Women who were there recall bravery on the beachhead
By Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Niedel-Greenlee
This article appeared in the May-June 1992 issue of The Purple Heart Magazine.
As rough seas off the coast of Anzio, Italy, tossed the landing crafts like discarded match sticks, the nurses of the 33rd Field Hospital fought to keep their footing and their breakfast. The sounds of high-pitched German airplane engines, exploding bombs, and anti-aircraft fire drowned out all human sounds except the almost deafening lub dubs of their own hearts as the sound beat again and again in their ears.
It was well past 0800, the time scheduled for the nurses to wade ashore on Anzio, and the Luftwaffe showed no signs of stopping their attack. The planes made run after run aver the harbor, the staging area and the hospital tents, dropping their combs and turning to repeat their attacks until their bombs and ammunition had been spent on the American and British troops below.
Each of the Army nurses with the 33rd Field Hospital was a veteran of combat situations. They had served previously in North Africa and Sicily. And, since the hospital's creation in October of 1943 (the invasion of Italy was on Sept. 9, 1943) it had followed Gen. Mark Clark's Fifth Army as it made its way north. They had often cared for injured soldiers only a mile or two behind the front lines, and they had shared the GIs' hardships, the GIs' living conditions and the GIs' risks.
When the worst storm in more than 100 years hit Salerno on New Year's Eve, 1943, the nurses and medical personnel of the 33rd Field Hospital fought the elements ror the safety of their patients. The storm had raged for hours, turning the hospital area into a field of mud. Just before midnight, the furor of the storm had grown so powerful, it was reclassified as a cyclone and threatened to level the 40 large tents that protected the more than 1,000 wounded GIs. As though summoned by the sound of a bell, corpsmen, doctors and nurses grabbed whatever clothes were closest to them and spilled into the blackness of the night. In the hours that followed, nurses, doctors and medical personnel fought falling tent poles, driving rain and the hazard of downed electrical wires to evacuate all but 12 patients to the safety of a large warehouse miles from the hospital site.
Another battle still awaited them. Doctors, nurses and corpsmen laid hold of the poles and chains supporting the post operative tent and hung on with all their might. The 12 post operative patients inside could not be transported without serious risk to their lives, and if the tent offering their only physical protection from the elements went, there would be little chance for their survival.
In the darkness of a moonless night, with generators off line, and fallen electric wires hidden by ankle deep mud, nurses crawled from patient to patient. They worked by the light of flashlights carried in their mouths or tucked under their chins to leave their hands free. They worked quickly, disconnecting Wagenstein suctions and intravenous infusions, lifting the wounded men to litters balanced on cinder blocks as close to the mud floor as possible. As they worked, the hands that found the strength to hold chains and tent poles against a cyclone, found the gentleness to touch the arm, shoulder or neck of a wounded GI with the strength of assurance.
Finally, just as the sun began to rise, the storm moved out of the area. Nurses, doctors and corpsmen looked around them and saw the total devastation left in the cyclone's wake. The only tent left standing was the post-op tent they had battled for through the night. The physical remains of the 33rd Field Hospital lay soaked in the rain and mud the cyclone had left behind. Suddenly the sound of laughter broke through the tension that held the hospital hostage for 1R hours. In the first light of dawn, hospital personnel got their first real look at each other in more than eight hours. They were clad in bath robes, boxer shorts, muddy O.R. greens, field jackets, ponchos and helmets; the only personal possessions remaining to them. The laughter rose to a crescendo as one by one, they turned toward the rapidly moving river that had replaced the hospital's main street. Floating along in the fast-moving current were several dozen nude and stuffed turkeys that were supposed to be the main course for their New Year's Day dinner.
Now almost four weeks later, the 33rd Field Hospital was part of an invasion that would make everything they had experienced before seem like a "walk in the park." Shortly after 9 a.m., the German planes ran out of bombs and flew to the safety of their own lines. Landing craft stopped circling and in the 15 minutes that followed, six days after the initial landing, Army nurses assigned to the 33rd Field Hospital and the 95th and 93rd Evacuation Hospitals waded ashore on the beachhead that would be their home for the next four months.
That home would be a beachhead 15 miles wide at its base, and seven miles deep. The main tented hospital area was, by necessity, located only six miles from the front lines, and fully accessible to German artillery that shelled the area on an almost daily basis. Perhaps their main targets were the airstrip, the anti-craft batteries, the ammunition dumps, the fuel dumps, and the motor pool, all located on the edges of some part of the tented hospital area; but that didn't stop the shells from falling on the hospital tents or in the hospital area. Neither did it stop the bombs that fell on the hospital with devastating effects. In fact, the hospital tents were hit so frequently that the front-line GIs nicknamed it "Hell's Half Acre," and loudly proclaimed their reluctance to being sent there for medical care or medical evacuation.
Less than 30 minutes after their arrival, the men of the 33rd Field Hospital who had been on the beachhead since 22 January, 1944, warned the nurses to take cover during bombing or shelling wherever it was possible for them. No one, of course, left patients, no matter how heavy the attack, but if the GI or nurse was off duty and there were no major hits, it was wise to head for a foxhole.
"We really didn't take the warning seriously," Jessie Paddock recalled almost 50 years later. "We had been in combat zones, only a mile or so from the front lines since we joined the Fifth Army as one of their field hospitals. We all thought the warnings were just an exaggeration."
Within one hour of the nurses' arrival at the 33rd Field Hospital, Army nurses were treating their first patients on Anzio. The rest of that first day, the evening and the night passed with no further German attacks, underscoring the nurses' belief that Anzio "was just another beachhead."
Their second night on Anzio would turn that belief around 180 degrees. With the evening and gradual darkness, German planes began another in their series of unrelenting attacks. The night was filled with the sounds of exploding bombs and anti-aircraft fire. Tracers from anti-aircraft shells threaded the night skies with ribbons of tire. Flares from German planes lit up the beachhead with an eerie green light that gave the sense of daylight experienced only in a dreamer's nightmare. The night was a cacophony of exploding bombs, flying shrapnel, strident anti-aircraft fire, exploding ammunition dumps, car horns and sirens of ambulances speeding to pick up wounded and deliver them to the hospital for treatment.
Exploded ammunition dumps sent long fingers of flames upward into the night sky as if determined to capture enemy aircraft and fling them back to earth. The quiet, sharp sounds of shrapnel tearing its way through the canvas hospital tents everywhere, added its own special terror to the night, a night filled with the overpowering odors of diesel fuel and cordite. This was night on Anzio, the standard against which the really bad times would be measured.
"We learned fast," former 2nd Lt. Jessie Paddock said as she thought of _hose first nights on the beachhead. "After that second night, at the first sounds of an attack, all the nurses grabbed their helmets and headed for foxholes if they weren't on duty. That foxhole was like water in a desert to us. We'd crouch there with our faces toward the wall until the shelling or bombing finally stopped."
She stopped for a moment and cleared her throat. "Of course, if you were on duty, it was another story. We just kept on working. You couldn't leave your patients no matter how bad it got. I remember one young corpsman who arrived on the beachhead about one week after us." She chuckled. "We were veterans by then. Anyway, this kid thought that he should head for a foxhole whenever the shelling or bombing started. We had to tell him in no uncertain terms that when a person was on duty, they didn't head for a foxhole under any circumstances. It took him one more time and some kind of disciplinary action to convince him we were serious. After that, he just stayed on duty like the rest of us. At some very basic level, we were all scared, but we were too busy to worry about it."
The nurses lived in tents only a two-or three-minute walk from the wards. Lt. Paddock shared a tent with her two best friends, the Chief Nurse, 1st Lt. Glenda Spelhaug, and 2nd Lt. LaVernc Farquhar. They had served together since they entered the Army Nurse Corps. Their experiences in North Africa, Sicily and now Anzio, had brought them even closer as friends. They shared the good times and the bad, their victories and their defeats, their dreams and their fears.
Like most of the nurses in the 33rd Field Hospital, they were in their early and middle 20s and had plans for a celebration in Rome when the Fifth Army finally broke out of the beachhead. Those plans were embroidered each day and each night as the nurses discussed their previous shifts and what they were going to do when the war was finally over.
All of the nurses had dug their own foxholes within a quick dash of their tents, and it had fast become a custom to ask about foxhole accommodations before a nurse accepted an invitation to another nurse's tent for an hour of cards or gab. The only other thing the nurses learned to value almost as much as foxholes were their helmets. A helmet didn't just provide protection for one's head, it served as a pot for heating water for a quick and skillful bath, as a basin for washing one's hair and as a seat when no others were available. The off-duty time spent with one's friends added a lot to a nurse's physical and mental reserve for her duty hours.
The bombings and the shelling went on day and night, day after day. Nurses and medical personnel became expert at distinguishing the crying sound of 88-millimeter shells, or the low soaring sound of the 110-millimeter shells, and the frightening metal-on-metal brakes sound of the giant anti-aircraft shells the Germans fired at troops.
On 10 February, in broad daylight, Lt. Jessie Paddock was walking from a hospital ward toward her tent where she was to meet her two tent mates and spend an hour or so of off-duty time. She could see her tent about 50 yards ahead of her, when the terrible sound of metal-on-metal brakes filled the air over the hospital, and her heartbeat quickened as she realized another shelling attack was about to hit the hospital area. She began to run toward her tent, calling for Glenda and LaVerne to take cover. Her feet seemed to stick in the mud and take on a new weight as she strained to run faster.
There was a loud explosion behind her, and Lt. Paddock knew that one of the German anti-aircraft shells had struck and exploded in the hospital area. A wave of energy seemed to be pushing her forward. She was calling out to Glenda and LaVerne again, then everything went black.
The German shell had exploded squarely in the middle of the cross arrangement of Unit C where 48 critically ill patients were hospitalized. The explosion partially destroyed the ward and sent huge chunks of shrapnel flying in all directions. The first thought of the 33rd's personnel was for the helpless patients. Every available nurse, doctor and corpsman ran toward the disaster. They worked as fast as they could, transferring patients to litters for transportation to the 56th Evacuation Hospital, which was out of range of this particular attack.
When Lt. Paddock opened her eyes, she was looking up at the familiar faces of nurses and corpsmen. It took a few seconds to realize where she was, to remember what she had been doing. She glanced at the devastated tent that had been her home. Much of its canvas was in shreds, and there were several large holes in what remained.
"Where are Glenda and LaVerne? What happened to them?" Jessie Paddock asked. She was not at all sure she wanted to hear the answer.
"Don't you remember?" one of the nurses asked. "You went into the tent before you passed out."
Jessie Paddock could feel her heart beating against her chest, her mouth was dry and for a moment she felt she was going to lose consciousness again. She took a deep breath. "I don't remember being in the tent," she said, and forced the next words from her mouth. "Are they hurt bad? Are they going to be all right?"
One of the nurses put her arm around Jessie's shoulders. "Paddy, they're dead. They were both killed instantly."
Lt. Paddock felt as if she had been punched in the stomach. Her mind fought to turn: off again, but she demanded that it remain conscious. She could feel that hot sting of tears as they rolled silently down her cheeks. "How were they killed?" she could hear her voice like some distant echo that really wasn't connected to her at all.
"Let's talk about it after you get some rest. You can bunk in my tent," the voice said, sounding unreal to Jessie.
"No!" she shouted. "I want to know. I have to know. They were my best friends!" She waited for the answer, dreading what she would hear.
"I don't remember who actually told me," Jessie Paddock said almost 50 years later, "but I'll never forget what they said. Glenda had been decapitated. LaVerne was eviscerated." Jessie Paddock was silent for a second. "I still don't remember seeing them like that," she said. "I just remember the good things about them. Glenda Spelhaug was the most caring person I'd ever met. Just two days before she was killed, she gave her helmet to a nurse who had lost her's. She really cared about all of us ... and LaVerne, her nickname was Tex, was one of the nicest people anyone could ever hope to meet. She was always trying to keep our morale up; always kidding; always smiling."
The German attack on 10 February had killed two Army nurses: 1st Lt. Glenda Spelhaug and 2nd Lt. LaVerne "Tex" Farquhar. Two of the nurses of the 33rd Field Hospital, 1st Lt. Elaine Rice and 2nd Lt. Rita V. Rourke were awarded Silver Stars for "gallantry in the face of enemy action."
2nd Lt. Jessie Paddock was appointed Acting Principal Chief Nurse, and later Principal Chief Nurse.
1st Lt. Glenda Spelhaug, Crosby, N.D., ANC; 2nd Lt. LaVcrne Farquhar, Sidney Texas, ANC; of the 33rd Field Hospital, and the nurses of the 95th Evacuation Hospital who were killed in the German bombing on 7 February; 1st Lt. Blanche F. Sigman of East Akron, Ohio; 1st Lt. Marjorie Morrow, of Audulon, Iowa, were buried in the beachhead cemetery on Anzio and lay next to each other, next to infantrymen, tank drivers, physicians and corpsmen also killed on Anzio.
Three nurses were awarded the Purple Heart for combat wounds received on Anzio: 2nd Lt. Ruth D. Buckley, Elmswood, Wis.; 2nd Lt. Mary W. Harrison, Belyre, Ohio; and 2nd Lt. Fern 11. Winegerd, Omaha, Neb.
The German attacks continued day after day, night after night until finally our American troops broke out of the Anzio beachhead and fought their way all the way to Rome. The nurses of the 33rd Field Hospital, the first to receive the wounded on Anzio, and the members of the only hospital to remain on Anzio until the breakout, followed the Fifth Army to Rome and beyond.
By John E. Binnlon
My thanks go to Editor Carroll Wilson for allowing me to read, prior to publication, this story of the nurses at the 33rd Field Hospital on the Anzio Beachhead. The story certainly brought back memories, for I was a patient in the 33rd.
In fact, I was there during one of the night bombing and/or shelling "affairs" offered to us by the German army and air force. That night is one which will never be erased from my memory.
Actually, and in "whole truth," I have told the story of bravery in that hospital many times. This, however, is the first time that it could he put in print in our magazine — or, in fact, in any news media.
This is a story of heroism -- not of the writer, but of the Army nurses, the physicians and the corpsmen who were there in the 33rd. The event that took me to the 33rd happened on Feb. 29, 1944 (1 have hated Leap Year Day every since!). Whether the shelling and bombing took place that night or perhaps later — well, on that I am not certain.
However, the tent to which I was assigned, and the camp cot on which I lay, were part of the 33rd Field Hospital. The walking space between the cots was pretty narrow (extra cots had been brought in) and to the best of my memory every one was occupied. Our tent was full; the hospital staff was very busy; and my wound had been dressed. Now, it was just "wait and see what the medics would do."
Then came darkness and the night.
When the bombing and the shelling began we were all frightened - no one could ever honestly deny it. Hospitals were supposed to be free from such enemy attacks. Didn't the Germans know that?
Fright, however, might be too mild a term. Some of the more agile wounded were able to get off their cots. But ... where could they go? There was no air raid shelter; and when some tried to crawl under their beds they could not do so because the middle crossbars of the camp cots on which they were assigned would not allow it.
Anyway. What protection against shell fragments is a camp cot, covered only with canvas?
In writing this, many years later, I have no knowledge of how many days I spent in the 33rd Field Hospital. Later I was sent to an evacuation hospital on the
beachhead, a British hospital ship to a general hospital in Naples, another general hospital in Tunisia, a U.S. hospital ship to Charleston, a general hospital there, a hospital train going west, and eventually Ashburn General Hospital in McKinney, Texas.
The years, however, do not erase the memory of the 33rd and the bravery of those nurses, physicians and corpsmen. While those bombs and/or shells were falling the hospital staff members were moving around in the tents, giving medical attention where needed and calming words to all of the patients.
That was a night to be remembered. And, as I said previously, it was an event which has been told by me to others — an event which underscored the bravery of medical people performing their jobs, during time of war, without arms or adequate protection.
I offer my thanks to Evelyn Monahan and Rosemary Niedel-Greenlee for this opportunity to remember a dark night in Italy filled with terror, and for the love and care and bravery of this group in the 33rd Field Hospital on the Anzio Beachhead.