And If I Perish Book Review

Nancy B. Alston

And If I Perish, by Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee, tells the stories of U.S. Army nurses stationed on the frontline in World War II from the beginning of the war in North Africa to Italy and finally to its last days when the Allies were closing on Berlin. The campaigns in North Africa and Italy gave the American military their baptism by fire but inflicted relatively less casualties on invasion troops compared to the possible consequences of an assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Although most readers believe that women did not serve on the frontline in WWII, closer examinations show that women did serve on the frontline providing life-saving care to wounded troops. Lastly, military medicine at the beginning of the war was woefully inept at handling wounds inflicted by combat, but eventually caught up to save a majority of wounded troops.

The campaigns in North Africa and Italy is a testament to the courage and ingenuity of American troops but it also revealed major discrepancies of Allied planning. At the onset of the war for Americans, medical personnel quickly became skilled at improvisation because the lack of medical supplies demanded it. At the beginning of Operation Torch in Arzew, Algeria with supplies running low, Lt. Helen M. Molony of the 48th Surgical Hospital “… out of suture material… got a spool of white thread from her musette bag and they sewed up his bladder with that (P. 47).” After exhausting whatever thread available, the nurses of the 48th began using their own strands of hair sterilized with alcohol to suture the wounds of the G.I.s under their care. Before entering the war, the War Department did not foresee the need for large amounts of basic medical equipment such as the Wangensteen apparatus used to treat abdominal and gastrointestinal wounds, or even stands to hold IV fluids for recovering patients. Although North Africa and Italy showed the Allies their shortcomings, the lessons learned were included in later planning of military operations.

Subsequent Operations such as Overlord and Dragoon were planned with the lessons learned from Operations Torch and Shingle. Forward-thinking nurses like First Lieutenant Marsha Nash required her staff to visit “… the seasoned 128th Evacuation Hospital at Tortworth Castle to observe and learn the process of setting up and tearing down a tent hospital, and how to improvise in combat areas when necessary medical and surgical equipment was not delivered with supplies as scheduled,” to gain as much information in training before learning lessons the hard way through combat (P. 333). In preparation for casualties resulting from D-Day, military planners undertook Operation Neptune where “… the Eighty-second and 101st Airborne Divisions dropped special canisters of medical and surgical supplies at various locations in Normandy… soldiers going ashore on D-Day carried medical supplies and equipment along with his regular field pack and weapons… dropped the medical supplies and equipment on the beachhead, to be picked up later… ,” allowing medics set up impromptu aid stations to care for the wounded until hospitals could be brought ashore (P. 323-324). The lack of basic medical equipment will be at least addressed by military planners in an entirely separate medical logistic operation on D-Day, but will never fully be remedied as the nature of war will forever prevent it. Unfortunately, the fresh troops invading Normandy did not heed all the lessons learned from the Mediterranean Theater where “5,700 combat troops had fallen victim to trench foot… losing toes, a foot, or even both feet,” and D-Day troops eventually lose “… a grand total of 29,389 casualties in the European theater.” (P.425-426)

American women played an indispensable role in the Second World War. Army nurses saved countless lives and “… the survival rate for wounded soldiers who made it to a battalion aid station was a remarkable 95.86 percent; 85.71 percent were able to return to duty.” (P.258)

Army nurses also served as a psychological boost for wounded troops who “gauged how their own sweethearts, wives, and families might respond to them by the way these women reacted to their wounds (P. 106-107).” The army nurses, only one or two years in an age difference, gave the injured men the confidence to write to their loved ones about their disfigurement. Volunteer nurses were expected to flee in the face of combat, but they displayed the same valor and commitment to duty as the men they cared for. For example at the Anzio beachhead, when the “… shelling began, Roe and Rourke refused to leave their patients, though the latter kept urging them to get out and seek safety… not a single nurse who will let this shelling of hospitals chase her off the beach… ” staying behind to provide care for the wounded and at times sacrificing themselves to protect their patients (P. 271). Nurses did give their lives in the line of duty, “… the bombing of the 95th Evacuation Hospital caused twenty-eight deaths; twenty-two were hospital personnel-three nurses, two officers, sixteen enlisted men, and one Red Cross worker… ” earning the respect and admiration of the men they served with (P. 261). Although primarily female, army nurses “… spent hours working together in the OR, coping with difficult living conditions and surviving the ever present dangers of war, they forged a strong bond of friendship,” with the treating each other as equals in the face of war (P. 367-368). Female nurses played an invaluable role in the invasions of North Africa and Italy providing physical and psychological care for troops carrying the hopes of the world.

Military medicine in World War II jumped forward by leaps and bounds to handle even the most devastating wounds inflicted on troops in battle. Private Berchard Lamar “Glant” suffered wounds so terrible, it forcibly amputated part of his right arm and half of his left leg. Glant was evacuated to a battalion aid station and “… saved due to the remarkably quick and effective medical protocols set up and honed in North Africa and now being put to the test in Italy: first, the immediate ministrations to the wounded on the battlefields by medics and soldiers; next, the quick transport of the wounded to a battalion aid station where medical teams could work to further stabilize patients; then the transport to evacuation hospitals for more extensive treatments and surgery; and finally, the return of a healed soldier to the front, or his transfer to a hospital farther to the rear for a longer period of recuperation.” (P. 258)

Military hospitals and their planners developed an effective chain of care for wounded soldiers ensuring life-saving treatment for those who survived long enough to reach the battalion aid station. World War II also developed solutions to age-old problems plaguing both allied and axis armies. Malaria-afflicted troops in North Africa refused to take Atabrine because the side-effects were worse than the symptoms of the disease, but doctors by the Mediterranean campaign learned the proper dosages to negate the debilitating side-effects freeing troops for combat. As with any war, Allied troops suffered from sexually-transmitted diseases from locals providing their services and military hospitals were “… loaded with sulfonamide-resistant venereal disease… ,” the ever-mounting number of afflicted troops forced the movement of penicillin production from England to the United States and increasing output by the billions to cure troops (P. 215). For troops suffering from facial injuries resulting in the loss of an eye, they tended to be outfitted with glass eyes prone to causing irritation and infection but doctors started turning towards the alternative acrylic prosthetic eye that caused less irritation and only taking three weeks to produce compared to the three month production time of a glass eye.

Operation Torch and Shingle provided American forces with their first large-scale combat experience in World War II learning lessons invaluable to the eventual invasion of Europe. Women provided life-saving care to wounded troops and boosted the confidence of servicemen to reach out to their loved ones about their physical and psychological wounds. Army nurses also willingly placed themselves in the same danger faced by troops in order to heal those very same troops. Medicine and products progressed rapidly to address the multitude of troops suffering from almost every wound possible. And If I Perish is an all-encompassing story about the relatively unknown struggles of Army nurses in World War II.

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