© Constance J. Moore
Colonel, ANC (Retired), ANCA Historian
In an 11 March 2014 induction ceremony in Washington, DC, the US Army Foundation Hall of Fame inducted the four Army Nurses who received Silver Star medals in WWII: 1LT Mary Roberts, 2LT Elaine Roe, 2LT
Virginia Rourke and 2LT Ellen Ainsworth. These nurses were the first women in the history of the military to receive the country’s third-highest medal for gallantry in action. During the fierce German bombardment at Anzio, Italy, in February 1944, they valiantly cared for the wounded and injured with cool resolve that inspired other healthcare professionals and patients.
(L-R): 1LT May Roberts, 2LT Elaine Roe and 2LT
Rita Rourke receive the Silver Star for gallantry
Lieutenant Dagit, who served with Roberts and Ainsworth at the 56th Evacuation Hospital, recalled, “No one escaped the feeling of desperation that hung over the beachhead. The Germans had a massive troop build-up [that was] ready to launch a counterattack against our infantry.... Officials made plans to evacuate the nurses and later dropped [that idea.] [The leadership] determined that our presence was a morale factor for the wounded.… Shelling came day and night without warning. Air raids came most often at night.”1
“The Germans gleefully pounded them unceasingly with artillery of every kind.… [As a result] the Allies suffered 19,000 casualties.”2
It seemed that the Germans used the Red Cross on the tents as a bull’s-eye rather than a sign of refuge for noncombatants and injured personnel!
On 10 February, during one of the worst shellings, Lieutenant Roberts, Chief Nurse of the Operating Room, kept three surgical theaters open for the wounded. When the surgical tent received a direct hit, equipment was damaged and two corpsmen were wounded by shell fragments. Despite the damage and the injuries of the staff, she encouraged her nurses not to curtail surgeries. Her composure and dedication ensured the sustainment of the vital operating room services.3 Meanwhile, Lieutenant Ainsworth was working the night shift on the Surgical Ward where she directed that patients be placed on the floor. None of the patients were harmed, but Ainsworth sustained a chest wound that ultimately took her life six days later.4
Destruction from German bombardment
At the same time, the Germans also vigorously bombed the 33rd Field Hospital. Lieutenant Roe worked in the postoperative tent and Lieutenant Rourke was assigned to a ward tent.5
There was no electricity, so the nurses used flashlights as they cared for the injured and calmed the concerns of the fearful. When given the order to evacuate the patients, they calmly helped evacuate 42 patients.6
Their “quick thinking, and competence [during] an unnerving situation … prevented confusion and were an inspiration to the enlisted men working under their supervision.”7
These four women illuminate the ethos of Army nursing—when called upon, no matter where or when, their focus is on the health and welfare of their patients.
1Avis Dagit Schorer, A Half-Acre of Hell: A Combat Nurse in World War II ( Lakeview MN: Galde Press, Inc., 2002), 150.
2 Thomas Turner, “Texans at Bloody Rapido and an Angel,” Waco History Project (n.d) http://wacohistoryproject.org/
Moments/nurseroberts.html (Accessed March 16, 2014).
3 _________________, General Orders, Headquarters, VI Corps, No. 4 (February 18, 1944).
4 _________________, “Lt Ellen Ainsworth Dies of Wounds,” Shawano Leader, March 13, 1944.
5 Daniel De Luce, “On the Anzio Beachhead,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, (February 23, 1944).
6 _________________, General Orders, Headquarters, VI Corps, No. 4 (February 18, 1944).