From the October 2007 issue: A Combat Nurse’s Exhausting Sorrows, Unexpected Joys
Army nurse June Wandrey stood five feet two inches tall with, in her words, “finely honed muscles that were dynamite ready.” That forceful spirit was evident in her wartime letters as well; Wandrey did not mince phrases when it came to her disdain for Franklin D. Roosevelt (“our horrid, war-loving president”), her impatience with army officers insensitive to the needs of enlisted soldiers, and, most of all, her fierce love for the young GIs under her care. On August 14, 1943, she wrote the following letter from Sicily describing why she felt so committed to the troops brought into the hospital:
Working like slaves. Too tired to write and it’s always too dark to see when I get off duty. We were so close to the lines we could see our artillery fire and also that of the Germans….
In our pell-mell existence, we received our first naval casualties. A ship right off shore from us was bombed and strafed. Even our dentists were doing minor surgery we were so swamped…. Working in the shock wards, giving transfusions, was a rewarding but sad experience. Many wounded soldiers’ faces still haunt my memory. I recall one eighteen year old boy who had just been brought in from the ambulance to the shock ward. I went to him immediately, he looked up at me trustingly, sighed and asked, “How am I doing nurse?” I was standing at the head of his litter. I put my hands around his face, kissed his forehead and said, “You are doing just fine, soldier.” He smiled sweetly and said, “I was just checking up.” Then he died. Many of us shed tears in private. Otherwise, we try to be cheerful and reassuring.
I’ve seen surgeons work for hours to save a young soldier’s life, but despite it they die on the operating table. Some doctors even collapsed across the patient, broke down, and cried.
There are many dedicated people here giving their all.
Two days later, Wandrey wrote to her sister about one of the war’s most famous generals and an incident that infuriated countless service members, herself included.
Today, I had a ride in a car, which had springs. Our backs and ovaries take a terrible beating riding in the back of a truck and over pock-marked roads. We moved to Falconie. Saw General Patton and General Wilson.
Yesterday General Patton was visiting wounded patients at the 15th Evacuation hospital. He spied a patient who wasn’t wounded and asked him what his problem was. He didn’t like the answer and using his gloves slapped the sad soldier across the face. Lucky it wasn’t one of my patients or I’m sure I would have hit him back. When I was in eighth grade, my short-tempered teacher hit Bill, our slow-paced neighbor boy over the head with a fat geography book. I grabbed the book out of her hands and bawled her out for hitting him. She flunked me in deportment.
A bomber crashed very close to us, but the crew bailed out safely.
As much as Wandrey was worn down by fatigue and the stress of being in harm’s way (hundreds of American nurses were killed during the war), there were moments of unforeseeable exhilaration. Wandrey wrote the following letter on March 28, 1945:
When I got off duty, I heard that our troops had liberated a POW hospital with hundreds of patients several miles from us, in a place called Heppenheim. Although it had started to rain and was getting dark and I was exhausted, I wanted to visit the prisoner-patients….
Two hundred and ninety of the prisoners were scruffy, starving, wounded Americans. The prison population included Russians, French, Italians, Slavs and Moroccans. Some of our men had been there for seven months. Their smaller wounds were covered with toilet paper, their brutal amputations were covered with rags. The men had torn their field jackets in shreds to bind the primitive dressings. Their bodies were covered with scratches, inflicted when they clawed at their body lice.
Breakfast was a piece of wormy, black bread about two by four inches—a loaf of bread a day for eight to ten men. Lunch was a small bowl of potato-peeling soup with sometimes a little rice in it. If they didn’t finish it for lunch a little water was added to it, and that was their supper. They were shaved sometimes once a month, rarely oftener. Once a month they got a clean sheet. Blankets were never changed nor laundered. If they vomited in bed, it just stayed there with them….
Our troops had by-passed this village, leaving behind one lone GI who had become separated from his company. From their window, some patients saw him crouching at the corner of their building, rifle in hand. They sneaked out, brought him in, and showed him their horrible conditions. Finally he slipped out, found his company, and returned with them to liberate the hospital.
As American rations poured in, the men cried. The corridors were stacked with cartons of inappropriate food for these starved men and their shrunken stomachs, but I guess that was all that we had to give at that time. All those who could eat, stuffed themselves so full of rations that most everyone became nauseated. The walkers would go outside and vomit and then gorge themselves and vomit again. It was just for the taste of the food going down, they didn’t worry about the return trip.
When an American died, the Germans wouldn’t touch him. They’d make the GIs who were able to walk carry him out and dispose of the body. If one of the men died before he could eat his ration of black bread and slop soup the remaining fellows would fight over it but end up giving everyone a nibble.
You should have heard the joyous shrieks when the men saw me walk through those sad, louse-ridden wards. I went cot to cot. They had dozens of questions, everyone talked at once. Some talked to me until they were hoarse. Others just stared in disbelief, some touched my cheek, my hair, my hands. Still others touched my rough, wet fatigue sleeves like they were made of gold cloth and satin. Tears ran down our faces. Everyone wanted to share their recently acquired cigarette and C rations with me…or they’d say, “If you can just wait a minute, we’ll make you some coffee.” The lump in my throat nearly choked me. It was difficult being carefree and gay. But they wanted laughter, and female chatter…and I tried. Blarney comes in handy.
A priest in the village had a secret radio on which he’d listen to the American broadcasts. He’d relay any news to the American doctors who in turn would whisper progress-messages to the men at night, when they made their rounds.
Most people will never be privileged like I was tonight. Exhausted but exhilarated,
Wandrey returned home in late 1945 after receiving eight battle stars for campaigns in North Africa and Europe. She died nearly two years ago, at age eighty-five.