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Oral History - Support for Normandy June 1944
Recollections of Nurses

Recollections of nurses, LT Helen Pavlovsky, USNR, and LT Sara Marcum, USNR, stationed at Navy Base Hospital No. 12 (at Royal Hospital, Netley, England)

[Adapted from: "Navy nurses Remember the Invasion." Navy Medicine 85, no. 3 (May-Jun. 1994): 20-23.

Under Fire

[Mrs. KelIey:] While I was at Netley, we had lots of air raids. We were supposed to go to the air raid shelter, but we never did. I wasn't scared then. Now, I would probably be under a bed or a shelter. I checked the shelters out and they looked like a tomb or something. I thought that if I'm going to go, I'm going to go. It wasn't very good sense.

Instead, we would turn our lights off in our rooms and watch the fire works. We were surrounded by [twin-barrel anti-aircraft] ack ack guns which fired at enemy planes and the place really vibrated when they shot those guns. Of course, it made the patients real nervous. Some of them would get under their beds. But, as I said, I guess I didn't have sense enough to be afraid.

[Mrs. Ramsey:] After D-Day, the Germans began shooting V-1 rockets [relatively slow moving rocket-propelled flying bombs with stubby wings, that made a loud buzzing sound while in flight] known as "buzz bombs" at England. Although we had air raid shelters I don't think we ever used them. At the foot of every bed hung a gas mask and helmet--every patient had a helmet. If we were bombed we were to pull the patient off the bed to the floor and push him under the bed, putting their helmet on first. We would hear the buzz bomb whizzing and suddenly the sound would stop as its engine stopped and they fell. There would be a breathless pause as we waited until the explosion would be heard. Although parts of Southampton were destroyed, thank goodness we were spared. Then after the buzz bomb attacks were over the V-2s [guided missiles carrying a 1-ton explosive warhead, that flew high and fast and were impossible to detect or shoot down] began. One of the things that struck me so emphatically was the British people. They would be bombed out of their homes and they'd salvage what they could and go on with life. I was so impressed with that. They had been very nice to us and we had made friends. They were able to share with us what they had and I just admired their spirit so much.

The Hospital at Netley

[Mrs. Ramsey:] The Army had been there before we arrived. I think they took over from the British and then we came in and took over from them. I don't think the Army was there for any length of time because they weren't ready for us. The Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley was built during the Victorian era. It was a very cold monstrosity. The wards were huge. I have no idea how many beds there were in a ward. There was a fireplace at either end. This made the place terribly cold and damp and certainly not conducive to treating patients.

The Seabees [US Navy construction battalion personnel] came over and remodeled the whole thing to make it usable. They converted those wood-burning fireplaces--actually wood was at a premium so they burned a kind of coke [refined coal]--to gas and that kept us warmer.

[Mrs. Kelley:] The grounds out side the buildings were beautiful, with wonderful surroundings and the view of the water. Unfortunately, the hospital was not in great condition. The plumbing was atrocious. From the bathtubs and the sinks, the water drained into a trough that went half way around the room before it finally went into a pipe and out. Each room had about 30 or 35 beds, but the rooms weren't connected, which is not very efficient when it comes to nursing because you would have to go out into the main corridor and then around into the room. Usually you were just assigned to one room and then you would help out someplace else if you weren't busy.

Luckily, the Seabees came and put in showers. They also did some work on the nurses' quarters, so unlike the Army nurses who had to live in tents, we were able to live inside.

D-Day and Treating Casualties

[Mrs. Ramsey:] We knew the ships were gathering for the invasion. It seems to me it took at least a week for all the ships to gather just outside our hospital in Southampton Water (the harbor). We could go outside and sit on the waterfront and watch. One day it seemed like the whole area was full of ships and the next morning there was not a single one. We knew the invasion was beginning. We were on alert. We could not leave and were on duty 24 hours a day. We didn't know what we were waiting for.

And then the casualties came. It took about 3 or 4 days after the invasion before we started receiving casualties. I was an operating room supervisor. We had two operating room theaters, one upstairs and one downstairs. At first, we started out with one and then we required two because we just couldn't handle all the casualties in one theater. When I say theater, I mean several rooms, each room with its own surgeon and nurse, and corpsman [enlisted Navy medical personnel]. It was one big unit. I was in charge of the one downstairs. The first casualties came into my operating room. I remember how busy we were and how they kept coming and coming and we had no place to put them. We put them out in the halls and everywhere.

We were only there as a receiving hospital. We received the casualties, took care of them, removed the bullets and shrapnel, did the debridement, cleaned them up, poured penicillin and sulfa into the wounds, wrapped them up, and sent them inland to the Army or to British hospitals inland, or by air to the United States, especially if they were bad burn patients. So we didn't keep them very long. The operating room nurses would pitch in and help the doctors do debridements and remove bullets. Until recently, I had the first bullet I had removed myself and managed to keep it for many years but I have lost it.

Anyway, we were busy and we never thought about food or sleep or anything else. The doctors as well as the nurses and corpsmen were taking care of patients. We did not sleep for the first 24 hours, and then finally sleep had to be rationed because no one would leave their work. The captain issued an order letting certain ones go and get some sleep. And then when they came back others would go. Our food was brought to us in surgery. We lived on sandwiches and coffee for a long time. When we had a minute, we would grab a bite. And that's the way we handled the first 24 hours. As the casualty load lightened, things got back to a decent pace.

I also got to use penicillin for the first time. We had these little tin cans that looked like salt shakers. They contained a mixture of penicillin and, I'm sure, sulfathiazole, and we would just use them like salt shakers and sprinkle it into the wounds. And I've read since, that it was that mixture of sulfa and penicillin used in those early days that saved many a limb and kept infections down to almost zero. They were both miracle drugs. Of course, we also gave penicillin intravenously.

We received casualties fairly steadily but not at the rate we did at the beginning. As soon as the troops landed on the beaches and went farther inland, the Army went right in and set up their field hospitals so they could do a lot of the immediate work that we were having to do at the beginning. And that took a load off of us.

[Mrs. Kelley:] All types of ships brought the casualties from Normandy. The ships landed in Southampton because our pier could only handle small boats. They brought them by ambulance from Southampton which was 5 miles away.

There was a railroad track right behind the hospital. We kept the patients for 24 to 48 hours and as soon as they could be moved, they were put on this hospital train and sent to the north part of England and we got ready for some more.

We treated mostly Army personnel, but there were also a few Navy men as well. I remember a lot of the casualties were suffering from "shell shock." Some of them didn't know who we were. They thought we were Germans and they wouldn't tell us anything except their names and serial numbers. They were classified as mentally ill. Some of them were just farm boys and the shock of war was just too much for them.

Notes: Mrs. Helen Pavlovsky Ramsey grew upon the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware. She joined the Navy in spring of 1943 and went to England in February 1944. She returned to the United States in September 1944 and was at Mare Island until the end of the war. She then left the Navy, married, and raised a family in West Virginia.

Mrs. Sara Marcum Kelley was a ward nurse originally from rural Kentucky. After graduating nursing school in January 1943 she soon joined the Navy Nurse Corps. After serving at Bethesda Naval Hospital for a year, she went to England to take part in the medical care for the Normandy invasion. Departing England, she returned to the States and became a physical therapist. Mrs. Kelley left the Navy in 1950.

Published: Mon Sep 21 12:49:24 EDT 2015