'If I Perish' a powerful tale of WWII nurses' experiences
December 21, 2003
Book reviewers spend a lot of time opening unpromising tomes, reading a few pages, yawning, and moving on. And so there I was with “If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II,” a weighty tome with an unpromising subtitle.
Another WWII history book. Yawn.
Until I got to page 16. That’s where I learned that on Christmas morning, 1941, U.S. military nurses evacuating by ship from Manila to the “safety” of the Baatan Peninsula were given suicide pills:
“… pockets were crammed full of narcotics and stimulants and enough morphine to provide every army nurse a lethal dose as a grim alternative to the manner of death the [Japanese] enemy had been known to inflict on its captives …”
After these nurses were captured by the Japanese, guess where they hid their morphine stashes?
“Many women wore a hairpiece known as a ‘rat,’ an elongated roll of hair around which she would wrap her own long hair. Nurses hid the tablets of morphine inside the rat and then placed the rat in their hair, in accordance with the fashion of the day.”
So much for yawns. After learning about the potential for using hairdos as drug caches, who will ever watch film clips of the Andrews Sisters, with their shellacked pompadours, the same way again?
And who but the most ardent WWII historian knows that on Nov. 8, 1942, “Operation Torch” D-Day in North Africa, 57 U.S. Army nurses went ashore on the beaches of Arzew and Oran in Algeria, side by side with the combat troops?
The nurses were with the Army’s 48th Field Hospital, part of a new structure of medical facilities that was supposed to reduce the length of time a fighting man had to endure before receiving medical care, should he be wounded on the front lines.
Unarmed and under intense fire, with no supplies other than a single canteen and a 26-pound pack on their backs, the nurses hit the beachhead.
They low-crawled across the sand and took cover in a shack that had only moments ago been occupied by Arab and French enemy soldiers. But their haven was temporary.
“All hell’s to pay up the line,” they were told by their commander, Col. Merritt Ringer. “And we have to help. The boys at the battalion aid station can’t handle the casualties. They’re coming up too fast.”
Ringer asked for three volunteers to move directly into the line of fire. Three nurses instantly raised their hands.
And so, armed with only a box of morphine surrettes and a hypodermic syringe apiece, the nurses were moved up to the fighting by jeep.
They all made it — just barely — and, three snipers later, arrived at a filthy, squat building that served as the aid station. On the bare ground, rows and rows of groaning, dying casualties were waiting for care.
There was no equipment for surgery; everything was improvised. No soap, no running water, no masks, no gowns, and no light except flashlights. As for operating gear, “One scalpel, a handful of surgical clamps and one pair of surgical scissors were the team’s only instruments.”
Undaunted, the nurses linked up with male surgeons already on site and set to work. And when the scarce medical materials gave out, “necessity, the mother of invention, forced the nurses and doctors to find creative solutions.” When suture material ran short in the middle of one operation, one of the nurses ran for her “musette bag” of personal hygiene items and found “a spool of white thread … and they sewed up his bladder with that.”
But matters soon got worse: in the midst of a critical operation, the thread ran out. So, almost unbelievably, the nurses used long strands of their own hair, “sterilized” in jars of rubbing alcohol, as suture material.
The nurses involved in Operation Torch performed spectacularly well. But the precedent they set — women on the front lines! — so unnerved Army brass that WWII nurses never again went in with combat troops during a frontal assault.
But that doesn’t mean the Army pulled the nurses away from combat zones. More than 59,000 nurses volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, braving years of service amid mud, rain, biting cold, lack of food, lack of shelter and all the other privations that made the second world war such a horror for so many U.S. soldiers.
The women were given “officer’s rank,” but paid only half the salary of their male counterparts. Moreover, they were not accorded the honor of a salute, despite their rank. More than 1,600 nurses were decorated for meritorious service and bravery under fire. But back home in the United States, vicious rumors circulated that the nurses “serviced” the soldiers in more ways than one.
Until now, the WWII nurses’ stories have usually remained buried, superseded by soldiers’ tales and the historians’ accounts of strategy and tactics, battles and campaigns.
So Evelyn Monahan, a retired psychologist who served in the Women’s Army Corps from 1961 to 1967, and Rosemary Neidel- Greenlee, a U.S. Navy Nurse Corps veteran who served on active duty from 1962 to 1965 and reserve duty between 1989 and 1991, spent years interviewing many of the surviving nurses.
The resulting book is organized into major campaigns, from the invasion of North Africa to the battles in France and the Rhineland, as well as post-VE Day operations, such as the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. Six maps help place the action, and 60 photos give faces to the women’s voices.
In each section, a handful of nurses are introduced, with enough background so that the reader starts to care about their survival, which is never guaranteed (a total of 217 Army nurses lost their lives in the war).
Some of the stories are funny, such as one nurse’s recollection of making Christmas fudge on tent stoves during air raids. “Stir the fudge!” the nurses would chorus when one among them had reason to surface from the foxhole dug under her cot.
Others stories demonstrate unthinkable courage, such as a nurse’s account of a young litter bearer from the 26th Medical Battalion who calmly amputated his own arm after being hit rescuing a soldier on the battlefield during the Sicilian Campaign.
Through it all, the nurses just kept on going: laughing at the privations, operating through shelling barrages as corpsmen ran around placing helmets on the heads of the medical staff, and reassuring patients even when they themselves were certain that no one would survive the night.
The authors keep their book moving swiftly, offering just enough background on the battles and troops’ movements so the nurses’ actions make sense.
Anyone who has ever worked at a modern military field hospital — or been treated at one — is likely to find “And If I Perish” especially noteworthy.
After all, every time a U.S. military nurse at Baghdad Airport’s 28th Combat Support Hospital has to improvise when supplies run short, every time she pulls goodies from his own care package to give wounded soldiers, it’s good to remember that she is following in the distinguished, brave footsteps of her sisters in World War II.