Mending war history

Nurses: Four Maryland women recount how their lives changed after Pearl Harbor

April 02, 2001|By Rona Kobell | By Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

They have sailed the world many times over, charmed presidents and popes, rescued wounded men and cheated the deadliest tropical diseases.

During World War II, Army nurses Helen Blotzer, Dorothy Davis, Agnes Sweeney and Eda Teague burrowed in foxholes, crawled through hostile turf, bathed from their helmets. All the while they wore brave faces as enemies attacked and baby-faced Americans cried in their arms.

It was an adventure. And when it ended, they reverted to traditional roles, becoming military wives. Each continued nursing, quietly and in different ways, on the sidelines.

In some ways, they remain sidelined, as history's chroniclers have largely ignored them.

Nurses are largely absent from the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, from the movie "Saving Private Ryan" and from Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation." In Fort Meade's Battle of the Bulge Memorial Conference Room, only one nurse photo is on the wall.

"Every time I go to one of those [memorial] events, the men get up and say, `We're saluting the men today.' And I practically go through the ceiling and say, `You're saluting the men and women.' Unless they were wounded, they don't even think about it," Davis said.

These nurses' patriotism fit with the theme of this year's National Women's History Month: "Celebrating Women of Courage and Vision." Yet of the six women honored this year by the National Women's History Project, none was a war nurse.

Now, many war nurses have died. And lest their contributions be forgotten, these four agreed to share their stories. So in the twilight of their lives, at the tail end of the month that honors them, they sat together for an interview for the first time, in hopes others will remember.

On the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Army Nurse Corps listed fewer than 1,000 nurses on its rolls. Six months later, there were 12,000. By war's end, there were 59,000. Davis, now 78, knew she would be among them.

A student nurse training at the University of Minnesota, she watched as the medical team there shipped out the day after the bombing in 1941. "When I saw them go, I felt like I really wanted to go," said the Rockville resident. "And it wasn't until 1943, when the Red Cross came around recruiting student nurses, that I was able to go. And yes, indeed, I was at the front of the line. I wanted to be sure not to miss this adventure."

She was assigned to the 57th Field Hospital unit. Shortly after D-Day, her unit left to assist in Scotland during the D-Day air evacuation. They set up their hospital in France.

Around the same time, in Monmouth, N.J., Sweeney learned of Pearl Harbor and thought of her three younger brothers, all soldiers.

"I thought, I've got to do something. I've got to get there and help those young boys," said Sweeney, of Severn.

A surgical nurse with postgraduate training at the Johns Hopkins University, Sweeney, now 85, was an operating room supervisor when she joined the 2nd Surgical Group, a specialized team that would rove from Algiers to Germany.

The war also tugged at Blotzer, who settled in the Catonsville area after living overseas. Now 82, the devout Catholic left college three months before joining the 250th Station Hospital, docking in Salisbury, England, just before D-Day.

Teague, of Brinklow, joined a unit at the University of Wisconsin, the 44th General Hospital. She had endured hardships at home: the Great Depression; paralyzing Wisconsin dust storms; cold, hard days on her family's farm. But little prepared her for Leyte Island in the Philippines, where tropical diseases caused four times as many casualties as battle wounds.

"Yellow fever was miserable. Typhus, it was just horrific," remembered Teague, 80. "We bathed in our helmets, slept on our uniforms to press them. We lived in tents. We had to walk a long ways to eat, wash our clothes. There were very rough conditions."

Teague's hospital was always on guard for an attack. In a valley surrounded by hills, they were easy prey, the islanders warned. Luckily, when the attack came, the nurses were away.

Davis and Sweeney weren't so lucky - they were inside when their hospitals were attacked during the Battle of the Bulge, when German armies plunged into the Ardennes forest, determined to cut off the Allies and trap them in Belgium.

A `horrible noise'

When her hospital was attacked, Davis was lined up for lunch, her mess kit in hand. "I heard this horrible noise. All of us raced back to see if our patients were all right," she said.

"It just seemed like our patients kept coming and coming," Davis said. "And I kept thinking, what if we should lose this war? We had such a flood of patients, we knew it wasn't going well."

When enemies shelled Sweeney's hospital in France, a young nurse from Texas died. At the Anzio beachhead in Italy, Germans bombed a hospital ship moments after two nurses climbed aboard.

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