World War II nurse returns to Fort Leonard Wood
June 25, 2014
Martha Meers Moyer landed in Normandy in 1944, four days after D-Day. On Friday, she shared her experiences as an Army nurse during World War II with members of the Army Nurse Corps at General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital.
"It's a true honor," said Lt. Col. Patricia O'Neal-Mellon, acting deputy commander for nursing and nursing services at GLWACH. "We are just really grateful that she decided to take time out of her schedule and share it with the other generations so that they can understand the impact nursing has."
Moyer started her military career as a surgical nurse at Fort Leonard Wood in September of 1942 when she enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps.
"We went through basic training, which was interesting. The part that sticks in my mind was going through the obstacle course -- on your belly going under the barbed wire with the ammunition and tracer bullets over your head. My friend and I, we'd crawl along telling jokes to one another. We had to cope with it some way," Moyer said.
In early 1944, Moyer was transferred from Fort Leonard Wood to the 42nd Field Hospital at Fort Bragg, N.C. where she received training that would prepare her for the battle abroad.
In March, the nurses were sent to New York where they traveled on the S.S. Susan B. Anthony on a 10-day journey to Glasgow, Scotland where they were greeted by a bagpipe band.
Upon her arrival in Scotland, the hospital unit, attached to the 1st Army under General Omar Bradley, moved to Bromvard, England by train where they would receive medical supplies and additional field training.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the invasion orders for D-Day on June 6, 1944. Four days later, Moyer and her field hospital unit were brought to the beaches of Normandy to care for the wounded.
"The thing that I remember most was the humungous number of ships in the English Channel," she said. "Any type of boat that would float was there to transport supplies and the Soldiers to France."
The field hospital, near Saint Mère-Église, was already in operation upon their landing. Moyer and members of her unit were required to walk about a mile from the beach to trucks on a road just off of the beach.
"We kept seeing signs that said 'Achtung Minen!' -- I thought, I wonder what that is." Moyer said of what she later realized was a recently swept minefield they had walked through.
Moyer scrubbed in for surgery immediately after arriving at the tent hospital. Soldiers that arrived to Moyer's care were primarily inflicted with severe chest and abdominal wounds. Once stable, they were transported to an evacuation hospital where they could recover from their injuries and return stateside.
"Comparing what we had to work with, to what you all have, we were back in the barbaric times. We had no disposables, except your gloves. The syringes were glass syringes," she said of the medical equipment they used in the tents.
X-ray and lab services were set up in the field hospital tents, but comfort was at a minimum. Wounded Soldiers waited for treatment and recovered on cots without sheets, only an Army blanket to keep them warm.
Moyer and the 42nd Field Hospital stayed with the 1st Army until the St. Lo breakthrough in July of 1944, when the field unit was moved into the 3rd Army under Gen. George S. Patton.
After St. Lo, the unit moved towards Paris and then on to Reims. They were located close to the Pommery champagne house and Moyer remembers a night where some of the officers went out to bring back cases of champagne for everyone.
"I was working 3 to 11 that day, so I had to go to work. Meanwhile they started a party. I got off at 11 o'clock and I thought I needed to catch up with them," Moyer said. "Well you know we didn't have champagne glasses, you know what we had -- canteen cups -- they hold a lot of champagne. The next morning I was sleeping late and they started the multiple bombings of Berlin, wave after wave of bombers -- here I was suffering from a hangover. Obviously I don't care for champagne anymore -- that taught me a lesson."
As the war progressed, the unit continued on to various locations airing Soldiers and eventually to St. Vith, Belgium, an important crossroads within the Ardennes Forest. Moyer distinctly remembers being in the forest as The Battle of the Bulge began.
"My friend Muriel and I were out walking around when bombs started coming in. I thought we better go back and see what's going on and we were there about 30 minutes before we were evacuating," she said.
The hospital unit was told to gather what they could before Moyer and five other nurses were put into an ambulance to move to Sudan, France.
"We looked out the back window and there was the German Infantry coming over the field about six or seven blocks away," Moyer said.
Patients were also evacuated, except those who were too critical to be moved. The unit left two physicians and seven corpsman to care for the injured; the Germans captured all of them.
Both doctors and corpsman from the unit that had been captured were eventually released by the Germans, the last corpsman was returned on Christmas day.
"The best Christmas gift we could have received," she said.
The hospital was evacuated to Sudan, France where Moyer and her unit waited until the German offensive had ended.
One of the patient stories Moyer vividly recalls is of a Soldier she encountered following the Battle of the Bulge. The Soldier had been badly burned in his tank, from either a shell or grenade.
"Ninety percent of his body was burned and the sad thing was his dog tags were also burned -- we didn't know who the man was. There was no way his Family could have a closing on that at all. The poor man, it took him almost week to die -- you could hear his respiration throughout the entire hospital," she said of his injuries. "All you could do was try to relieve some of the pain, you knew he was in pain. That's always disturbed me, even now."
There were good times Moyer also remembers about her time during World War II.
At one point during her tour, during recreational time, the unit was located near Maria Laach Abbey, in Germany.
"The monks had had a fish hatchery, so we'd go out there and fish -- pretty good-sized fish -- and we'd have fish every night," Moyer said.
When the war ended, Moyer was stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany. She returned home on the S.S. Argentina and was discharged from the Army at Fort Sheridan, Ill. as a captain on Feb. 2, 1946.
She then returned home to Missouri where she stopped in Joplin before arriving at her Family home, a farm outside of the city.
"I went to get my hair done and a facial, all that good stuff, so I could present myself to my parents," Moyer recalls.
After leaving the Army, Moyer married and gave birth to two daughters.
"At that time neither was permitted to female Soldiers. You could not be married and you certainly couldn't have a child," Moyer said of military regulations at the time.
Moyer currently resides in McGregor, Texas, where she works one to two days a week at a nursing home.
She will receive the French Legion of Merit Award for her service in World War II at a ceremony to be held this August in Texas.