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Nursing Near the Battle of the Bulge
By Joan Whiley

On January 6, 1944, Betty Giblin sailed with 1,000 enlisted men from Plymouth Massachusetts to Liverpool, England. She had embarked on one of the most memorable periods of her life. Just months after graduating from nursing school in Seattle, Betty joined the 50th General Hospital Unit made up of 100 nurses and 50 physicians from the Pacific Northwest. First posting was in Glasgow, for additional training and to treat troops in transit.

"When D-Day arrived, the unit was trained and ready for the fray," Betty said. In August the nurses landed in Normandy. They descended rope ladders to landing barges, each carrying a blanket roll, fatigues, K-rations, a Musette bag of personal items, gas mask, and wearing protective gas-impregnated clothing. The nurses arrived in Cherbourg, then traveled by cover of night in open trucks. Betty heard sporadic gun fire throughout the dark trip. Her first brief billet was a medical unit hurriedly abandoned by the Germans, with no running water or latrines. There was a dreadful stench. When light arrived the nurses found they had slept on blood-caked cots. A brief two-day stay, it was not the last time the 50th Unit would face cold and primitive conditions. Lack of electricity and running water, and sleeping in tents until supplies arrived were common experiences.

Their more permanent hospital base was a 1000-bed (cot) medical unit in Carentan in Northwest France. It was a tent hospital erected over hastily poured concrete. Betty and the other nurses worked on icy concrete so cold "you were frozen up to your knees." Paratrooper boots and army fatigues helped solve the problem. Patients were mainly soldiers injured by land mines, or burn victims.

One of Betty's most memorable sights in Carentan was standing on a hill and watching the allied daylight bombing of St. Lo, the sky completely blackened with planes and smoke.

In November, 1944, Betty was transferred to Commercy in a hospital advance communications zone closer to the front and Battle of the Bulge. Each midnight, trains brought 350 to 400 wounded to the hospital in the former cavalry barracks. Betty served in a psychiatric ward. Here it was 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

Betty's most frightening time came when the German army, about 30 miles away near Bastonne, surrounded the US troops. It was a tense situation until General Patton's Third Army drove the Germans back.

Victory in Europe was declared in May, 1945. In September Betty shipped home from Marseilles on the USS America.

She continued her career, earning a doctorate in nursing and teaching graduate students at the University of Washington Medical Center. After 27 years in the US Army Reserves, she retired as full Colonel. Of her war years she says, "It was hard work but it was important and I felt committed, and we were young."

This article appeared in the Spring 2002 UW Retirement Association's Retiree Report.

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