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Kate Nolan, WWII Combat Nurse

Kate Nolan, pictured recently with her granddaughter, Nooriel.
Cindy Carpien, NPR /
Kate Nolan, pictured recently with her granddaughter, Nooriel.

As she arrived at Normandy's Utah Beach, Katherine Flynn Nolan jumped from her landing craft into the water -- and nearly drowned. It was July 1944, a month after D-Day and the water off the French coast was deeper than the 5-foot-3 Army nurse was expecting. Her backpack was so heavy it was pulling her down. A tall fellow nurse reached over and lifted Nolan's backpack, holding it until they reached shallow water.

Nolan and 17 other nurses made it to land and quickly went to work, traveling with troops and setting up mobile field hospitals.

Marking this weekend's dedication of the new World War II Memorial, NPR's Susan Stamberg profiles the Army combat nurse, who cared for U.S. and German soldiers as well as concentration camp survivors. Nolan, now 83, was one of nearly 60,000 who served in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II.

The following is an article by Kate Nolan, first published in the Bulge Bugle, a journal of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.

Christmas of '44

The third platoon of the 53rd Field Hospital arrived in a small village in Holland not far from the German border. It was early November 1944, and bitter cold. A few women and children and one old man stood staring at us as we huddled under khaki blankets in the back of the truck.

"I can imagine what they are thinking of us. We are really a mess," said Marie, our platoon chief nurse.

"We sure are. What I wouldn't give for a hot shower," said Laura, "And a hot meal."

"The cooks should have the field kitchen set up tomorrow but hot showers? Who are you kidding?" I said.

Then the trucks began to move again. We were on the main street passing houses and stores and finally a church. Then we turned into a schoolyard and stopped. An old priest stood on the steps of the school, a threadbare black coat over his cassock. Our commander approached him. They spoke for a few minutes and shook hands. Turning around to face us the colonel shouted, "We'll set up in the school."

Our long journey had begun at five o'clock that morning. From somewhere in Belgium the convoy had bumped along pot-holed dirt roads and some paved ones also in bad shape, hour after hour with frequent delays. If we got to a checkpoint ahead of schedule, it would be a wait there while another convoy with higher priority went through first. We had K-rations all day. Cold, tasteless cans -- something that was called scrambled eggs and meat and those dog biscuits they called crackers. Some powder to mix with water in the mess kit tin cup. Lemonade it was called. Meanwhile the temperature kept dropping and it looked like snow. The tarp covering the top of the truck gave a little protection from the wind but that was all. We were dirty, weary and chilled to the point of numbness.

The school was a newly built red brick one-story structure with four wings. After living and working in tents since landing on Utah Beach in Normandy, we were delighted to be moving indoors at last. When the desks and chairs were removed it made an excellent hospital. Quickly the cots were set up, I.V. paraphernalia in place; receiving, shock wards, post-op and surgery made ready just in time to care for the first casualties.

For the next fourteen hours there was no let-up. From time to time we caught glimpses of nuns peeking in the rooms as we worked. They were surprised to see us nursing the patients. They, like the villagers, had taken the six of us for prostitutes since we wore the same uniforms as the male officers including the pants, and these were what the camp followers wore.

A company of the 84th Division (Railsplitters) was pinned down at a railroad bed and taking heavy losses. Ambulances kept arriving with more and more until every cot and litter was taken.

An invitation was soon extended through the priest who spoke English. The nuns wanted the nurses to move in with them in the convent.

Several hours later two of us managed to get off duty to go over and see our room. The nuns had prepared a large storeroom as our dormitory. Six of their beds were ready for our use. The nuns and twenty-eight war orphans in their care slept in the basement. They at first expected us to join them there, but at this point we were ready to die in our beds if need be in comfort. To sleep in a real bed under a roof was such luxury that we felt spoiled and pampered. The doctors and corpsmen teased us about it and wanted us to ask Mother Superior when their turn would be. She spoke a little English and when she finally understood she said they were welcome to come one at a time for a hot bath.

Now in order to have hot water for the tub a lot of work was involved. Wood had to be gathered from the woods, broken or cut up with an axe to fit into a small furnace built under the water tank behind the tub. I still think about all this sometimes when I turn on a hot water faucet and wonder whether the nuns at our favorite convent still heat water in the same way.

Usually the hospital remained in one place about ten days. Then the patients would be evacuated to a general hospital in the rear, or to an evacuation hospital for an airlift to a general hospital in England. The packing up of equipment and supplies, taking down of tents, getting our personal gear in order went swiftly and smoothly by this time, since we had done it over and over till it was routine. When the outfit we had supported went back for a rest period we would be reassigned to a new outfit, just going into action.

However, this didn't happen with the 84th. As Christmas approached things quieted down on the fighting front. As the days passed the orders to evacuate patients did not come. Tubes were removed, I.V.'s discontinued, and for the first time we had convalescent men taking food by mouth, growing stronger and getting into the holiday spirit. There were still a few in serious condition, but they did not want to be moved to a quieter area. Perhaps they felt more secure surrounded by their buddies. I don't know. Whatever the reason, it worked, because every one of them made it.

A young Dutchman began to visit the hospital each day. He spoke English and soon was helping out in the wards. He finally moved in. An excellent organist, he would play the school organ, moving it from room to room, playing requests and Christmas carols till the atmosphere was really jolly.

Leo, our Dutch friend, went out to the woods to cut down little Christmas trees for the wards. The patients made silver stars from K-ration cans. The Red Cross gave out cartons of Life Savers. We used bandages to string them to add to the trees. Everyone had the Christmas Spirit.

Meanwhile, the nuns were planning a Christmas treat for the nurses off duty. They baked some special Christmas pastry from ingredients our cooks scrounged up for them. They brewed herb tea from roots of some sort. The feast would follow three Christmas Masses in the convent chapel starting at midnight Christmas Eve.

On the 23rd of December orders came in for us to evacuate all patients. Wrapping them up warmly for their trip to a general hospital, much good-natured kidding went on. We had grown close to them all and it was like saying goodbye to family. Several of them were from New York State as were three of our nurses, Laura Ball, from Syracuse, Marie Arsenault, from Schuylerville, and Virginia Stenson, from Brooklyn. They were getting all kinds of promises about visits when the war was over so we pretended to feel slighted till we got assurances of the same. This would mean a trip to Worcester, Massachusetts, to see me, Katherine Flynn; to Memphis, Tennessee, for Ruth Nolen; and to Clayton, Alabama, for Ruth Stevens. Their intentions were sincere but never did these reunions occur.

Christmas Eve at the appointed hour we assembled in the chapel. The masses seemed to go on forever. Finally we went to the dining room. The best linen, crystal and china was on the table. Hand painted place settings with our names completed the beautiful scene.

It was a wonderful and strange little Christmas party, with us speaking no Dutch and the nuns speaking no English, except for the tiny bit Mother Superior knew. Somehow, though, we communicated with gestures, nods, smiles or frowns; but we understood one another and that too was beautiful.

Just after the tea was poured, we heard sounds of engines. One of the drivers came and said for us to report at once. The tea was too hot to drink; yet we did not want to waste it. Also we would be on the road for many hours and might not have anything hot to drink or eat for days. We would not be cheated out of this last luxury.

"Please tell the colonel to give us a few more minutes," said Marie, our chief nurse.

"Yes, ma'am," he replied and left.

For some reason that tea took a long time to cool off. The driver returned to say that we were holding up the convoy and must come immediately. Then the horns began to blow like mad.

Down in the street the Red Ball Express was waiting. Trucks stretched out as far as we could see. Headlights blazing, horns blowing, the colonel shouting: "Those damn women are holding up the war." It was quite a sight.

The nuns followed us out to the street, waving and saying Merry Christmas in Dutch. We wished them the same and thanked them for their kindness and hospitality through our friend, Leo. Then we were rolling along toward the border and Germany. That was Christmas Day in 1944, one I am not likely to forget.

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.