Memorial Day reminder: In pandemic, as in war, nurses serve bravely at the front

Mari K. Eder, Opinion contributor

Seventy-five years ago, the first post-World War II Memorial Day ceremonies were held throughout Europe at makeshift cemeteries dotted with fresh graves.

Enemy guns were sullen and silent. Heads down, Nazi prisoners marched inside the barbed wire, replacing Americans in POW camps. U.S. ground units began to fold tents and occupy former barracks and hotels. They would go home soon. Thousands repeated the refrain “Alive in ’45!” The GIs had made it through.

Others were still on alert. Doctors and nurses, like Lt. Katherine Flynn, were still hunkered down in tents. They were on tap to head directly from Germany to Japan, if needed. Like today, doctors and nurses were on the front lines, standing ready.

More than 59,000 American women served as nurses in World War II. Like many of her classmates, Kate Flynn joined the Army Nurse Corps right out of nursing school in June 1943.

In June 1944, three weeks after D-Day, she found herself in deep water, struggling ashore at Utah Beach. Her unit was a heavy casualty field hospital, always stationed near the front lines, ready to triage, stabilize and treat the wounded.

Sometimes they were too close to the battle. Kate learned to recognize the sight and sounds of enemy aircraft, tanks and troops. When the shelling got close, she and her fellow nurses would roll the wounded out of their cots and lie on the ground with them, holding the trembling soldiers until it was safe to help them up again.

Lt. Kate Flynn Nolan served as a nurse in Europe during World War II.

The enemy that launched a massive global attack this year knows no front lines, no boundaries, no borders, no mercy. Patients, especially those with preexisting medical conditions, have found that this enemy ruthlessly exploits every weakness. Sometimes there is recovery, followed by cruel relapse. For others, every breath is a struggle and the ventilator their only recourse.

Share your coronavirus story: Contact USA TODAY Opinion's hotline. We may publish your comments.

But nurses are there for them, every step of the way. Then, as now, they knew the risks and still stepped forward to serve, leaving behind their families and homes, and sometimes even giving their lives.

A race to save the wounded

Kate understood the costs and what her job meant. When wounded arrived, the field hospital had a well-honed procedure for treatment, with limited time to get it right for each patient. Kate called it “The Golden Hour,” a term the military would adopt years later.

Decisions had to be made fast. 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.

Kate Flynn Nolan, center, is surrounded by Army nurses and other soldiers at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 2007.

Then Kate and her fellow nurses packed up their gear and equipment and moved again, following the battle forward. They moved on average every 10 days. It became routine. Her life was tied to the cycle of set up, reception, horror, treatment, prayers, tear down, move. She was always exhausted.

Along that rough road, from June 1944 to the end of the war, Kate Flynn served in the Army’s 53rd Field Hospital .  She earned five battle stars for her service. Thankfully, her unit wasn’t ordered to head to Japan. The war there ended in August. She was home by Christmas, and then married Air Force Lt. James Nolan, whom she met before deploying. They were married for 60 years. Kate died last year in Naples, Florida, at the age of 98.

A time to say thank you

More than 405,000 Americans were killed in World War II. The country was upended, every family affected. Memorial Day 1945 was one not only to mourn the dead and regret the loss of their future, but also to thank them for their sacrifice in the cause of freedom.

Today, we deeply feel the sharp pain of our new losses. But we also are grateful for the hundreds of thousands of doctors and nurses who aren’t home with their families, or able to take time off to remember their loved ones from the Greatest Generation. They are still fighting the enemy. But we know that they, backed by the best scientists and researchers in the world, will prevail in this fight.

God bless them all.

Mari K. Eder is a retired U.S. Army major general. The story of Kate Nolan and many other women from the World War II era will appear in her book, "The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line." 

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In coronavirus pandemic, as in war, nurses serve bravely at the front