70 Years Later: D-Day and the Role of Nurses

Nurses are no stranger to combat. They played a pivotal role during the Allied invasion of western Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Throughout World War II, nurses were almost always near combat while serving in field and evacuation hospitals, as well as aboard trains, ships and transport planes. Though ever in danger, they focused on caring for others. Fewer than four percent of the American soldiers who received medical care in the field or underwent evacuation died from wounds or disease.

Here’s a brief look at the significant contributions made by nurses on and after D-Day.

The European war front

The following is an excerpt from, "The Women's Army Corps" by Judith A. Bellafaire [1]:

By June 1945 the number of Army nurses in the European theater of the war reached a peak of 17,345. The first nurses to arrive in Normandy were members of the 42d and 45th Field Hospitals and the 91st and 128th Evacuation Hospitals. They landed on the beachhead four days after the initial invasion in June 1944.

The nurses' experiences in the European theater varied widely, depending upon their assignments. The experiences of those assigned to the 12th Evacuation Hospital reflected that diversity. Unit members sailed for England in January 1943. After several moves they arrived on the east coast of England in May 1944. There they participated in the buildup for the Allied invasion of the Continent by establishing a tent hospital and preparing for the expected influx of casualties.

The nurses of the 12th moved 11 times in two years. Each relocation put sanitary conditions and patient comfort as the top priorities when building anew. As a result, nurses needed to be flexible, quick thinking and innovative, much like their modern counterparts.

Personal accounts:

  • Marian R. Elcano

Marian R. Elcano was a World War II nurse who served in Europe just after the D-Day invasion and up until the Allies closed in on Berlin in 1945. In a 2004 interview with Rudi Williams of the American Forces Press Service, Elcano remarked that she had no idea that, within a year of signing up, she would be near the front lines on the beaches of France.

Ten days after the initial invasion, Elcano’s unit, the 45th Field Hospital, was readily moving through France and into Germany. Each time the front moved, the hospital would have to follow after, tearing down and rebuilding the tents as they went.

Ahead of the invasion, Elcano’s unit continually practiced setting up and moving the 400-bed tent hospital.  To create this space, two large tents were set up together to form a 100-bed ward. The process was then repeated to accommodate 400 beds total.

Elcano treated patients from battles across Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle of the war, which involved over one million men from the U.S., German and British armies.

She did not return to full-time nursing after the war, instead choosing to work periodically for doctor’s offices and a retirement home.

In all, more than 59,000 nurses served in the Army Nursing Corps during World War II, a number which does not include the nurses who served in the Navy or the Air Force as well.

  • Phyllis Henninger

Ninety-three year old Phyllis Henninger is a Scottish nurse who was among the first to serve in field hospitals after the landings on D-Day.

In honor of the 70th anniversary of this historic day, she shared her story with the BBC. In the recent interview, Henninger recounts that when faced with the choice of becoming a midwife or joining the British Army, "I didn't see it as a choice at all." She knew what she had to do.

A member of the Pioneer Corp, Henninger remembers what is was like to deal with the steady flow of injured men from the front lines on a daily basis -- something which she recalls was made much easier by the introduction of a "wonder drug", penicillin. "I came down one day for duty and there was a bucket full of water sitting on a camp stove, boiling away, so I had a look in it and there were syringes and needles in it being sterilized. They were boiling them up to try out the new drug." Henninger and her fellow nurses marveled at how quickly wounds healed when penicillin was administered.

It was around that same time that Henninger's future husband, Freddie, came into her life. "When I was in Essex, doing this first lot of training, I met Freddie," she said. A short time later, Freddie proposed to Phyllis with an engagement ring through the mail. "I should have had my head examined, but I accepted. I had two weeks leave, so I came home and got married -- and then went back out again."

In all, Henninger spent 18 months abroad, then chose to end her military career to focus on her marriage -- a decision she is happy about after being married for 50 years.

To find out more about the roles modern nurses play in the armed forces, check out our "Military Nurse Spotlight on Capt. Tonita Smith, RN, MSN" and the story of Dwayne and Veronica Bryant in "Changing Uniforms: Military Couple Prepares to Serve on the Front Lines of Healthcare."

[1] Bellafaire, J. (1993). The Women's Army Corp:  A Commemoration of World War II Service [Pamphlet]. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

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