VICENZA, Italy – When the United States formally entered World War I in April, 1917, Italy and the other Allied powers were near exhaustion from three long years of warfare on a global scale. The promise of legions of fresh American soldiers backed by an industrial powerhouse immediately buoyed Allied spirits. Answering our nation’s call to arms were over 22,000 professionally-trained female nurses, and by the end of the Great War, over 10,000 nurses recruited by the American Red Cross had served in forward-based field hospitals all along the Western Front. Among these courageous women serving in unprecedented roles were 105 professional women who formed the nucleus of Base Hospital No. 102, the first United States military base in Vicenza.
The American medical component to be stationed in Vicenza deployed with the 332rd Infantry Regiment, a part of the U.S. Army 83rd Infantry Division from Ohio, and arrived at the Italian front in July, 1918. In addition to the 332rd Infantry and base hospital, the American contingent in Italy included 30 Red Cross ambulance sections and 54 pilots attached to the Italian Army. While numerically small, the American force was intended to bolster Italian morale and serve as a visible reminder of Allied military cooperation in the Italian theater of operations.
Base Hospital No. 102 was composed entirely of volunteers, and was unique in many respects. The Army conferred authority to organize the hospital unit to Dr. (Lt. Col.) Joseph Danna, Dean of the Medical School at Loyola University in New Orleans, who would serve as chief surgeon. Danna and most of the 198 enlisted and 35 medical officers were Italian-Americans who spoke the language fluently. The core of the hospital was a cadre of ten sisters, all graduate nurses from the Catholic Daughters of Charity hospital association, who supervised a staff of 90 lay nurses and five female professional staff recruited from across the United States. All 105 women were inducted into the U.S. Army Nurse Corps Reserve. The 1000-bed hospital was fully equipped through a single $100,000 donation ($2.2 million in today’s dollar) by Mrs. Joan Deibert of New Orleans.
With the front line trenches less than 40 kilometers to the north, the Italian government formally declared the city of Vicenza a war zone in 1915. Gradually, Vicenza was transformed into a “city of hospitals,” with schools, villas, and religious institutions requisitioned for the war effort and converted to hospitals. In September, 2018, Base Hospital No. 102 occupied the former Dominican monastery of the Santa Corona church in downtown Vicenza, the site of the industrial trade school known as the “Rossi Institute.”
Sister Chrysostom Moynahan served as Chief Nurse for Base Hospital No. 102. Born in Ireland in 1863, she immigrated to America and graduated a professional nurse. Sister Moynahan served as an Army-affiliated nurse during the Spanish-American War, founded the first nursing school in Alabama, and in 1916 became the first registered nurse licensed in Alabama. Her vast experience and expertise facilitated an age waiver to lead the expeditionary women in Vicenza. As the nearest base medical unit to the Italian Front, the mission of Base Hospital No. 102 was as an evacuation hospital ---- to stabilize patients until they could be returned to duty or evacuated away from the front lines. Under the leadership of Sister Moynahan, the American women forming the nucleus of the hospital in Vicenza treated over 3,000 American, Italian, French, British, and Czechoslovakian soldiers wounded fighting the Austro-Hungarian Army, including some prisoners-of-war. In addition to traumatic combat injuries, the American nurses treated burns from mustard gas, pneumonia, malaria, and influenza. Remarkably, only 28 patients died.
Life in Vicenza for the American nurses was spartan. The booming of artillery fire from the front was constant, and food rations were often very limited. On four occasions Vicenza was attacked by Austrian aircraft, with bombs landing near the American hospital. Because wood and coal were in short supply, heating the hospital during the cold winter months was virtually impossible, and some staff suffered from frostbite. The Armistice ending the Great War on November 11, 1918, did not signal an early return for these American women pioneers. Vicenza was in the grip of the (Spanish) Influenza Pandemic of 1918, which would eventually consume up to 600,000 lives in Italy alone. Miraculously, none of the 800 influenza patients treated at Base Hospital No. 102 died from the disease. The American women implemented novel techniques to combat airborne viruses, and served as mentors and instructors to many Italian nurse practitioners.
Base Hospital No. 102 in Vicenza closed in March 1919, and the nurses and staff shipped out of Genova bound for New York. Officially commended by the Sixth Army for its service, the Italian government awarded unit personnel the Great War service ribbon with the Monte Grappa campaign device. The unprecedented contributions of women in the Great War are epitomized by the 105 American women who formed the core of the first United States military base in Vicenza.