Serving Those Who Served: Immense Personal Satisfaction and Incredible Hardship
Guest Author, Assistant Gift Shop Manager, Michael Olson
France, July 1944−German buzz bombs fly overhead and the ambulances rush in their first patients. Many are in need of immediate surgery and many of them are German soldiers.
“I thought if this is what it is like…,” Elizabeth O’Hara Baehr remembers, “I’m not gonna last very long here. This…I just can’t take it.”
In December 1941, at the war’s beginning, there were fewer than 1,000 nurses in the U.S. Army. At the end in 1945, some 59,000 nurses had served. When the United States entered the war, Baehr was already a nurse. Born in 1915 in Janesville, Wisconsin to Irish immigrant parents, Baehr was working in the emergency rooms of the University Hospitals in Madison. She immediately volunteered to go overseas. Asked why she wanted to go to the war zone instead of staying at an Army hospital in the United States, Baehr states simply, “Because a war had started and I thought I’d be of more help there.”
Another factor may have been the wave of patriotic fervor that Americans felt in the days immediately after Pearl Harbor. Plus, there was the adventure of it all. “We were very pleased we were going over to France. I thought, ‘oh that would be interesting to get to see the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.’”
Baehr was shipped off to Europe as a member of the 59th Field Hospital, after training at Kearns Field, Utah for the Army Air Force—first to Liverpool, England and shortly thereafter to France at Utah Beach a few weeks after D-Day. The 59th Field Hospital set up in a French field filled with cows, just miles from the beaches. There for several weeks, Baehr would sleep in pup tents and live off of C-Rations which contained “Green Bay cheese in a can and a bar of chocolate so hard that one of the nurses broke her front tooth off on it,” as well as crackers with the occasional orange while the field hospital was constructed.
Similar to the emergency work she did back home in Madison, Baehr would be a surgical nurse in the field hospital in France. Typically staged within 10 miles of fighting, the field hospital was the first stop for the wounded soldiers after removal from the battlefield, very similar to emergency room intake. When the ambulances pulled up, Baehr and her team sprang into action. The 59th Field Hospital specialized in trauma surgery of soldiers with chest and abdominal wounds. Being the first hospital most soldiers would visit, triage was a crucial role that the field hospital provided. They decided which soldiers needed to be treated there and which needed to be transported back another 100 miles to an evac (evacuation) hospital or across the channel to a station hospital in England.
Baehr’s responsibilities were to make sure the surgical instruments stayed sanitized and to train the enlisted soldiers who were under her supervision how to do the same. She also trained them how to scrub in for surgery, going over the extensive checklist that ensured each person was sanitary along with the surgical area. This was no small task since their hospital was often set up in fields which were dirty, muddy, and lacked running water.
After V-E Day (Victory in Europe), Baehr and her fellow nurses were assigned to take care of the newly–liberated women and babies at Mauthausen concentration camp. Nothing prepared Baehr for the shock she was to receive when she entered the concentration camp for the first time.
“That was the hardest part. I’ll never forget. I thought if only the American people could see what we’re seeing here and what these people have gone through,” she recounted later.
When the fighting ceased and her duties eased, Baehr certainly got to experience Europe. She remembers fondly the castles, the wineries and Paris with its shops and attending an opera and the ballet. During a trip to Ireland, where Baehr met her aunt and uncle, seeing her family’s ancestral home was perhaps the most personally significant place she saw. For Baehr, seeing Europe was a thrill and she felt honored to serve the American soldiers that “were giving up their lives….” Her work in the field hospitals, while difficult at times, gave her an immense feeling of satisfaction. She remembers, “There was a great deal of happiness; there was hardship, but there’s happiness in hardship.”
Elizabeth Baehr served with the Army Nurse Corps from 1943 to 1945 achieving the rank of 1st Lieutenant. After returning to Madison, she continued work as nurse at the University Hospitals and eventually with the Bureau for Handicapped Children. Her story is preserved at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum through a video oral history, objects, papers, and one photograph.