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Courage Under Fire – US Hospitals at Anzio

LSTs landing US troops at Anzio, 22 January 1944 (US Army Center of Military History)

LSTs landing US troops at Anzio, 22 January 1944 (US Army Center of Military History)

Courage under fire.

When we hear that phrase, we picture a soldier in the trenches, a sailor manning his guns, or a pilot dodging enemy fighter planes. But how about nurses and physicians?

In one of my novels, On Distant Shores, the hero serves as a pharmacist in the US 93rd Evacuation Hospital in World War II. On January 23, 1944, the 93rd Evac landed at Anzio, Italy, one day after American and British forces had landed. The armies succeeded in surprising the Germans and faced very little opposition. Due to overcautious leadership and insufficient reinforcements, the forces waited and consolidated the beachhead before driving inland. That proved to be a deadly delay.

While the Allies waited, the Germans shored up their defenses. For the next four months, the Allies would remain trapped on a narrow beachhead, and over 4000 American and British soldiers would die.

US Hospital Area at Nettuno, near Anzio, Italy, 1944 (US Army Medical Department)

US Hospital Area at Nettuno, near Anzio, Italy, 1944 (US Army Medical Department)

To care for the 11,000 wounded—and the sick—four US Army hospitals served on the beachhead at Nettuno, just south of Anzio, close to the ocean. Although evacuation hospitals were usually set up out of artillery range, the front lines at Anzio were less than ten miles from shore. The khaki hospital tents were marked by enormous red crosses on a white circle, but artillery fire did land on the hospital site—both accidental and deliberate fire.

US 56th Evacuation Hospital after an air raid, 1944 (US Army Medical Department)

US 56th Evacuation Hospital after an air raid, 1944 (US Army Medical Department)

The Luftwaffe battered these hospitals too in multiple air raids. On February 7, 1944, a German fighter pilot, fleeing from US fighters, jettisoned his bombs for greater maneuverability—while over the 95th Evacuation Hospital. Twenty-eight patients and hospital personnel were killed. Ironically, later that day the pilot was treated at the same hospital after he was shot down.

During the four-month period, dozens of patients, physicians, and medics were killed—and six nurses. When the US Fifth Army made noise about evacuating the nurses, the women made even more noise. They insisted on staying with their patients, and the Army relented.

US hospital digging in at Anzio, spring 1944 (US Army Medical Department)

US hospital digging in at Anzio, spring 1944 (US Army Medical Department)

So they endured. They learned the “Anzio Shuffle,” a duck-walk to stay low and avoid shells. They leaped into slit trenches half full of water during air raids. They lived, and often slept, in their helmets. And they cared for their patients, performing surgery while bombs fell. Several were killed while shielding patients.

The water table was too high to dig in the hospitals, but as spring dried out the ground, the hospitals dug down. Conditions were so dangerous that some patients deserted the hospitals for the relative safety of the front line, where at least the soldier could shoot back.

US hospital dug in at Anzio, Spring 1944 (US Army Medical Department)

US hospital dug in at Anzio, Spring 1944 (US Army Medical Department)

In July 2011, I was able to visit Anzio. The beaches are now covered with resort hotels, Italian families on holiday, and cobalt blue beach chairs. Little remains to commemorate the Battle of Anzio—a single room crammed with artifacts in a local museum and the American cemetery.

Beach at Nettuno, Italy, looking north to Anzio, July 2011 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Beach at Nettuno, Italy, looking north to Anzio, July 2011 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

But I remember. I am inspired by these men and women who endured, who sacrificed, and who cared. They truly demonstrated courage—and grace—under fire.

Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, Nettuno, Italy, July 2011 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, Nettuno, Italy, July 2011 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

6 Responses to “Courage Under Fire – US Hospitals at Anzio”

  1. Ryana Lynn Miller

    Oh, this hurts so bad…medics have a very special place in my heart. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Sarah Sundin

      You’re welcome! My grandfather served as a pharmacist’s mate (medic) in the Navy in WWII, so medics have a special place in my heart too.

  2. Victoria Gatto

    I never knew about this amazing story! It’s a breathtaking example of the great courage and sense of self-sacrifice that these men and women had! Thank you so much for sharing! ❤️

  3. Walter Todd

    Like most battles of the past, people of the present forget what occurred around them, especially if it happened more than 50 years ago. Some amazing photographs Mencius of the Anzio battlefield and hospitals! I appreciate what you have shared as my own father was an officer in the US Army Hospital Corps in the Pacific in the Philippines around Manila in WW II. He gave me his 50, B/W, 8.5″ x 11″ photos of his hospital unit treating American wounded soldiers, Philippine injured civilians, and even some of the Japanese POW’s during the war. He died in November, 2007, but I have his photos and his explanation of each photo to me in the early 2000’s.

    • Sarah Sundin

      I’m so glad you have those! Medical history is more difficult to find, but medical care was a vital component to winning the war.