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The Heroic Nurses of D-Day: ‘I Could Not Sit Idly By’

Image of The Heroic Nurses of D-Day: ‘I Could Not Sit Idly By’. World War II Army nurses photographed in 1942 were fitted with net-covered helmets, similar to the helmets issued to service members sent into combat. During the WWII, there were more than 59,000 Army nurses on duty. (Credit: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Neil W. McCabe)

"Why did I join the Army Nurse Corps? Because I believed in what this country stands for and could not sit idly by when I had something to offer,” said U.S. Army Nurse Corps First Lt. Edna Statman, one of thousands of nurses who served during World War II caring for soldiers wounded in combat.

According to the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, fewer than 1,000 U.S. Army nurses were on active duty when the U.S. entered World War II following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. By 1945, the number of nurses grew to more than 57,000.

June 6, 2024, marks the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings along the coast of Normandy, France, during World War II.

On that day in 1944, U.S. Army nurses played a pivotal role during and after the largest amphibious invasion in history.

The Allied forces, including nearly 160,000 American, British, and Canadian service members, landed on the beaches at Normandy and began pushing inland. Nurses were deployed soon after to set up field hospitals and treat those injured.

Casualty rates were high on D-Day with more than 2,500 American soldiers killed and thousands more wounded within the first 24 hours.

The following stories and memories are from three heroic U.S. Army Corps nurses who treated the wounded in the days and months following the D-Day invasion. Excerpts were drawn from Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

I Would Not Change Those Days in the Army for Anything

In 1941, U.S. Army Nurse Corps First Lt. Ruth Dorsman was in her senior year of nursing school when she decided to join the military following Pearl Harbor. She was first assigned to a general hospital but requested service in a field unit. She arrived at Omaha Beach six days after D-Day.

“We anchored off the coast of Omaha Beach. Literally, hundreds of ships lay at anchor all around us, just beyond range of German bombs that frequently hit the water and exploded,” said Dorsman.

“Our hospital is located atop the cliff near to St. Laurent and Vierville. The front line is just 4 miles inland with the 1st and 29th divisions at the front,” she said.

The hospital had already taken in patients, and the nurses started working in 12-hour shifts.

“I took the first shift, but by 8 a.m.—we had so many post-op patients and were so busy that I just stayed until noon. And that’s the way it was for 5 days in this location: Work your 12-hour shift and stay three or four hours overtime, sleep the hours in between.”

Dorsman said the nurses jumped right in to do whatever was necessary including administering IVs, giving oxygen, maintaining stomach tubes, changing bandages, and giving injections.

The conditions for the nurses were challenging.

“Many times, shells and bombs landed dangerously close to our hospital—but fortunately there were no direct hits,” she said. “We had no lights or heat in our living areas, and some nights could be pretty cold. Our water tank was kept full of drinkable water. We bathed in a helmet-full of cold water. Our toilets were slit trenches or a hole in the ground.”

Despite the hardships she experienced, Dorsman felt no regrets about her service.

“I would not change those days in the Army for anything. I was proud to serve my country and I’m proud to be an American.”

It Was Unbelievable What We Managed

U.S. Army Nurse Corps First Lt. Marian Jones was inspired by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s "Date of Infamy" speech to join the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. She trained in a tent hospital and was sent to England before eventually landing on Omaha Beach in June of 1944.

According to Jones, the nurses spent their first night on the beach sleeping in foxholes, before relieving exhausted nurses already serving at established evacuation field hospitals.

Jones said, “The girl I relieved that night told me, ‘that one needs plasma, that one needs plasma, that one needs plasma,’ down the line. I said, ‘my goodness, I’ve never done that in my life’— she said, ‘you will now.’ With that, she walked off and almost collapsed because they had been working around the clock.”

In the days that followed, Jones and her unit set up a new evacuation hospital. Almost immediately, they were inundated with wounded service members needing care.

“On our first day, we admitted 525 patients into a 400 bed hospital,” she said. “The casualties were on litters all over the place … it was unbelievable what we managed.”

After her deployment ended, Jones returned home to the U.S., but the memories of her experiences stayed with her.

“Things I’ll never forget—the total destruction of whole towns,” said Jones. “Nothing left but a pile of rubble. The stench of rotting flesh. The booming sound of the 155 millimeter guns in the field behind us so loud it shakes the ground. The joy of a letter from home or a box of homemade cookies that you share … periods of unbearable homesickness.”

I Could Not Sit Idly By

The daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia, U.S. Army Nurse Corps First Lt. Edna Statman grew up in Detroit, Michigan. With the outbreak of war, she responded to the call for volunteers to the flight nurse program and was trained to care for patients aboard medical evacuation airplane flights.

Statman landed with her squadron on Omaha Beach a little over two weeks after D-Day to evacuate casualties from France.

“Four medical officers accompanied us. Our squadron consisted of a medical captain, a chief nurse, and 18 evacuation nurses,” said Statman.

“Each of the medical evacuation nurses was accompanied by a male private first class tech who helped when we loaded and unloaded the wounded. I think each plane was able to hold 16 litters of wounded soldiers. At times there were soldiers suffering from what is now called post-traumatic stress symptoms … we flew these patients to station hospitals.”

The squadron made continuous flights on a C-47 airplane from France to locations in Scotland, Iceland, and Canada to unload patients and refuel. Conditions aboard the plane could be unstable.

“At times during the flight, we would hit an air pocket and drop several hundred feet in the air like falling in an elevator,” said Statman. “It took a little while for our stomachs to catch up with us.”

For Statman, her service as a flight nurse was a call to duty she could not ignore.

“Looking back on the years of the second world war makes me realize how brave all those young men were,” Statman added. “[They gave] up their lives in hopes of bringing peace to the world.”

To read more about the Nurses of Normandy, here are a few online sources to visit:

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Last Updated: June 05, 2024
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