In 1941, the United States entered the Second World War and the “war effort” became the job of the entire nation. From altered shopping choices on the homefront, to the call for volunteer plane spotters near the cost, to the military-themed songs on the radio, American life changed in countless ways.
The role of American women in the military shifted, too. As war loomed, the call went out for nurses. According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, by the end of the war, more than 59,000 women had served in the Army Nurse Corpse, many of them in immediate, physical danger, closer to the front lines than ever before.
Avis D. Schorer (nee Dagit) was one of these nurses. In her book, A Half Acre of Hell: A Combat Nurse in WWII, she tells the story of her induction into the Army and her deployment overseas to care for the troops fighting across North Africa and Italy.
The book opens in 1941. A young nurse, just graduating from Iowa Methodist Hospital’s student nurse program, Avis Dagit didn’t have any particular interest in military life. However, she couldn’t shake the words of one of her supervisors: “All branches of the military service need nurses…You’re young and aren’t married. There is no reason you can’t volunteer.” (Schorer pg. 1)
Shortly thereafter, she and her fellow nurses were visited by a representative of the Red Cross and encouraged to sign up. The United States was not at war, and in spite of the troubles abroad the possibility of being called up seemed remote. She checked “Yes,” she’d be willing to serve in case of emergency, and when asked for her preference of military branch she wrote, “Army.”
When she shared this news with her parents, she saw their concern and reassured them. “Oh, don’t worry. They won’t call me unless we’re at war. If that happens, I’d make it clear I’ll only serve one year.” (Schorer pg. 4)
Then, December 7, 1941 dawned. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. America went to war, and just before Christmas, Avis Dagit received her orders to report for a physical. She passed, was made a 2nd lieutenant, and in March she began army life at Camp Chaffee in Arkansas.
Along with the orders came instructions as to what we could and could not bring to camp. I realized that, until the war was over, my life was not my own. I belonged to the army now. (Schorer pg 7)
This lesson was repeated again and again as she became used to military life—to uniforms, (unflattering ones, by her account) filling out paperwork in triplicate, and, on at least two occasions, unwanted advances by male officers.
Fortunately, other nurses helped to ease the transition into the army. So did the enlisted men assigned to work in her ward, helping acquaint her with protocol and the all-important military slang.
From Fort Chaffee, she and ten other nurses were sent to Texas to join the 56th Evacuation Hospital, bound for North Africa. Lt. Dagit’s nerves at the big changes ahead weren’t assuaged by the appointment to set up her will, power of attorney, and insurance information or by the instructions to pack enough personal supplies to last a year.
Travelling from Texas to New York, then across the Atlantic to North Africa with stops in Morocco and Tunisia, the 56th Evacuation Hospital and Lt. Dagit eventually crossed the Mediterranean into Italy. From Avellino (south of Salerno) to Dragoni, they worked to save the lives of soldiers from the U.S. 5th army through a cold, muddy winter. Lt. Dagit recorded her pleasure at their uniform color changing from blue to olive drab—at least it hid the mud better.
Christmas passed with attempts to decorate the wards and make a holiday for their patients, and then word came. The 56th Evac would be moving again. They didn’t know it at the time, but they would be heading to the place for which this book is named—Hell’s Half Acre, the hospital area of the Anzio beachhead.
Even landing the medical staff on the beachhead was a challenge.
We gathered twice for debarkation and were chased back each time by German planes overhead. It had been thirty-six hours since we’d arrived at Anzio. During that time, we’d survived fourteen air raids and countless shellings. I thanked God I was alive. (Schorer pg 127)
The assault on the beaches of Anzio will merit its own post, but in short, around 70,000 British and Americans—and around 230 US Army nurses—ended up hemmed in a seven by fifteen mile piece of beach and marsh from the January landings until May. The encircling German troops held the high ground, and used it to advantage with shellings and air raids.
“Hell’s Half Acre” earned its name. Not only did the medical staff struggle to provide treatment for the terrible wounds of war, they also endured bombings and shellings of the hospital compound. The 95th Evacuation Hospital was hit so badly that they had to be replaced. Patients were re-wounded, doctors and medics were injured and killed, six nurses lost their lives.
Avis Dagit and the 56th Evac suffered through Anzio until April, when they were relieved. Their service was far from over. They continued north, following the Army’s advance all the way through Italy to Udine on the Yugoslavian border. At last, in August of 1945, after 2 1/2 years of service, Lt. Dagit received her orders to the Redeployment Center—the first step on her journey home.
I found A Half Acre of Hell a fascinating read, not only as a description of battlefield medicine, but also as the story of people trying to find normalcy amidst chaos. The author included details about the every day life of the nurses—dances, leaves, hair care woes and clothing struggles—which may not have been packed with adventure, but showed a well-rounded view of her time in service.
As a chance to step into the history of the Second World War and a remembrance of the brave service of our nurses and other medical staff, A Half Acre of Hell is well worth a read.
On a side note, as a Minnesotan by birth I found it interesting that Avis D. Schorer lived much of her post-war life “just down the road” in Bloomington, MN. She passed away in August of 2016. According to her obituary, her book has been dramatized as a play by a local theater company, and a monument stands to her at the state capitol.
The stories of self-sacrifice from the “non-combatant” medical staff who still faced grave danger during wartime never fail to amaze me. What about you, Readers—have you found any amazing stories of late?
If you would care to check out other true stories of WWII nurses, you might find my review of Ruth G. Haskell’s Helmets and Lipstick of interest, or the story of the POW Angels—nurses who were captured in the Philippines. Cate Lineberry’s The Secret Rescue —the story of a plane full of medical personnel trapped behind enemy lines— is also an excellent choice, in my opinion!