WINCHESTER – 75 years ago, nurse Mary Louise Carpenter was awaiting D-Day in England. In a few months she would be in Normandy, tasked to help non-transportable cases. Thus she witnessed the worst casualties of war.
Carpenter’s family arrived in Winchester during the last year of World War I, when she was seven. After attending Winchester High School, she graduated from the Rosemary Hall School and Vassar College (1933). She studied art, did some teaching, and then took up nursing.
As the war rained down bombs on England, Harvard offered the British Ministry of Health facilities to help with epidemic prevention, nutrition, and sanitation, including a small hospital. Carpenter was one of 65 American nurses, 11 from Massachusetts, chosen to go to the hospital.
While her parents awaited news at their Ravine Road home, Carpenter crossed the Atlantic, setting sail on May 30, 1941, in a convoy of ships to nurse at the Harvard-Red Cross Field Hospital Unit.
“We sleep in our clothes, ready to pop into a lifeboat. We had one alarm one night and made ready to get into the lifeboats, but the trouble disappeared,” she wrote home after her safe arrival at Liverpool and train trip to London.
“You don’t forget it’s war, of course, with windows boarded up and patches everywhere, arrows to air raid shelters all over, sandbags and barbed wire. There are a good many scattered buildings wrecked.”
Because of the Harvard unit, when the U.S. entered the war, it had a fully organized American unit in Britain available for instant use by U.S. troops.
“I got into the army through the back door,” she wrote to her alma mater. “When the American Red Cross Harvard Field Hospital in Salisbury, England, in which I had been nursing a year since September, 1941, was taken over by the army, a third of its nurses raised their right hands and thus joined the A.N.C. [Army Nurse Corps].”
After nursing at other hospitals, in 1944 Lt. Carpenter applied for a transfer and was assigned to the 13th Field Hospital three months before D-Day.
“For me, my army nursing life really began on D-Day plus 7,” she wrote to Vassar. “With the other seventeen nurses of the three platoons of a First Army field hospital, I landed on the Normandy Beach.”
While still in England, she had written, “The descriptions by various reporters of the parachutists emplaning, of gliders being released over France, and of the actual landings of the infantry on the beaches made a crescendo of excitement.”
But after arriving in France, she wrote, “I suppose it really was a great event; it certainly seems so from a distance and viewed in historic perspective, but when you actually see some of the remains of it–the blasted-to-hell farms and villages, a few burnt-out or overturned vehicles, and the facepiece of a gas-mask trod into the mud were some of the most poignant reminders of death I saw our first day here–it all seems merely disgusting….
“As our kind of hospital is for the immediate treatment of those hurt too badly to be transportable, we see some of the grimmest results of war…. I can’t get used to the way here strong, healthy young men in the course of two days or so turn into…old specters. They’re so good, these boys; they bear so much pain without a murmur, they just seem to accept it as part of military life like sleeping in pup tents and eating K-rations and carrying heavy packs and rifles.”
Her letters home reveal that it was a tough, heart-wrenching job. In 1945, she wrote that “Our first set-ups near there still have a nightmarish quality. Our tent wards were in confusion. We hadn’t previously conceived of wards full of such horribly injured men, for we were the hospitals nearest to the front lines and received only non-transportable cases. Shell blasts had blown off limbs and rendered patients completely psychotic.”
But the nurses adjusted. “Before long, however, we nurses learned to work smoothly and efficiently with each other and with our very fine ward men and doctors.”
And there was a reward. “We learned that once these badly injured men had survived the first two or three days, they would usually start to recover with fairly rapid progress. We kept most of them seven to ten days before evacuating them to the rear. Before the last few days, they would have emerged from mere bodies who slept or suffered while we did to them what the doctors ordered, into personalities who laughed and joked, and asked for things on their own. Now we could share with these patients some of their thankfulness for their escapes from death to life.”
The nurses sometimes worked under fire. In August she wrote to a friend that, after an uneventful day, “At six the next morning all of us became electrified into wide-awakeness as a whistle and a boom and another and another told us German shells were coming into us and landing not far away.”
Later that day they saw four enemy planes shot down.
She described the pounding of artillery barrages, the whistling of dropping bombs, the sound of a distant air raid. Hers was a world of battle. In November, she wrote that earlier she had been really scared but “one gets a more hardened attitude toward danger–something gets you or it doesn’t.”
She also admitted that the nurses felt they were doing more to win the war if they were in the midst of it. Fortunately, her unit never had any casualties among its own personnel.
After Normandy, Carpenter followed the invasion forces, working in field hospitals to take care of non-transportable wounded.
“The physical set-ups of our hospital have varied greatly. We have been in tents in summer’s heat and in late winter’s snow. We have set up in buildings—in abandoned hospitals or military barracks, and, most often, in schoolhouses—on whose walls, even in eastern Belgium, were painted Nazi mottoes.”
The medical teams went where the troops went. “Our usual location about five miles from the front (among our artillery) has kept us in close touch with the moods of our fighting army. We, too, had the exhilaration after breaking out of Normandy, of dashing through northern France and into Belgium as ‘liberators’ hot on the tail of the Germans. Then, after bivouacking a month and a half before Aachen, we shared the still deeper discouragement of the early winter’s painfully tough fighting just within the German border, as we worked near Hürtgen Forest.”
“Our most arduous set-up was near the Hürtgen Forest, when most of two platoons worked together caring for double the usual daily load of patients. We kept the ninety patients there in the cafeteria of a large soap factory, while we lived in the office building. Only one or two of our buildings have been complete with glass windows, electricity, running water, and central heat…. At our busiest we worked twelve and sometimes fourteen hours a day.”
The Battle of Hürtgen Forest, fought from Sept. 19 to Dec. 16, 1944, ended with the Allies failing to capture the area.
“It’s an intense life we’re living now,” she wrote on Dec. 4. The misery of some patients made the war seem “more pointless and appalling than ever.”
“There followed the bewildering indignity of retreating from Germany way back into Belgium west of Liege. Encouragement came again as we worked East through the snowy Ardennes, on into Germany once more. Crossing the Rhine on a pontoon bridge just below the recently fallen Ludendorf Bridge was a thrill. Our unit was called back from Marburg farther East to support the fighting into the Ruhr Pocket. When finally the Pocket rather suddenly collapsed, we knew that the war in Europe was all but over.”
When the war ended, she wrote that she felt a great feeling of ease and tranquility rather than jubilation.
“It is a different world we walk in now, a world of real spring.”
There was still nursing to do. “When I set sail for England, I committed myself to this war, and as long as I feel I can possibly do the job, I’ll stay with it until the finish.”
Not until October, 1945, did she return home.
Back home, she went to work at the Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1948, she was married at the Episcopal Church and moved west for a new phase of her life.
22 of the women on the WWII Roll of Honor have been identified as nurses with the Army or Navy. Several were formerly Winchester Hospital nurses though others came from other hospitals or private duty. Hilda Hope was the Board of Health’s public health nurse.
Ann Cox went to the Pacific Theater and tended to troops evacuated from Guadalcanal. Pauline D’Ambrosio spent four years in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines. Jeanne Peel was also stationed in the Pacific, while Elizabeth Sheehan went to the China-Burma-India Theater.
In the European and Mediterranean Theaters were Elizabeth Higgins, Genevieve Wade, and Elizabeth Whitlow. Some of these may have had experiences like Carpenter’s, but without any of their writings Mary Louise Carpenter’s letters remain the best record of Winchester nurses in the war.
(Several of Carpenter’s letters were published in “With Love, Jane,” edited by Alma Lutz, 1945. Vassar College published a further letter in its alumnae magazine.)