Nurse Recalls D-Day-Plus Experiences
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 3, 2004 - World War II nurse Marian R. Elcano didn't know what lay ahead when she signed up for a one-year stint in the Army Nurse Corps on June 26, 1943, at the age of 22.
"Then they said the war was expanding, so your time was indefinite and you couldn't get out in a year," she said. And just about a year later, the World War II nurse would land on the beaches of France in the days following D-Day to treat the wounded.
Elcado was first assigned to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., then transferred to Camp Gordon, Ga., where she joined the 45th Evacuation Hospital.
The hospital had about 40 doctors, 40 nurses and about 200 enlisted men. It was a mobile medical facility set up in tent groups that followed the troops as they advanced across the battlefield. It was later called MASH, for mobile Army surgical hospital, units, forerunners of today's combat support hospitals set up in places such as Iraq.
"In November 1943, we left for England where we practiced setting up and moving a 400-bed tent hospital," Elcano noted. "Two large tents were put together to form a ward with about 100 beds.
"They didn't know what to expect when we landed in those days, so we had to march with backpacks on, do gas mask drills and other things while training from November until June 1944," she said.
In June, their practice sessions were put to the test. Elcano noted that there were four Army mobile hospitals. The first nurses to arrive in Normandy were members of the 42nd and 45th Field hospitals and the 91st and 128th Evacuation hospitals. They started landing on the beachhead four days after the initial invasion on June 6, 1944. Elcano said her hospital unit, the 45th, crossed the English Channel and landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day plus 10.
"Then we followed the frontline through France to Germany -- as the frontline moves, the evacuation hospital moves," she said.
By June 1945, the number of Army nurses in the European theater of the war reached a peak of more than 17,000.
The field hospitals leap-frogged each other across Europe. "When you're at the front, you get heavy casualties, and when you're in the rear you're resting," Elcano explained. "So we leaped-frogged all the way across France into Germany."
Consequently, Elcano was involved with treating patients from the Battles of Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland and the Battle of the Bulge.
For her, the most frightening time of the war was during the Battle of the Bulge. That battle lasted from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945. It was the largest land battle of World War II in which the United States participated.
"It was very, very sad. I remember how quiet it was with all those severely wounded patients in the tent. Even the ones with real bad burns were quiet. And none of them complained. It was just quiet," said Elcano.
More than a million men fought in this battle, including more than 600,000 Germans, 500,000 Americans and 55,000 British. When it was over, according to military historians, the number of dead and wounded was astonishing: 81,000 Americans with more than 19,000 killed; 1,400 British with 200 killed; and 100,000 Germans killed, wounded or captured.
"The Germans were dropping bombs and were within five miles, somebody said," Elcano noted. "You could hear their artillery and it was quite frightening.
"To me, the Battle of the Bulge was the most frightening time during the war," Elcado said. "I guess the Germans had a psychological effect on us with all that bombing. They called them 'screaming mee-mies,' or buzz bombs, because they made a terrible noise as they were coming down.
Elcano recalled a bomb hitting in the courtyard of a place they'd set up the hospital. "It was very frightening, but it didn't cause any casualties," she said. "But it was very sad for the patients, because they must have been terribly scared."
She said one of the most interesting things occurred when bad weather caused medical evacuation flights to be canceled.
"The planes couldn't get in to take casualties out," she noted. "So they brought over a team of big sled dogs from Alaska. But the weather cleared in about two days and the dogs couldn't go because they don't like warm weather.
"So they had the dogs pulling a jeep around the hospital areas for exercise," Elcano said with a hearty laugh. "Then they sent them back home. They were nice dogs and we liked them. But it was kind of different."
Elcano said many American casualties were frostbite because the soldiers had to be in foxholes during one of the coldest winters in history. "Many of them lost their limbs from severe frostbite," she noted.
Patients didn't stay in the evacuation hospital more than one or two days unless they had an abdominal or head injury, she said. "So unlike in war movies where nurses are consoling and writing letters for patients," Elcano observed, "patients were not in the hospital long enough to make a lot of personal contacts.
"We didn't write letters or anything for the patients, because we didn't have time," she noted. "The Red Cross wrote letters for them."
The closest she came to building a personal relationship with a patient was in Normandy while treating a pilot who had been shot down in a dogfight. The pilot had lost his arm and was having difficulty sleeping.
"He was a very handsome young man and I remember him sitting up on the stretcher saying he didn't know what he was going to do because he was engaged and had lost his arm," Elcano recalled. "He said because of that, he probably wouldn't be engaged anymore and his life had changed.
"I often wondered how it worked out for him," she said compassionately.
Elcano said early in the war the Americans captured a German hospital at Cherbourg, France, and returned the nurses and personnel to the Germans. "Some of the nurses went throughout hospital, and we were hoping they'd remember and treat our people with the same kindness.
"Occasionally we had to treat German patients," she said.
Military historians say the presence of nurses at the front improved the morale of fighting men because soldiers realized that they would receive skilled care in the event they were wounded. They maintain that hospitalized men recovered sooner when nurses cared for them. Troops in the field figured that "if the nurses can take it, then we can."
After the Battle of the Bulge, the hospital moved into Central Europe and when the war was over, it was close to Berlin.
Before returning to the U.S. in November 1945, Elcano was told that the hospital would be going to care for troops fighting the war in the Pacific. But the war on that front was over before the hospital got ready to go.
"So we came home and landed in New York and went to Fort Dix, N.J., where I was discharged in January 1946," she said.
After about two years in hospitals, her now 90-year-old husband, Michael P. Elcano, had recovered from serious wounds he suffered in Normandy and returned to active duty. He was wounded while serving with the 654th Tank Destroyer Battalion.
"He was one of Patton's boys," Elcano said of her husband, referring to Gen. George S. Patton, the famous "blood and guys" World War II tank commander).
The couple had five children and today has nine grandchildren.
Her former artilleryman husband, who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1965, served a tour in combat during the Korean War.
Elcano said he is working on a book about his wartime experiences. He was awarded two Bronze Star Medals and a Purple Heart.
After the war, Elcano never returned to full-time nursing. "I took some nursing refresher course through the years, but never went back to work full time," said the 83-year-old. "A couple of times I worked for doctor's offices and weekends at a retirement home, but never full time."