National Geographic : 1943 Oct
Women in Uniform BY LA VERNE BRADLEY T HE YANKS had landed! On the morning of November 8, 1942, the world heard that the first American invasion forces had reached North Africa. It did not hear that when American troops jumped from assault barges to land under fire on the coast of Algeria that historic night, more than 200 American girls were with them. Not until half a year later, and then only by chance, did the daring exploits of the Army nurses on the beaches of Oran and Arzew break into the news. When the wounded Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, Chief of the Army Ground Forces, returned to the United States from Tunisia, a quiet, clear-eyed young woman accompanied him. One day she hap pened to mention the landing of her units. Her units! With our fighting men through the confused early hours of invasion were the first Amer ican women to see action on the second front. They tumbled from landing boats into the surf and waded ashore. The sea reached their shoulders and caught a number over their heads. Soldiers and sailors carried a few lucky ones. Others made it alone, holding their own gas masks, musette bags, and canteens. They wore steel helmets. There was no time to rest. Nazis were strafing the beaches. They reached a private villa near by and commandeered it for work. Casualties poured in. Strips of Slips and Shirts for Bandages The first American surgical hospital was soon set up in some old French military bar racks and tents. While waiting for supplies to land, the girls ripped off their slips and shirts and tore them in strips for bandages. As the troops pushed forward, nurses fol lowed the mobile field units and fell back with the line when it retreated. In the withdrawal at Kasserine Pass, one group became isolated. Guns hammered in front and to the rear. "Somehow" they got out. In the months that followed, Army nurses marched with the troops into evacuated cities. They slept on dirty rooftops, in mud-en crusted tents, on bare ground. They helped set up advance mobile hospital units com posed of rows upon rows of tents-and were ready to dismantle them completely in an hour and twenty minutes. They used candles to save power for operating rooms and took baths in steel helmets (page 448). In the rush of battle, with supplies not yet at hand, they gave their own blood. In an Army jeep, overturned in a shell hole, and in an air crash, three gave their lives. Since the first days of action in World War II, their heroic stories have rolled in from all parts of the world. With them have come the stories of the Navy nurses who serve with our men at sea. Among women, their gallan try has been unsurpassed. First in service, first in uniform, first in ac tion, and first in citation, the Army and Navy Nurse Corps have been the trail blazers of American women at war. They head the list of service organizations which, in 17 months, have put nearly 125,000 women of our country in military and naval uniform. As more and more women have emerged from training and taken their places at Army posts and naval bases, we've come to recognize their khakis and blues, greens and grays-and to realize for what they stand. We know them as WACS, and WAVES, and SPARS, and WASPS, and women Marines.* We know that wherever we see them, they are there to release able-bodied men for combat duty. They are from the school, the opera house, the House of Representatives, the office, and the house next door. Nurses First Women Commissioned The Army and Navy Nurse Corps grew up early in our history, but they waited a long time for proper recognition. When it came, it came as a magnificent tribute. The first woman colonel was an Army nurse. The first woman captain in the U. S. Navy was, and is, a Navy nurse. Decorations for "bravery in action," "meri torious conduct," "outstanding service"-these things come to nurses in routine line of duty. Last November, the War Department's new Legion of Merit (Plate I) went for the first time to Lt. (jg) Ann Agnes Bernatitus, Navy nurse. Lieutenant Bernatitus was the only member of the Navy medical staff in the Philippines to escape final capture. The Cafiacao Naval Hospital could hardly help being hit. It was on the strategic point overlooking the entrance to Manila Bay, next to a powerful radio station and airfield, and directly opposite the Navy base at Cavite. * WACS-Women's Army Corps, founded originally as the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps; WAVES Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, the women of the U. S . Navy; SPARS-the Women's Reserve of the U. S . Coast Guard, whose name comes from the Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus "Always Ready"; WASPS-Women's AirForce Serv ice Pilots, attached to the Army Air Forces.