Each year on June 6th, we commemorate the landings of American and allied troops at Normandy, the massive invasion that heralded the beginning of the end of WWII. It wasn’t just on that day that beached flooded with soldiers. They continued to pour in for weeks to come, then fought their way east, toward Berlin.
By the middle of June much needed hospital units were on the waves, heading in to join the infantry and armor units already taking on German defenders. New Second Lieutenant Katherine Flynn, ‘Kate’ to her pals, slipped over the side of a landing craft into the frigid water and began the slog up to Utah Beach. At 5’3”, Kate was quickly knocked over by a wave, losing sight of the smoking mass of wrecked vehicles and temporary graves spread across the sand ahead. One of her fellow nurses grabbed her by the straps of her backpack and dragged her ashore. Kate looked at the devastation around her and fell to her knees.
Kate Flynn was barely 21 years old.
Over 59,000 American women served as nurses in World War II. Many, like Kate, were young. Along with the majority of her nursing school classmates, Kate joined the Army Nurse Corps right after graduation in June 1943. Months of training followed. She learned marching, teamwork and Army life and lingo. By the time her unit was sent forward to stage in England she could set up triage tents and take them down in a hurry right along with the best of them. Kate’s unit was a heavy casualty field hospital, always stationed near the front lines, ready to accept, triage, stabilize, and treat the wounded. Sometimes they were actually at the front, the rattling sounds of small arms fire nearby. Kate learned to recognize the sight and sounds of enemy aircraft, tanks, and troops. She also learned that sometimes the big red cross atop the tents didn’t matter to the enemy. When shelling rattled the flimsy canvas tent right down to its pegs, she and her fellow nurses would roll the wounded out of their cots and lie on the ground with them, holding the trembling soldiers close until it was safe to help them up again.
Kate understood the need for speed. The field hospital had a well-honed procedure for treatment. They only had so much time to get it right when the wounded arrived, sometimes in droves. Kate called those precious moments of initial action “The Golden Hour,” a term the military would adopt years later. Following triage, the most seriously wounded headed straight to surgery, those less critical were given plasma, bandaged, comforted, and allowed to rest. When the wounded could safely be moved, they were sent to the rear lines. Then Kate and her fellow nurses packed up their gear and equipment and moved again, following the battle forward. They moved on average every ten days. It became routine. It was what her life was like, a trip through the schedule of setup, reception, horror, treatment, tears and prayers, teardown, move. She was always exhausted.
And worried. Her fiancé, Lieut. James Nolan was with the Army Air Corps somewhere in the Pacific. They wrote back and forth during their years apart, each wondering how the other was faring. They didn’t know how long the separation would last. Everyone serving in an American uniform had orders for “the duration plus six months.” No matter what it took, or how long, they were in the fight until the end.
Kate Flynn served in the U.S. Army’s 53rd Field Hospital (Heavy Casualty) from June 1944 all along that rough road right to the end of the war, earning five battle stars for her service. From Victory in Europe (VE) Day (May 8, 1945) through August, her unit was still on standby. Thankfully, her unit wasn’t ordered to head to Japan. The war there ended in August. She was home by November, James made it back by Christmas. In January 1945 they began their married life together.
More than 405,000 Americans were killed in World War II. The entire country was upended, every family affected. Throughout the later years, as Kate and James raised a family and saw three of their sons serve, they thought back to those days. How they had first met in Florida, where Kate had hoped to train as a flight nurse. The long months of separation half a world apart. The long wait until they could be together. They also knew how grateful they were to be Americans. And free. She talked about those days in an interview with National Public Radio in 2004, just prior to the dedication of the WWII memorial in Washington.
The Greatest Generation. God bless them all.
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