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Diane Burke Fessler. No Time For Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1996. xv + 280 pp. Bibliography, index, photographs, maps and cartoons. No price listed (cloth); $22.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8701-3416-7.

Reviewed by Donna M. Dean, Independent Scholar.
Published by H-Minerva (June, 2001)

But For Them The War Might Have Been Worse

When most people think of WWII, the images which come to mind are often soldiers, Hitler, Japanese bombers striking Pearl Harbor, and combat scenes. Few are likely to think of an Army or Navy nurse, standing in water and mud in a tent as she bends low over a litter, tending to the wounded.

When most people think of Prisoners of War on Corregidor and the Philippines they see images of skeletal soldiers, starving, filthy, beaten and tortured; few see the equally starved and mal-treated Army and Navy nurses that also were captured and imprisoned.

In all the bitter debate swirling around whether women should be in or near combat area, even lip service is seldom given to the fact that military nurses have always been there, often just behind front lines, or sometimes in the thick of the ever-shifting battles. Nurses in WWII served bravely and with distinction in every theatre of war, under the most brutal, deprived, and dangerous conditions. In the Philippines, the POW nurses tried to care for the sick and wounded with no supplies, no medicines, no equipment, and no food even though they themselves were treated no better than the other prisoners. In Albania nurses were trapped for months in German-infested country in the midst of the eternal Albanian civil war, unable to leave their hiding places to even go outside lest they be seen, and finally being forced to walk out over mountains in freezing weather in constant danger of being discovered.

This book is comprised of individual short pieces transcribed from the words of some of these women. The experiences range from the lighthearted accounts of the antics of the very young through the most harrowing memories of the torn bodies and destroyed lives of some of the patients they cared for. None of the mostly very young and inexperienced women were truly prepared for the depth and breadth of the horrors they would see. Quite a few women were nursing in various facilities in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and had to deal with the stream of casualties that immediately ensued.

Roughly divided into geographical areas including Pacific and European theatres, and further subdivided temporally by U.S. entry into the war, the war itself, and the massive efforts of occupation and troop movement after peace was regained, some of the stories of the same women act as constant threads on a longitudinal basis, providing more cohesiveness than typical in a collection of short pieces. This methodology on the part of the author/editor also contributes to the reader's more committed interest and an enhanced coherence. While a work such as "The Good Soldier" by Selene Weise is the story of one person, and thus gives the reader a more complete and thorough feeling for one South Pacific area over a long time span, the cumulative effect and scope of this book still provides a strong feeling of involvement and knowledge of nursing experiences throughout all areas of operation.

The reader will be drawn somewhat gradually into the genuinely horrific conditions of nursing under battle situations, continual bombing and strafing, and the often primitive facilities in which these women were forced to perform their duties. Many of the voices chose to discuss only the happier, more light-hearted or even humorous aspects of their time during the war. This only makes those accounts which detail the terrible hardships, deprivations, and dangers more effective. It is impossible to overstate the true difficulties of wartime nursing and the total dedication and saving grace of these women who chose to serve.

To a woman of this reviewer's generation, the WWII generation had, in general, a very different world view. This is made abundantly clear in the reading. In spite of the hardships and horrors, a decided innocence of outlook and seemingly less cynical acceptance of the status quo of the gross inequities of recognition, advancement in rank (one Navy nurse mentions they didn't even have ranks until the war), and professional status is apparent throughout. Military nurses were venerated by their patients in many instances, but they were often forgotten, ignored, or treated like Cinderella in comparison with their male peers. Even something as basic as adequate uniforms suitable for their duties and working conditions was usually disregarded, and many of the accounts mention the non-availability of sanitary napkins. Small, light women often had no choice but to wear men's uniform items, including boots and sturdy shoes, many lacked even slacks, and warm coats for frigid temperatures were usually absent. Nurses found themselves reporting for duty to units not expecting them and totally unprepared for them, or sitting in stifling overcrowded railway cars on some siding because their cars were last priority.

An interesting historic account is that of Prudence Burns Burrell, one of the first African-American nurses to join the Army in WWII. She tells of the segregation that existed then, to the absurd extremes of separate hospitals for Caucasians and Blacks, and even segregated blood supplies, lest some unsuspecting white casualty be treated with the supposedly tainted blood of a black donor. However, the racism sometimes worked both ways; one nurse mentions taking care of black casualties who demonstrated hostility and a lack of cooperation toward her by very overt means.

Race wasn't the only divisive factor. Many Army nurses express envy and a degree of hostility toward their counterparts in the Navy, citing the Navy's better provisioning of sharp uniforms (one Army nurse, seeing her first Navy nurse, thought she was a movie star) and the better food the Navy got. Additionally, several accounts mention the ostracism and hostility shown them by nurses in other areas and that of flight nurses toward non-flight nurses who happened to accompany patients on flights and found themselves without food, lodging or transportation upon arrival.

It is impossible to complete "No Time For Fear" and fail to gain respect for nurses' invaluable contributions and sacrifices. It is also impossible to read it and not realize women have lived and worked under the most adverse war-time conditions and not only done their duty, but excelled in courage and dedication. In an era when many younger people no longer have any direct connection to WWII, and for whom the war is (at best) an absurd stereotype of John Wayne manfully sweeping Patricia O'Neal off her feet in her clean, starched uniform, it is high time for a book like this. This reviewer highly recommends it for anyone wishing to know what the war looked like from the side of the litters, operating tables and cots of the wounded and dying.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 12/12/01 16:49:56
S D Stein

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