World War II

Women in uniforms walking

“Goodness Knows, We've Worked Like Demons”


Sunday, July 8, 1945

World War II was fought on the American side by millions of draftees and volunteers. Among the most essential of the latter group were medical personnel that carried out important roles in aiding those who had been wounded or shell-shocked in combat. The US Army’s 77th Evacuation Hospital Unit, which was built on a core of volunteer nurses and physicians with University of Kansas affiliations, performed meritorious service in North Africa, Sicily, England, France, Belgium and Germany.

Nurses comprised a slight majority of the professional medical personnel assigned to the 77th. Together with the doctors and enlisted men, they cared for thousands of wounded soldiers and hundreds of enemy prisoners of war. In a living arrangement unique to the US Army, male doctors and female nurses in the Medical Corps lived and worked side-by-side. A good portion of the 77th served together for more than three years after starting their basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, on June 16, 1942.

For the nurses that joined what would become this band of sisters and brothers, arrival at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for basic training began an unforgettable wartime adventure. They had passed physical exams at Fort Leavenworth just as the lead officer corps, headed by KU School of Medicine faculty member, Lt. Col. Edward H. Hashinger, MD, decamped for Missouri to prepare for the doctors and nurses who reported over the next month.

By the time the last doctors and nurses who formed the original unit returned to the States several months after the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, the 77th had performed surgeries and dispensed medical care on three continents and eight countries or colonies.

Collectively, the unit received seven battle stars, six Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and one Legion of Merit. On occasion literally under fire, including from German V-1 rockets (also known as “buzz bombs”), the 77th normally operated just behind the rear battle lines to receive wounded, provide essential medical or surgical treatment and evacuate the now recuperating soldiers to appropriate hospitals down the line or back to their posts.

The nurses provided ward supervision, wound dressing, and bedside care of patients as well as operating room assistance. Aided by enlisted men who doubled as litter bearers, clerks, and medical technicians, they kept the hospital functioning in tents, temporary buildings, and occasionally out in the open.

Fortunately, at least two nurses of the 77th have left complete files of their letters home during the war to the KU Medical Center Archives. Sarah Catherine Leach was a KU Nursing graduate and Bell Memorial Hospital employee and nursing instructor prior to her volunteering. She received several letters from former KU Nursing Education Supervisor Henrietta Froehlke. Hailing from Hutchinson, Kansas, her handwritten letters to her family provide a treasure trove of personal insights about the unit’s experiences.

Clio Shirley came to the 77th by a different route. Trained at William Newton Memorial Hospital in Winfield, Kansas, she worked with physicians in the town who learned of the organization of the 77th through their KU ties. She and a fellow nurse, Gladys C. Perdue along with Winfield physicians Harwin J. “Brownie” Brown, Wendell A. Grosjean, and Howard E. Snyder, formed something of a Winfield concentration among the staff the 77th. Clio Shirley’s letters have been transcribed in typewritten form while Sarah Leach’s letters remain in her own longhand.

June 16, 1942 was a day etched in the minds of both nurses. Sarah Leach noted, “The chief nurse here is not at all to my liking. She has some ideas I do not share. Today she lectured us and told us the do’s and don’ts of the army. Some are all right but others aren’t so hot. We are not to ever go out with enlisted men….Such snobbery.” As it turned out, Leach gained a more than grudging respect for chief nurse Bessie Walker during their more than three years of close work and contact, but her initial impression approximated the feelings of most military personnel about their Army superiors on first contact.

The earlier reference to “snobbery” concerning enlisted men refers to the fact that all nurses in the 77th were commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants upon enlistment. The male medical personnel likewise received commissions with the senior doctors ranking from Captain to Lt. Colonel. Chief Nurse Walker received an early promotion to 1st Lieutenant and later to Captain. In 1944 first Shirley and then Leach received promotions to 1st Lieutenant status as well. As officers, the doctors and nurses automatically gained entrance to officers’ clubs and other privileges of rank. It is quite possible that this level of status helped create the remarkable “esprit de corps” attributed to this KU-connected military outfit.

Clio Shirley found that her built-in support system of fellow Winfield doctors helped in the transition to Army life: “Ran into Dr. Howard – or Major Snyder – as we have to call him. It was wonderful to see someone we really knew,….” In almost the same breath however, Clio went on to comment on the acceptance given by her new companions as well: “…the gals in here in our quarters are really swell, so helpful and friendly.”

Well into their three years of work-and-living contact, Leach and Shirley became good friends even though a 10-year age gap and differing educational backgrounds separated them at first. Sarah Leach was a 32-year-old RN the summer she joined the army. She held a bachelor of arts degree from Park College in Parkville, Missouri, and a nursing diploma from KU. She also had been a nursing instructor in the KU Department of Nursing Education (then part of the KU School of Medicine) prior to enlistment. Theoretically, her friendships would have been with her fellow KU and Kansas City volunteers.

Clio Shirley entered the Newton Memorial Hospital Nursing Education program in Winfield right out of high school. She had held her RN certificate for less than a year prior to “joining up” at age 22. Her one place of employment had been the Snyder Medical Clinic, which also contributed the other Winfield participants in the 77th.

Shirley’s letters home tend to be full of hometown reminiscences and references. Leach provided much better written descriptions of life in an Army medical unit and of the surrounding countryside. Two more unlikely friends among the various nurse volunteers would be hard to imagine, yet they formed a strong bond by 1944. Leach wrote of Shirley and another tent mate, Gladys Perdue, in late summer of that year. “The…three of us I think are more than usually close – we’ve been together all along and have all had some trouble out of which we’ve helped one another. Some day, I’ll tell you about us – it would make a good story if we wanted to air our difficulties – which we don’t.”

Sarah Leach always signed her letters to her family as “Catherine” which was her middle name. She explained in a letter sent from one of their several North African locations: “Since reaching Africa I’ve lost the name Catherine entirely I think. I used to tell everyone they could call me what they wished and they all prefer ‘Sarah’ so I don’t bother to mention my middle name anymore.” Army life could change more than one’s waking and sleeping times.

While stationed in England, Leach waxed almost poetic in her description of a walk she took across the countryside with a male officer: “I must tell you about a walk I took last evening with Alton. We hit for the country or as nearly that as England has. It was a nice clear evening, and again I was affected at the sensation of having the clock turned back 25 to 50 yrs. The men were out doing chores and they never wear overalls but rather a sort of peasant costume of boots, funny leg top trousers and little short jacket. I think everyone in the neighborhood was out walking their children.”

However, it was work, not diversions such as walking in the country, which ultimately distinguished the mission of the 77th. Because of her education and work experience, Leach often found herself working on “the jitters ward” as she called the psychiatric section of the tent hospital. In a lengthy letter, dated September 5, 1944, to her sister studying nursing at Yale, she described her work in the ward extensively:

“You asked about our combat exhaustions. Our chief treatment is food, rest and mental relaxation. The various forms of hysteria and somatic neuroses develop usually after prolonged lack of sleep and food and continual mental strain of fighting. Some of my patients have lost 50 and 60 pounds since D-day. When we get them, sleep and eating are impossible without pharmaceutical aids. So we ‘soak them out’ with sodium amytal or pentothal and keep them fairly drunk until they stop fighting and eat without being forced to do so.

“Some we give mild insulin shock—about 30 units in the morning without food. It often gives the appetite a boost not just then but it remains after the use of insulin a few days. After they begin to get better I see they have little jobs to do in the wards, insist they keep clean and urge them to spend time at the picture show [the movies] and the Red Cross. Some, we’ve even sent to help bear litters to & from the ambulances when they are nearly well. They like it and improve rapidly with work.

“Of course, I never refuse to listen to their stories even if it messes up my own work. I try to help them figure out the why of what happened and make them see they aren’t cowards at all for most of them express that fear. We also discuss the news and what’s back of our fighting for some can’t understand why we’re here. We play cards, listen to the radio and draw the newer ones into the fun. Most of them are asocial when they arrive.

“Strangely enough, the older ones enjoy helping to draw out the new ones. One of the most encouraging things is that when they leave they’re quite frank in telling others about their own diagnosis. Some think we’re crazy when they arrive but all so far have come around to agree that we’re right before they leave us. I never force any ideas on them for they do better on their own and will ask plenty of questions.

“One of the funniest things I ever saw was when a group that were about well decided to put on a show for curious passers-by who know what ward it was and had strolled by to see what was going on. They were all going thru absurd antics when they saw the curious coming and the whole ward got a huge kick out of it. I’ve made some life-long friends in that ward and I’m proud of them. One of them has a master’s degree and is a master sergeant.”

Leach’s concluding comments provide a moving assessment of her sense of personal and collective accomplishment while on duty with the 77th.

While the nurses of the 77th were in some intense work situations in North Africa prior to D-Day, June 6, 1944, their most strenuous experiences came while stationed just behind the rear lines in France, Belgium, and Germany from July 1944 to May 1945. In these instances, the unit worked with American casualties and German prisoners-of-war at the same time. Clio Shirley commented on this fact in a letter to her mother dated September 20, 1944:

“Not long ago we had a German prisoner of war as a patient who spoke perfect English, had studied in London. My ward officer, Col. [Mervin] Rumold [of KU] had spent a year in Germany over 10 years ago and had an uncle living near the patient’s home. I spent one of the most interesting evenings since I’ve been in the Army listening to those two discuss everything from movies to world affairs. Of course, there were very few subjects they agreed on, but both were intelligent and good humored.

“We give German patients the same care we do Americans as there is no separation when a man is wounded, but if there is a necessity of making one patient wait while someone is treated first, naturally the American boy comes first. I like to feel that the German medics and nurses do the same for our boys when captured.”

She felt compelled to add, “I don’t mean we are friendly with the [prisoner] patients because that would be untrue but we do give them good medical care.”

In the case of Sarah Leach, the education she received from her college German classes got pressed into service on occasion: “I have one very ill Jerry [a commonly used pejorative name for the German combatants] with uremia and I fear we’re losing him. He’s not a Nazi at heart and is a good patient. He came in with the jitters but later the uremia developed. He’d been pinned down for 10 hours in a bombed building when we got him. He’s so uncomfortable and so appreciative of anything we do for him. My German is getting a work out but it would be easier if there hadn’t been so many years elapse since I learned it. However, it’s improving for neither of my POWs [Prisoners of War] know a word of English.”

In the case of both Shirley and Leach, they had romantic relationships with men that went sour while in the 77th. Shirley had been going steady with a young man from Winfield before entering the Army. After her training began, he went into the service as well. They wrote intermittently during their first year in separate posts. Finally meeting once again while both were stationed in North Africa, Shirley realized how little she had in common with her former high school beau and broke off the relationship.

Leach’s wartime romantic experience turned out differently. She met a naval PT Boat commander during their duty in Sicily. He proposed, she accepted and they filed papers with the military. Clio Shirley described the process to her mother in an October 16, 1943 letter: “Sarah Leach who lives with…me has met a grand person, Navy, on a PT boat, and after all these months said ‘Yes’ so they’ve sent in their papers. You have to sign about 14 copies after you get your commanding officer’s consent, send them into Army headquarters and then wait a probationary period of 90 days. All in all takes around four months.” Unfortunately, the four months stretched into more than a year and “Pat,” Leach’s fiancé, got cold feet.

It is not as though the nurses did not have many opportunities to say “Yes” to offers of male companionship. Shirley described the situation this way: “Met some nice officers from the air corps in town the other day…. They seem lonesome and want to talk to anyone who speaks American. That gets to be quite a line – I haven’t seen an American girl for—so many months. They want you to feel sorry for them. I believe a girl could be cross-eyed, bowlegged and knockneed and she’d still be popular…in North Africa.” Shirley concluded however: “…after all this time it’s hard to get any gal in the unit to go out. Everyone’s tired enough, they’d rather go home, write letters, read a book and sleep – I know I would.”

Actually, it may be more to the point that the solidarity of the unit – between the physicians and the nurses – had more to do with the unwillingness to “date” outside the group. Sarah Leach described just such a situation that occurred in Belgium in October 1944: “I went to a party near here a few nights ago…. The officers there were very nice and have invited us to return Saturday evening. Nancy [Leach’s tent mate] knew one of the officers but some of our officers were worrying because we didn’t know them better and one even sat up until we got in. We might as well be at home the way they check up on us. However, it is nice to have them care that much.” The 77th truly had turned into a band of sisters and brothers.

Politics seems to have played only a minor role in the thinking of these two nurses of the 77th. Still, both women proved loyal daughters of Kansas Republicans and indicated that they cast their absentee ballots in the fall of 1944 for Tom Dewey instead of “Franklin D.” as Sarah Leach once referred to the President. Leach inserted one additional comment in a November 10 letter: “I guess we have Roosevelt again. I hope he lives to finish out his term for Truman would be even worse.”

While the purpose of the 77th was primarily to serve as a first stop, behind-the-lines hospital that assessed injuries and prepared those in need for further evacuation, the outfit did come under direct attack on several occasions.

The first occurred when the 77th had been deployed back to England after the North African campaign and prior to the time when the unit shipped out to France following the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. During June and early July of 1944, one of the German responses to the Allied landings in Normandy took the form of the V-1 rocket attacks. As it happened, the 77th’s Tunbridge Wells location lay in the exact path of the “robots” [Sarah Leach’s term] flying from German-held areas in France towards London. A number of the missiles fell short of their mark in the immediate area of the 77th.

Leach wrote her family on July 30, 1944, after the unit was operating “safely” in France, about how dangerous their position had been in England: “I didn’t want you to worry then but I’ll tell you now. We did not just see robots sailing over. They came down on every side of us. We figured by law of averages we’d get one in our yard soon, but we moved before we did.” She went on to say that a V-1 did explode on the former site of their hospital camp shortly after the unit crossed the channel.

Two other “close calls” came during their work in Belgium during the fall of 1944. The first was shortly after the unit’s arrival at Verviers, Belgium where they began setting up hospital operations in a former school. On the afternoon of October 11 the nurses were inside the building sweeping and cleaning to prepare spaces for medical and residential use. They heard planes in the air but thought nothing of it initially. Army Air Corps friends had previously often “buzzed” their locations.

This time, the planes were German. They came in with machine gun fire and bombs. In a published chronology of the unit’s experiences titled Medicine Under Canvas and written by Dr. Max Allen, the following is recorded: “Several of the nurses were in their fourth floor quarters, and one of them recalled watching the machine gun bullets ‘drill a series of holes in the ceiling.’” The bombs were sufficient to break almost every window in the converted school building.

Clio Shirley proved to be one of those hit by flying glass. Two days after the attack she wrote her mother explaining briefly what happened. Not wanting to worry her mother, Shirley downplayed the event tremendously: “One afternoon we had a little excitement during which I got a tiny cut on my cheek from some falling glass as did some others in the unit…. Wouldn’t have mentioned it only I was afraid you’d be notified about the Purple Heart [awarded to anyone wounded in a combat zone]…and you might worry or think it was something serious.”

Since the unit received three Purple Hearts in its service, and two of those were identified as going to enlisted men in Medicine Under Canvas, Shirley was the only nurse so honored.

The second attack came during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. While the unit appears to have received no direct injuries this time, Sarah Leach, writing on January 10, 1945 indicated to her parents that it had been a very near thing: “We’re in a nice quiet part of Belgium now where only the sound of our own air force reminds us we’re still fighting. But for almost three months we worked very hard and long hours. I know when the Germans broke thru mother and dad would worry. My only consolation was dad thought we were in a safe part of Belgium and I didn’t reply otherwise. We weren’t there believe me. We were in a bit of hell I think, but that is over and for good I think.”

Much is made about combat fatigue, shell shock and mental exhaustion among soldiers on the fighting front. Little has been documented about the effect of the type of stress experienced by the nurses of the 77th, especially during the push through France, Belgium and into Germany in 1944-45. The impact became clear in the letters of Sarah Leach from this period.

Suffering from the weariness of 12 hours on-12 hours off duty for weeks on end and from the letdown of the disintegration of her engagement, in October 1944 Leach used a comment from her mother about Leach’s brother Jim’s laxity in writing home: “I can quite understand Jim’s not writing often. It’s such an effort for me to write to anyone anymore and aside from those from my own family I get no thrill out of letters from the states anymore. We all feel that way so I guess I’m not abnormal. We’ve just lived such a different life it’s almost like being in another world.”

This was not a brand new feeling. While still in Normandy shortly after D-Day, Leach sent what had to be a chilling comment to her family: “Mother, don’t look forward to our being home when this is over. It might not be so far off but I believe they’re planning to take most of us to the Pacific and if they do I shall go if it is at all possible. I think I should if the choice is given us for I do quite well with the shattered nerve group and I have lost most of my desire to go back – at least until it is over.”

This was a promise she carried out. When offered a chance to return early to the states in the winter of 1945, she passed the opportunity on to Clio Shirley. Although the leave was much delayed, it came through in late May 1945. Shirley was back in Winfield by early June and married to an Army Air Corps captain by the first week in July. Sarah Leach stayed with the 77th until released “to the States” later in the summer of 1945.

The work of the nurses and doctors of the 77th Evacuation Hospital sometimes seemed unappreciated. But, on occasion, a man treated by the unit wrote back to give his thanks for their efforts.

One such individual, Ralph L. Davis, sent the following note to Sarah Leach on March 4, 1943: “The purpose of this note is to thank you and your fellow workers for your kindness shown me during my stay at the 77th. It’s true that I was quite ill when I was admitted to the hospital but all the care and skill of the medical world could not help me. I was downhearted and didn’t care what happened next, but when I entered the area I could see an air of friendliness about me. When I saw you smile I realized once more that there was still some good left on earth, and thought of home where my mother, sister and sweetheart are waiting for me. You proved to me that there are still some people working just as hard for the betterment of humanity as others are for the destruction of the world.”

Leach, Shirley, the other nurses, doctors and enlisted personnel of the 77th Evacuation Hospital Unit of the United States Army brought credit to their country and hope to their patients for over three years from 1942 to 1945. The KU Department of Nursing Education contributed a considerable number of women to the effort alongside the doctors produced by the Medical School.

Reflecting on their experience while seemingly in the “home stretch” of service in September 1944, Sarah Leach commented in a moving way on the comradeship developed among the nurses and staff of the 77th: “It looks as if the end isn’t far away and we all get a few pangs of homesickness just thinking how we’ll miss one another when there no longer exists the 77th on wheels. We’ve lived so very closely in the last two years and under such abnormal conditions. It’s really no wonder that outsiders feel we act like a big family and work like one. We’ve certainly had some nice things said about us here in France and we’re very proud of our record. Goodness knows, we’ve worked like demons and have done our best.”

It proved to be almost a year before “the end” actually came, but Leach’s feelings sum up what apparently most of the nurses and doctors of the 77th experienced together. This unusual band of medical sisters and brothers saved thousands of lives and shored up the morale and spirit of America’s soldiers, bringing further honor to themselves, their country and, for many, their alma mater – the Department of Nursing Education and the School of Medicine of the University of Kansas.

William S. Worley

Adjunct Professor of History

University of Missouri-Kansas City


[Source Notes: The definitive chronology of the U. S. Army’s 77th Evacuation Hospital Unit can be obtained in Max S. Allen, ed., R. W. Postelthwait, and Marion Cross, assoc. eds., “Medicine Under Canvas: A War Journal of the Evacuation Hospital” (Kansas City: University of Kansas School of Medicine, 1949). The role of the nurses and their special contributions to the operations of the 77th can be found in the manuscript and photo collection of Sarah Catherine Leach, and in Clio Shirley, “An Army Nurse in World War II” (Tulsa, Oklahoma, James H. Davies [son], 2005), available in the Archives of the University of Kansas Medical Center.]

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