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Today in World War II History

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Lessons from the 1940s – No Complaints

US Army Nurse Corps recruiting poster, 1944

US Army Nurse Corps recruiting poster, 1944

They waded ashore in chest-deep water in Algeria and took shelter behind sand dunes. Snipers and strafing fighter planes aimed for them. They ate cold K-rations and dug slit trenches and dealt with fleas, mosquitoes, lice, and flies. And they were women.

Lately I’ve been researching nursing in the Mediterranean Theater (North Africa, Sicily, and Italy) in World War II, and I’ve been struck by the conditions these young women worked in.

They had a difficult job to begin with. Work schedules varied, usually on the order of twelve hours a day, six days a week – but in crisis times, they worked far more. They took care of the wounded and watched healthy, promising young men die. Their tent hospitals were often bombed – sometimes by accident, sometimes when conditions forced them to set up close to military targets, and sometimes by intent.

Sleep, when it came, was in a crowded tent with a slit trench down the middle – both for protection during attack and for drainage of rainwater. The women dealt with mud so thick it pulled their combat boots off. To prevent malaria, they took Atabrine which turned their skin yellow. Supplies were often short, and the women improvised with available materials. They washed their underthings in their helmets.

This was no day at the spa.

Did they complain? I’m sure they did, but what I’ve read recounts girls giggling in their slit trenches, working together with purpose, and bearing up astoundingly well. During the Anzio campaign in early 1944, when the hospitals were attacked almost every day and several nurses were killed, the commanders considered evacuating the nurses. The women refused. They had work to do and they could handle it.

I’m writing this in my nice clean office wearing nice clean clothes with a nice clean meal in my tummy. No mud. No bugs. No enemy attack. How often do I complain?

We have a complaining culture. We have the best living conditions of any civilization in the history of mankind – and we complain. I know I can learn a lot from the nurses of World War II.

How about you?

2 responses to “Lessons from the 1940s – No Complaints”

  1. Melinda S says:

    I’ve seen some of the old movies with Claudette Colbert, Susan Hayward, etc. portraying nurses during WWII. I’m sure things were much worse than portrayed in the movies. My husband had a patient once who was a nurse in the Pacific theater & met her husband there during the war. I told her she needed to write her story, but she didn’t think anyone would be interested in it. I’ve wished I had been able to interview her & get her story down, at least for myself.

    I just finished reading A Memory Between Us & loved it. Can’t wait for the next one!

  2. Sarah Sundin says:

    Thanks, Melinda – I’m glad you enjoyed the post and the book. I know which movie you’re referring to, and it was wonderful – can’t remember the title though.

    It’s too bad more of the nurses’ stories weren’t put down in print. They were humble enough to think no one would be interested – but we are!

Until Leaves Fall In Paris
“Sundin is a master at her craft, and avid readers will devour this in one sitting.”
—Library Journal starred review

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