France and the Rhineland.
More than 59,000 nurses volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps alone: 217 lost their lives (16 by enemy action), and more than 1,600 were decorated for meritorious service and bravery under fire. But their stories have rarely been heard. Now, drawing on never-before-published eyewitness accounts—many heroic, some mundane and comic—Monahan and Neidel-Greenlee take us to the front lines, to the withering fire on the beaches of Anzio and Normandy, and to the field and evacuation hospitals, as well as bombed and burned hospital ships. We witness the nurses—and the doctors with whom they served—coping with the physical and psychological damage done to the soldiers in combat. We see them working—often with only meager supplies and overwhelmed by the sheer number of casualties—to save the lives and limbs of thousands of wounded troops. With them we experience the almost constant packing up and moving on to keep up with advancing troops, foxholes dug under camp beds, endless mud, and treacherous minefields. The vividness and immediacy of their recollections provide us with a powerfully visceral, deeply affecting sense of their experiences—terrifying and triumphant, exhausting and exhilarating.
A revelatory work that at last gives voice to the nurses who played such an essential role in World War II.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
\Evelyn M. Monahan, a retired psychologist, served in the Women's Army Corps from 1961 until 1967 as a corpsman and psychiatric technician. She subsequently took her M.Ed. and Ph.D. at Georgia State University and her M.Div. in theology and ethics at Emory University. She worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs from 1980 to 1996.
Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee served in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps on active duty from 1962 until 1965, and on reserve duty between 1989 and 1991. She has a master's degree in nursing from Emory University, and worked at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Atlanta from 1981 to 2002.
Monahan and Neidel-Greenlee are co-authors (with Agnes Jensen Mangerich) of Albanian Escape: The True Story of U.S. Army Nurses Behind Enemy Lines and co-authors of All This Hell: U.S. Nurses Imprisoned by the Japanese.
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