Woman veteran recalls World War II duty|
by Senior Airman James Croxon
319th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
11/10/2005 - GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. (AFPN) -- The popular images of World War II show American men fighting the Axis powers.
What are often missing are images of the women pioneers of the nurse corps who patched up the Soldiers so they could face and defeat the enemy.
Ann Walker was among those pioneering veterans.
Mrs. Walker is from Grand Forks. Her war story begins right after she left school.
“I graduated from St. John’s Nursing College in Fargo in 1943,” she said. “After I got my degree, I went to work at a local hospital for a few months. That’s when my life changed.”
In late June of that year, an American Red Cross recruiter visited her workplace and spoke of the need for qualified nurses. Mrs. Walker immediately signed up to do what she could to help in the monumental war effort.
After a few weeks of basic training, then-2nd Lt. Ann Hoffman boarded a ship bound for Newton Abbot Hospital, near Devon, England.
“At first, we didn’t have much to do. We were building up for the coming invasion of Normandy,” she said.
“The winters were foggy and cold,” she recalls. “The girls in my barracks were only allowed one pail of coal in the evening. Being from North Dakota, I was used to the cold, but not the dampness that seeped into our bones each night.”
The cries of wounded Allied Soldiers and Sailors soon interrupted the cold.
“April 28, 1944. It’s a day that has been in my mind all these years,” she said. “I’ll never forget it. You never get the sounds of battle and dying out of your mind.”
On that night, Mrs. Walker said, a German U-boat surfaced, apparently gathering intelligence on the mustering Allies. As it left the harbor it dropped a charge that startled the American forces. The confusion caused the Soldiers and Sailors to fire on each other.
“Our little hospital took in what we could. Every bed was full as they shipped more wounded further inland,” she said. “I heard that between 750 and 1,200 servicemen lost their lives to friendly fire that night.”
Mrs. Walker said the wounded were eventually discharged or moved. Then she found herself in charge of the ward that was set aside for those who were briefed about the upcoming invasion of Normandy.
“When June 6 came, we knew we would get back a lot of wounded. But no one could prepare us for what we saw. The first to come in were the paratroopers,” she said. “The poor fellows would get hung up in trees or break bones on their landings and the enemy would shoot them without mercy.”
The wounded found themselves in her care, some for several weeks. She made friends with many of them.
“I think the friendships made it harder,” she said. “I remember one fellow who was going into battle. He knew he was likely to be hurt and begged me to make him a first aid kit.”
She wasn’t able to give him a full kit, as all the supplies were for the hospital. However, she was able to snatch a few things and sent him off with some pain killers and bandages.
“I never saw him again. Almost every troop we got to know never came back,” she said grimly.
The war left nothing intact, Mrs. Walker said. It seemed to destroy things in cycles.
“We would have periods without any patients and then the wounded would pour in,” she said. “Those fighting in northern Europe came back with blackened, frozen limbs. Those fighting in Normandy came back with broken bones and bullet wounds.”
Even the buildings were not left intact.
“Many, many historical buildings were destroyed. Every time we visited the cities something else was destroyed.”
Mrs. Walker came home 26 months after she left -- permanently changed from who she was before. Had she stayed home she would have seen injuries and accidents but only a small fraction of what she saw those two years in England.
Was it worth it?
“The soldiers needed us,” she said. “America needed us. I’ve never been able to forget what I saw, and I’ve never been as proud.”