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THE NURSES OF THE 51ST EVAC HOSPITAL IN WWII

First-hand account by

 

First Lieutenant Tillie (Horath) Kehrer

 

 

    The 51st Evacuation Hospital was a 750-bed field hospital and was a channel through which all casualties passed on their transit out of the combat zone to fixed hospitals in the communications zone.  It provided major treatment of the sick and wounded as near the front as possible.  Up to that point casualties had been treated by combat medics who prepared them for transfer to an evacuation hospital where definitive treatment was begun.  Evacuation hospitals were normally in the combat zone and could be in buildings or under tents and on the major evacuation route to the rear.  The majority of the patients arrived at the hospital by field ambulance and were evacuated the same way.  Patients returning to duty were either returned to their unit or sent to a replacement depot.

    The 51st was organized in Sacramento, California by local doctors and nurses.  The U.S. Army supplied the balance of personnel to fill out the T/O (Table of Organization).

    The personnel of the 51st primarily consisted of 32 MDs (Medical Officers) 3 DCs (Dental Officers), 5 MACs (Medical Administrative Officers), 2 chaplains, 52 nurses, 1 dietician and 318 enlisted men.  These amounts could vary depending on conditions.

    The unit came together at Fort Lewis, Washington, in October 1942 where all the personnel went into field training except the nurses, who were put to work at the North Fort Lewis Station Hospital.

Surgery Tent, June 1943

 

    When the hospital became operational in April 1943, it was sent by rail to the Mohave Desert Training Center.  Set up in tents, the 51st provided medical support for troops on maneuvers.  In July the unit moved to Banning, California where it operated as a General Hospital until relieved by the 97th General Hospital.  Some of the nurses were sent on detached service to the 97th until the 51st moved to San Luis Obispo, California.

    San Luis Obispo was a permanent post.  After living in the field for several months it was a welcome change to be in buildings, have access to a P.X., and eat “A” rations again.  The nurses of course, were put to work at the station hospital.  While there, the entire unit, nurses too, went through the infiltration course where they crawled through and around barbed wire entanglements while machine guns and artillery were firing overhead and of course the field was muddy.  After finishing the course, the best way to remove the mud was to shower while still fully dressed. 

    The Nursing Service was the hospital’s largest single professional contingent and critical to the unit’s mission.  It consisted of a Chief Nurse, who was a captain by rank, and had four nurses as her office staff—all first lieutenants.  They were responsible for keeping records on nurses, such as duty stations, work records, health related issues and other clerical records. 

    Twelve nurses were responsible for operation room duties.  Two six-member teams were formed, each working a 12-hour shift, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.  Shift changes were made every Sunday.  One shift worked eighteen hours and the other shift six hours to make the change. 

    The operating room held eight operating tables.  Four of the nurses on each shift were responsible for the patient care on two tables, with the assistance of an enlisted man trained by the Army Medical Corp.  They assisted with the transfer and positioning of the patient and the cleanup of the table.  The nurse assisted the doctor with procedures, dressings, and set-up for each case.

    One nurse on each shift set up a sterile table and using the materials on the table, set up instrument trays to be used at each table as requested by the nurse, as well as providing sterile linens to be used at each operating table.

    There was a head nurse on each shift who was responsible for checking with triage to learn which patient was ready for surgery and determine when and where the patient would be treated and inform the nurse at that table what procedure to prepare for.  Two nurses were also assigned to each shift to administer anesthetics, along with two MD Anesthetists on each shift. 

    The other nurses were assigned to wards for patient care with the aid of enlisted, medically trained personnel.  The ward nurses were responsible for the care of the patient, dispensing medications, changing dressings and following all doctors’ orders for the patient’s care.  They monitored the care given by the enlisted personnel and assisted with the meal service on the ward.  Ambulatory patients ate in the patients’ mess area.

    Some of the nurses were in charge of two or more light care wards.  They also kept patient records from admission to discharge or transfer to station or general hospitals or return to duty.  All wards were covered twenty-four hours by nurses’ care in eight-hour shifts.

    After leaving the Desert Training Center, the nurses were sent to various Station and General Hospitals on detached service, some as far as Brigham City, Utah.  The rest of the 51st prepared for overseas shipment. 

    When shipping time came for overseas, the 51st came together at Camp Cooke, California, and left by train to Hampton Roads Virginia.  The nurses traveled separately via the USA Southern Route.

    In March 1944, the nurses embarked on the USS Billy Mitchell with nurses from several other hospital units.  After eight days they debarked at Casablanca where they spent two days before boarding a train made up of boxcars and traveled across North Africa to Oran.

USS Billy Mitchell

 

    In a small village on the Mediterranean outside Oran, the nurses were allowed to recuperate for a few days at a lovely recreation area then were sent out on detached service to various Army hospitals in the area.

    From Oran in May 1944, the 51st boarded the U.S. Army Hospital Ship, Seminole, and sailed to Naples, Italy.  There the nurses were again sent on detached service to various General Hospitals in the area while the rest of the 51st prepared for the invasion of Southern France.

U.S. Army Hospital Ship, Seminole

 

    In their off-duty hours, the nurses enjoyed the sights of Naples and trips to Rome, Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri, etc.  Naples had some neat officers’ clubs and the nurses were always welcome.

    In August of 1944 the 51st sailed from Naples for Southern France.  After landing at St. Tropez, the 51st set up outside the town of Draguignan, in tents in a field, and began receiving patients.  The unit received patients at this location for 25 days, and admitted 2007 patients.  Conditions were very good; weather was balmy and much time was spent outdoors.  While waiting for the next move after closing, many of the nurses were able to take short trips around the local area, visiting wineries, the perfume center at Grasse and interacting with the local French populace.

    The next move was September, 1944.  The war had moved so fast the 51st was left behind since it had to rely on other transportation to move.  Subsequently it was moved by rail using old third class coaches and boxcars of various sizes and nationalities.  It took five days on the train to make the 500 miles from Dragiugnan to Vincey.  It was one of the first trains to make the trip after the Germans abandoned the railroad.  A captured 400 gallon “Trink Wasser” tank was put on board to provide potable water.  The nurses carried their own C & K rations.  Some carried small Colman stoves enabling them to have an occasional hot meal and heat water for sponge baths.

    Sleeping was a problem.  At various stops they scavenged lumber, doors, etc., to bridge the two seats in the coach compartments to form a sleeping platform.  Some slept on the platform, others under.  Everyone took inconveniences in stride and arrived in Vincey ready to go back to work. 

    The next place of operation was outside the little village of Vincey in Northeastern France.  The hospital was set up on October 8th in another farmer’s field.  It was the start of the cold and rainy season and soon became a muddy mess, making it difficult to walk and keep things clean, dry, and operational.  It was here the surgery was doubled in size by connecting two ward tents, providing a much more workable area for everyone. 

    The nurses were housed four to a 16 X 16 pyramidal tent.  They became very resourceful.  Some had wooden bed platforms which were made by locals and paid for by the nurses’ cigarette rations. They also lined their tents with blankets captured from the Germans.  The tents were heated by coal stoves.  In one tent a nurse set her alarm clock for 3 a.m. to wake her so she could stoke the stove.  While quartered in tents in this cold, wet area, the Army issued new complete winter wardrobes to the nurses.  They consisted of olive drab wool pants and shirts, wool socks, gloves and knitted skull caps to wear under their helmets.  Also included were raincoats, combat boots and warm undergarments which were soon found to provide much needed warmth when worn as pajamas.  These outfits were worn on duty as well as off-hours and really made a difference from the light nurses’ field uniforms they had been wearing.

    Local women came daily to the nurses’ quarters to pick up any laundry available.  Laundry was returned in two or three days, clean and nicely pressed, often smelling of home cooked meals, as they were dried indoors, usually in the kitchen.  The nurses didn’t mind the odor but rather enjoyed the reminder of home.

    While at this location, one of the OR nurses and the medical supply officer were married in the local village church.  The hospital chaplain, supported by the parish priest, performed the ceremony.  The wedding was attended by off-duty members of the 51st, the church choir, and local citizens.  The married couple was given a 3-day pass (honeymoon) to Nancy, France.

    The 51st remained in the area for 51 days and admitted 3677 patients.

Second Lieutenant Tillie (Horath) Kehrer

 

    On November 27th, 1944, the unit moved into an old French Cavalry barracks in St. Die, France.  The officers and nurses were billeted in heated buildings, as were the wards and surgery.  The weather was very cold with snow most days.  The fighting was very rough in the Vosge Mountains and the Colmar Pocket.  Casualties were high from both battles and severe weather.  The unit was there 81 days with 7969 admissions.  While at St. Die, one of the OR nurses married a major from one of the 7th Army Field Artillery Batteries in the local village church.  The wedding was performed by the 51st protestant chaplain. 

    The 51st celebrated Christmas at St. Die.  It was a festive occasion in spite of being busy.  A lovely turkey dinner with all the trimmings was prepared by the mess department, champagne flowed freely, and hard liquor from the monthly ration was abundant too.  The meal was served at 5:30 P.M.  Those on shift were able to break away long enough to enjoy the meal.  Many members shared packages from home filled with goodies, fruit-cakes, cookies and candy. 

    The next move was to Sarre Union, France.  The 51st was set up in tents again for only nine days with 971 admissions. 

    The next move was to Neustadt, Germany into a German hospital.  However, the building’s configuration and equipment were not compatible to the operation so the surgery was set up in large garages.  The nurses were housed in the buildings.  This was a short stay of five days with 861 admissions. 

    The next move was to Waldurn, Germany.  The 51st was back in tents again.  There the unit processed many U.S. and allied prisoners of war who were released as allied troops liberated their camps.  The 51st was there 17 days and had 1851 admissions.

    The last place the 51st operated as a field hospital was Welzheim, Germany.  It was situated in another farmer’s field in tents.  It operated there for 89 days with 4329 admissions.  At Welzheim, one of the ward nurses married the lieutenant in command of the ambulance company that serviced the 51st.  There were married in the town church by the 51st protestant chaplain.  It was there the unit suffered its first and only fatality.  One of the nurses was killed in a command car accident.

    Spring arrived while the 51st was in Welzheim, a welcomed change after a severe winter.  The nurses were able to relax and even nap in the fields when off duty.  As the workload diminished, trips were taken to various scenic areas in Southern Germany, even to Hitler’s Adler Horst (Eagles Nest) on top of a mountain in Berchtesgaden and to Salzberg, Austria.

    VE Day came on May 8, 1945.  It was anticipated that the 51st would be redeployed to the Asiatic Pacific Theater via the U.S.  The married nurses, some who married military personnel overseas, could opt out of going to the Asiatic Pacific or be assigned to a unit slated for the Army of Occupation; consequently several 51st nurses were assigned to the 2nd Evac Hospital in Fulda, Germany.  Other nurses remained with the 51st and served when it reopened as a General Hospital in a German hospital building in Stuttgart, Germany, sharing the facility with the Germans.  The nurses transferred to Fulda worked in the 2nd Evac Hospital every other week.  They were housed in small apartments with complete kitchens.  Some of the nurses used their culinary skills to prepare some delicious dishes, mostly pastries and other desserts.  As a result, these apartments became gathering places for officers of the 51st and enlisted personnel who had also been transferred to the 2nd Evac.  Many hours were spent reminiscing over events and experiences they had shared for the past three years.

    There was a lot of visiting back and forth with the 51st in Stuttgart when transportation was available.

    Subsequently the war with Japan ended and nurses were sent home via the point system, determined by the length of service, time overseas, and awards earned.

    Following VJ Day nurses who had accumulated enough points to go back to the U.S. and home, were sent to a nurses’ staging area at Camp Carlisle outside Riems, France.  This was a large camp where troops were processed for shipment to the States and home.  While at this area, nurses were able to visit Riems and Paris and shop for souvenirs and gifts to take home.  Prices were high.

    Since the scheduled embarkation port, LaHarve, was congested, the 51st nurses and others were sent by hospital train to Marseille, a two-day trip.  At the nurses’ staging area, while waiting for shipping space, the nurses could bicycle, swim, listen to lectures, and be entertained by U.S.O. troops and even visit Lourdes or Cannes, the officers’ rest area.  One of the 51st nurses was able to celebrate her first wedding anniversary with her husband at the Carleton Hotel in Cannes.

USS Hermitage 

 

    The nurses finally embarked for the States and home on October 27, 1945.  Their ship was the USS Hermitage, the former Italian Cruise Liner White Angel.

    Fifty-seven thousand women joined the Army Nurse Corps during WW II.

 

 

Surgical Crew

Horath, Sweetland, Darcy, King and Dulancy

 

 

 

Laundry Day

 

 

 

   

Digging a Fox Hole

 

                                                      

 

 

 

Nurses' Tent

 

 

 

On the Road Again, July 1943

 

 

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© Copyright 2006, Tillie Kehrer, All rights reserved.

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