Caring for the sick and wounded during the` hostilities in the ETO during 1944-1945 proved to be a demanding and exhausting task, and frequently placed the hospitals and staff in close proximity of enemy fire. There were not only the wounded from the ongoing battle situations, but also casualties from trench foot, frostbite, and other cold-related injuries caused by the intense cold and snow. During only 40 days of the Battle of the Bulge, there were 81,000 casualties, including 19,000 killed.
I shall share with you some of the experiences of the 57th Field Hospital, in which I served as an Army Nurse. In preparing this paper, I studied the histories of other hospitals in the ETO. Several similar experiences were noted: Everyone complained about the never-ending mud — be it in France, Belgium, or Luxembourg. Also mentioned in each history was the firm belief that the extensive training received in the States enabled the units to meet their responsibilities in the most adverse and grueling of conditions. Third, the sense of camaraderie and family that developed within the units provided emotional and physical support to the hospital personnel tasked with the responsibility of caring for the battlefield casualties.
As some of you may know, the Field Hospitals were small mobile units that included 13 physicians, 3 dental officers, 5 medical administrative officers, 18 nurses, 183 enlisted men, a chaplain, and 2 Red Cross workers. This number was then divided into a headquarters and three smaller units. These units were known as platoons or detachments. Each unit was equipped to serve as a separate and complete hospital. Most of the patients were those who were too severely wounded to withstand an ambulance ride further to the rear. Small teams of specialized surgeons, nurses, and enlisted technicians would be assigned to the units to provide the surgical skills needed.
The 57th Field Hospital was activated in February 1944 at Camp Crowder, Missouri, and by the end of May it was fully staffed, including the 18 nurses — I was a brand new Second Lieutenant who found it a great adventure! Many of the members of the 57th were from the Midwest, giving us some common roots, such as having gone through the Great Depression and the dust storms of the ’30s. Much of the strength came from the experienced leadership of the hospital staff. The Commanding Officer was a physician from Iowa and had served as a medical officer in the CCC Camps, and the Chief Nurse had held a responsible health care position with the telephone company in Omaha, Nebraska. The Adjutant was from Illinois and had been in the Army since 1938 — having survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he therefore had experiences in combat situations. (And, as a personal note, after the war he became my husband and we had 30 adventuresome years together in the Army.) The SGT/Major of the Hospital had served as an 18-yearold doughboy in France in World War I, had much wisdom, a great sense of humor, and had the distinction at age 44 to be the oldest member of the hospital. After the war he wrote the history of the 57th Field Hospital from the morning reports and other records.
On July 24,1944, the hospital left the USA for Scotland. We staffed a holding hospital at the airport in Prestwick, Scotland. Many of the patients were those who had been wounded during the invasion of France and were now, at last, being air-evacuated back to the States or to England for further treatment. Our task was to provide needed medical and surgical care to these patients who were waiting to be evacuated. Depending on the weather and the availability of airplanes, their stay at the tent hospital would be from 6 to 72 hours. During the period of this assignment, August 12 to September 15, we cared for 5,934 patients. Another duty of the hospital at that time was to operate a blood bank. This blood bank received blood coming from the United States by air and would reship it by air to the Continent. During the war, the American Red Cross collected, from volunteer donors, 13.4 million pints of blood to be shipped to the military services all over the world.
With the completion of the assignment in Prestwick, the hospital was sent to a staging area in England, where equipment and supplies for service on the Continent were received. On October 5, 1944, we began the trip across the English Channel in an LCI in what the Frenchmen described as the worst storm of the century. Three days later, on October 8, with all of us horribly seasick, we were finally able to land at a broken-down dock at Isigny, France.
The 57th’s first assignment on the Continent was in support of U.S. Seventh Army Armored and Infantry Divisions in the vicinity of Baccarat, France (the home of the beautiful crystal). We set up a hospital in a badly shelled building that was within sight and sound of gunfire and fighting aircraft overhead. From that time, October 1944, until we departed French soil for Darmstadt, Germany, on April 1, 1945, the 57th operated continuously as three separate units, frequently within close proximity of enemy fire, as we crisscrossed the icy and snowy Voges mountains and Alsace area. The hospital units moved 40 times within that period. Usually, these moves took place during the night in blackout conditions so that the roads would be available for use by the tanks, infantry, and the Red Ball Express during the day. Our patients were those who were critically wounded and needed extensive nursing care.
Much time was also spent in moving. Patients had to be prepared for arduous travel conditions to a hospital in the rear, equipment packed and loaded, and then preparations made for the journey to a new location. If possible, a schoolhouse or a large building would be selected for the hospital by Army headquarters. These sites had served for either German or American troop billets and were often in deplorable condition, so energy had to be spent just cleaning the area so that patients could be cared for. Trying to heat the patient care areas during the bitter cold was always a major challenge. Frequently, patients on litters would be waiting when we arrived at a new location, so the nurses and doctors were busy preparing patients for surgery (which included cutting off all of their clothing to better examine them for injuries) while enlisted men were setting up the generator for electricity and assembling an x-ray unit, operating rooms, and post-op ward areas.
Although we were not assigned to the specific Battle of the Bulge area, we were on the “French rim” of it and many of the wounded from that battle were cared for in the 57th Field Hospital. During these winter months, the 57th detachments were assigned to the 3rd, 45th, 75th, 100th, and 103rd Infantry Divisions, the 12th and 14th Armored Divisions, and the 2nd French Armored Division. However, we cared for any military wounded in the area. (Some were 87th GIs. Ed.) In early January 1945, Detachment “B” moved to Saurrebourg, France, where we were immediately overwhelmed with the critically wounded. Later, our Commanding Officer informed us that, at that time, our small detachment had been supporting 24 battalions of troops!
The hospital units were bombed several times in January 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge, and on several occasions units were in grave danger of being overrun by the Germans. Rapid retreats were necessary, requiring us to hastily prepare the wounded for travel. Adequate transportation in these situations was always a grave problem.
On several occasions, we moved into a building that was still being used by a German Army hospital. The German medical staff were allowed to care for their wounded and evacuate their patients as quickly as possible.
After the Battle of the Bulge, the 57th was assigned to the 75th Infantry Division to provide medical support for its activity in the Colmar Pocket in France.
In early March, the entire 57th Field Hospital was assigned to Toul, France, to care for 355 Allied national patients, mostly Russian, along with a few Yugoslavian, Serbian, and Polish nationals who had been liberated from the Germans six weeks earlier. These few were the remainder of 20,000 prison laborers who had been forced by the Germans to work in the lime mines near Metz, France. They suffered from tuberculosis, osteomyelitis, mine injuries, and all sorts of nutritional diseases. Our task was to improve their health status sufficiently so as to make it possible for them to withstand the trip back to Russia. The hospital and our living quarters were in the old French Caserne known as the Quartier Fabvier. Also quartered in this Caserne were Navy and Engineer personnel enroute to the Rhine to assist the spearheads of the Third Army across the Rhine River. When the 57th was preparing to move to a new assignment, the Russian staff (a warrant officer and a few enlisted men) decided to throw a party for us in appreciation for the care they had been given. They went through the town of Toul and procured chickens, eggs, and fresh food and did, indeed, make a feast for us, complete with a three-piece “band” to play dance music!
On March 27, 1945, we began the move from Toul through Saarbruken and on into Germany. The devastation and destruction, particularly of German vehicles and implements of war, were such as could scarcely be imagined. Most of the vehicles were abandoned due to mechanical difficulties from warfare use or from lack of available fuel. The roads and mountainsides, in many places, were littered continuously for miles with these evidences of destruction and of headlong flight. The crumbled ruins of the cities of Ludwigshafen and Mannheim were brought particularly to our attention, since it was at this point that we made all our crossings of the Rhine River on the bridges made by General Patton’s Third Army Engineers.
Once inside Germany, we were stationed at a number of airstrips to again serve as air holding hospitals as the wounded were air evacuated back to the States as soon as they were physically able. At one point, we were stationed only a few miles from Dachau Concentration Camp when it was liberated. Even from a few miles away, the stench was overwhelming. One of our doctors, who was Jewish, and several other doctors went to the camp. They found a woman who was in labor and brought her back to the 57th to have the baby. That was a unique experience for us! On Easter Sunday of 1945, we received some of the first American POWs to be freed. The Commanding General who had greeted them told them they would have clean sheets, all the food they could eat, and nurses for Easter. I don’t know where we obtained the sheets (we had been using only G.I. blankets), but we stayed up part of the night getting sheets on the cots. The cooks were up early and by the time the former POWs arrived, we were ready to give them a great welcome. They were so very thin and malnourished. They gorged themselves on the pancakes and syrup prepared by the cooks, would go outside the tent and throw up, and then line up in the chow line again for more pancakes! Many of these patients commented that the American Red Cross POW food packages had helped them survive their imprisonment. During the war, 27 million food packages were assembled by volunteers and shipped by the American Red Cross to the International Red Cross storage centers in Geneva, Switzerland, for disbursement to U.S. and Allied prisoners of war.
The entire hospital continued with the air evacuation assignment until early June, and then moved to Schloss Horneg, an old castle/sanitarium on the banks of the beautiful Neckar River in Gundelsheim, Germany, where it staffed a Station Hospital for the remainder of 1945. In October 1945, the hospital was awarded the Meritorious Service Unit Plaque for superior performance of duty in the accomplishment of exceptionally difficult tasks from 21 November 1944 to 22 February 1945 in France,” by command of Lieutenant General Keyes.
By mid-December 1945, most of the original staff and nurses of the 57th Field Hospital were returned to the States — with memories and friendships that would last a lifetime.
Paper presented at the
1992 Conference of Army Historians
on June 11, 1992
Also published in the
Golden Acorn News
Dorothy Davis has been a member of our Association for many years. A dear friend of all Golden Acorns, she has joined us and worked many of the Association’s European tours of the battlefields of Europe and attended many of our reunions. This article was written for Quanta Press and is published here with her permission.