Meanwhile back in Britain the first large numbers of casualties had started to arrive. The government had cleared many of the civilian hospitals to accommodate them and the US Army had built several temporary hospitals out of ‘Quonset’ huts. Two American nurses were based at an old Victorian hospital at Southampton, which became one of the main receiving hospitals:
We knew the ships were gathering for the invasion. It seems to me it took at least a week for all the ships to gather just outside our hospital in Southampton Water (the harbor). We could go outside and sit on the waterfront and watch. One day it seemed like the whole area was full of ships and the next morning there was not a single one. We knew the invasion was beginning. We were on alert. We could not leave and were on duty 24 hours a day. We didn’t know what we were waiting for.
And then the casualties came. It took about 3 or 4 days after the invasion before we started receiving casualties. I was an operating room supervisor. We had two operating room theaters, one upstairs and one downstairs. At first, we started out with one and then we required two because we just couldn’t handle all the casualties in one theater. When I say theater, I mean several rooms, each room with its own surgeon and nurse, and corpsman [enlisted Navy medical personnel]. It was one big unit. I was in charge of the one downstairs. The first casualties came into my operating room. I remember how busy we were and how they kept coming and coming and we had no place to put them. We put them out in the halls and everywhere.
We were only there as a receiving hospital. We received the casualties, took care of them, removed the bullets and shrapnel, did the debridement, cleaned them up, poured penicillin and sulfa into the wounds, wrapped them up, and sent them inland to the Army or to British hospitals inland, or by air to the United States, especially if they were bad burn patients. So we didn’t keep them very long. The operating room nurses would pitch in and help the doctors do debridements and remove bullets. Until recently, I had the first bullet I had removed myself and managed to keep it for many years but I have lost it.
Anyway, we were busy and we never thought about food or sleep or anything else. The doctors as well as the nurses and corpsmen were taking care of patients. We did not sleep for the first 24 hours, and then finally sleep had to be rationed because no one would leave their work. The captain issued an order letting certain ones go and get some sleep. And then when they came back others would go. Our food was brought to us in surgery. We lived on sandwiches and coffee for a long time. When we had a minute, we would grab a bite. And that’s the way we handled the first 24 hours. As the casualty load lightened, things got back to a decent pace.
I also got to use penicillin for the first time. We had these little tin cans that looked like salt shakers. They contained a mixture of penicillin and, I’m sure, sulfathiazole, and we would just use them like salt shakers and sprinkle it into the wounds. And I’ve read since, that it was that mixture of sulfa and penicillin used in those early days that saved many a limb and kept infections down to almost zero. They were both miracle drugs. Of course, we also gave penicillin intravenously.
We received casualties fairly steadily but not at the rate we did at the beginning. As soon as the troops landed on the beaches and went farther inland, the Army went right in and set up their field hospitals so they could do a lot of the immediate work that we were having to do at the beginning. And that took a load off of us.
All types of ships brought the casualties from Normandy. The ships landed in Southampton because our pier could only handle small boats. They brought them by ambulance from Southampton which was 5 miles away.
There was a railroad track right behind the hospital. We kept the patients for 24 to 48 hours and as soon as they could be moved, they were put on this hospital train and sent to the north part of England and we got ready for some more.
We treated mostly Army personnel, but there were also a few Navy men as well. I remember a lot of the casualties were suffering from “shell shock.” Some of them didn’t know who we were. They thought we were Germans and they wouldn’t tell us anything except their names and serial numbers. They were classified as mentally ill. Some of them were just farm boys and the shock of war was just too much for them.
Read the full accounts at Navy Department Oral histories