Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of photos of our brave troops fighting their way onto the beaches of Normandy, that First Army-led operation that changed the fate of the free world.
But last month, as we paused within our headquarters to acknowledge Women’s History Month, I was blown away by images our historian shared of First Army nurses wading onto Omaha Beach.
The women of the Army Nurses Corps – our historic block-A patch clearly visible on their left shoulders – pushed their way through the surf, weighed down with medical supplies and equipment, en route to set up the 51st Field Hospital.
From Normandy through the Battle of the Bulge and beyond, these women would live in incredibly harsh conditions, tirelessly treating wounded U.S. troops, German POWs and, eventually, the liberated prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps. American Soldiers took to calling them “wartime angels.”
As First Army progressed through the war, these brave nurses moved alongside the troops, dismantling and then setting up the field hospital again and again as the Americans gained territory through France, Belgium and into Germany.
A group of 10 First Army nurses, pictured on a muddy riverbank, would be among the first Americans to cross the Rhine River into Germany at Remagen on March 13, 1945. They dashed across a U.S.-constructed pontoon bridge under enemy strafing, no one injured, and immediately began treating hundreds of wounded U.S. personnel.
In a photo shortly after crossing the Rhine, most of the nurses are smiling – it’s clear the war is nearing its end – but it’s hard not to look at their faces and imagine the horror they had seen.
Another photo depicts a stoic Capt. Anne Roebuck receiving the Bronze Star for Valor from the First Army surgeon in November of 1944. One shows a First Army nurse aiding a soldier so badly wounded that virtually his entire body is covered in gauze bandages. And yet another captures a group of the nurses eating lunch from Army mess kits outside hospital tents in Saint Laurent sur Mer, France.
Lt. Beatrice Wachter – a 37-year-old volunteer from Philadelphia – carried a small video camera throughout the war and collected rare images of her fellow First Army nurses treating the wounded, surveying bombed-out villages throughout France and shivering in the bitter cold during the hellish fight in the Ardennes. The footage is remarkable, capturing both the deep camaraderie that develops in combat and the absolute misery of war.
In the Hollywood movies and newsreels we see, the heroes of World War II tend to be men. We call them the Greatest Generation and know some of them by name: Dick Winters, Audie Murphy, Francis Currey.
But the unsung patriots of the First Army Nurses Corps should be added to that list: Lois Grant, Madalyn Andreko, Josephine Jennis, along with dozens more. At First Army, we often say we stand on the shoulders of giants. Some of those are certainly the courageous nurses who “Earned the A” in the Second World War.