by Priscilla Rall
WWII Thurmont Nurse Follows Troops: Part 2
We continue with the story of Mary Catherine Willhide as she nurses wounded American soldiers in Normandy. She noted in a letter home that there was no distinction between officers and enlisted men, with officers often helping enlisted men if the need arose. Mary was in a 400-bed hospital with everything attached; pharmacy, a generator for lights, X-ray equipment, all under tents. They had extra tents for patients in shock and those waiting for surgery. Mary was devastated by the number of badly injured patients waiting for treatment lying on the ground. She noted that they never complained, knowing how many severely injured soldiers were being treated but just asked for some food.
On Monday, July 17, 1944, another hospital temporarily took over their facilities so that the doctors and nurses could get some much-needed sleep. Then, on July 19, Mary’s hospital moved three miles down the road or about three fields over. Every night Mary could hear the American’s flak from the US “ack-ack” guns as the German planes flew over the hospital. “We slept with our helmets on” and “pieces would fly past so close you could hear the whiz,” Mary wrote in a letter to her family. The front was just 7 miles away and American soldiers were battling for St. Lo. Donald Null of Frederick was fighting there with the 115th Infantry and his brother, Austin, with the 30th Infantry, was killed there.
The breakthrough came on July 26, and Mary and her fellow nurses stood on the bank along the field and watched the American planes, 15 in each squadron. They flew from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the afternoon. They reminded Mary of wild geese flying. She also saw five Allied bombers shot down. “They would blow up in mid-air and leave a long black streak of smoke from the sky to the ground.” Tragically, some of the bombers didn’t get far enough over the enemy lines and they bombed our own troops. The casualties were heavy.
“On the night of July 31, we were told at 10 p.m. that we had one hour to be ready to move out. So we went three to four miles east of St. Lo, and the terrain there was the worst so far. We were in a field that our men took three times before we were able to hold it. There were large craters, holes and many mines not yet set off,” Mary wrote. Near our tent were three to four dead cows, plus the bodies of soldiers killed a week before. “It was another horrible sight never to be forgotten.” In fact, 13 soldiers were injured when a mine exploded, and one was killed. “How the rest of us escaped, God only knows because the engineers didn’t demine the place until after we had been there a week.” The smell, hot weather, and flies made life miserable. There were many critically injured soldiers, many with abdominal wounds that required colostomies. Their dressings changed every few hours. Mary and her team stayed there for 15 days.
On Aug. 15, Mary was moved to Mortain and the war was going fast. They were 75 miles behind the front and set up in an apple orchard. They were treated to steak and fresh eggs every day! “We only had a few bad days and then we were finished! We even got to see Reims. On August 31 we traveled 240 miles in two days and we ended up just 20 miles east of Paris at Pierre la Vie. On Labor Day I saw Paris, bought perfume and saw Napoleon’s tomb, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triumph and the Eiffel Tower!” Mary wrote.
Mary’s hospital was in a nice grassy area as the Allied armies raced towards Germany. She went into Paris with others on three different days. Then they moved to Bastogne, Belgium, on September 22, 1944. From there they went to Luxemburg where there was nothing but mud. There was a ridged blackout “so you can imagine stumbling around at midnight going to work. We worked from midnight to noon. We ate only one meal to save time. We were there two weeks. A German patrol came near the hospital and one enemy was captured. One of our ambulances was lost behind the line and was told how to find us! I think sometimes that we were not meant to be captured. We were wearing our nerves on our sleeves,” Mary wrote.
They were near Kleif in Luxemburg on Sept. 25 when the Ardennes offensive started. The Americans didn’t get very far because their tanks ran out of gas and couldn’t get through the Siegfried Line. On Oct. 5, Mary moved to Stavelot, Belgium, which reminded her of home. They rested there a short time before moving on to Malmedy in old Germany, where she first encountered hostile people. “We were told by the soldiers that if the Germans counter-attacked, they couldn’t hold the line. Our first taste of the breakthrough came on December 16 at 5 o’clock in the morning. The buzz bombs averaged 10 to 15 a day from October until it became almost a frenzy,” Mary wrote. She was on night duty Dec. 16, and was sitting around the stove writing a letter when one of the bombs hit so close that it knocked the pen out of her hand. She was in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge.