A Half Acre of Hell

I hardly slept a wink last night. At one point I was convinced that I spider ran over my ear, but when I turned the lamp on, I could not see anything. Drenched in perspiration I went back to my nightmares and woke up hourly. What has me so rattled? This book I just finished last night!!!

I just wrote this review on shelfari:

If you want to get a feel for what it was like to be a nurse, right by the WWII front lines, this is a book for you. It’s not in any way a romantic description, but a very down to earth one. Nurse Avis Dagit starts her book with 12 September 1941, the day before she graduates from nursing school in Iowa. Their teachers have tried to convince their students to sign up for the military services on a voluntary basis, saying that it’s better to do this than to be conscripted, that they are all single and have no reason to not do so. But Nurse Dagit is honest and says that she was not really interested. She was looking forward to sharing a flat with three other girls and get on with her life. Her parents could not see any reason at all why she should go off to a war that they felt others could fight. But the teachers did not stop nagging and the Red Cross came for a visit, saying to the girls that 75% of them would meet their future husbands in the forces, since that is what statistics showed.

She finally joined the Red Cross, especially since her future room mates backed out of sharing a flat, for various reasons, and disappointing her. Now things happened fast. Pearl Harbor was attacked, war was declared on Japan and then Germany, and it all completely shocked Dagit, who realized that she would actually be called in to service, when she in time for Christmas heard from “uncle Sam”.

For her 23rd Birthday present, she had to report to Camp Chaffee in Arkansas, the 17 March 1942. She adopted fairly well to army life, but wished for a quick end to the war and most of all, to get to stay in the US. She made friends with Danny, that she would stay with till the end of the war. Doris was another friend that fell in love and married, so she could get out. Soon she also got to know, Mary and Ellen, two heavy drinkers that liked to party and have fun. Most of the others were getting anxious, feeling that they were not doing anything, and wanted to be sent overseas, so they could save lives. Dagit was content and did not think of the army as an adventure at all. Everyone but Dagit was excited to leave for Texas in January 1943, to join the 56th Evac Hospital.

On their way, overseas, Mary and Ellen, spent a fortune in New York, on bathing suits. These bathing suits re-appear many times in the book. Especially since Dagit could not swim and could see no use for a swim suit at all, them going off to war. On the ship to North Africa they all received books on customs and language, and Dagit found an old friend, Gertrud, from nursing school. 24 April 1943, they all stepped ashore in Casablanca, Marocco.

Up till now in the book, there are few really shocking things. But arrival in Marocco meant swimming on the beach and other “inactivity”, like going to parties. Unfortunately the reader gets to see one back side to feelings running high. One nurse got raped. A court case took place with two other nurses as witnesses and they all came back in shock, since the man was acquitted, even though the evidence was there. The poor girl then slipped in the black out and was sent home as a liability which the nurses also had a difficult time to accept and understand. In June, they were all taken to Tunisia, to set up hospital and games were over. Now they received casualties from the fighting in Sicily and they also got to feel what air raids are like. In September they were on the move again, to Sicily and received new books on Italian customs and language. The hospitals from now on were in tents. The Germans were behaving just like the Japanese, bombing hospital ships, and hospitals. The nurses fought with weather and incredible amounts of wounded as well as air raids. They moved on to Naples where they actually got to go shopping on off duty occasions. Vesuvius was letting itself known since all the shelling woke the volcano to life.

The worse part of the book, is their three months in Anzio, when the army could not get off the beach head and the Germans sat above them looking at everything they were doing. Axis Sally kept on mocking them on the wireless. Noone dared to go outside the compound. Four combined hospitals with nurses, had gathered for strength but they soon realized that the Germans cared nothing for the Geneva convention. The hospitals were bombed and the ambulances going to ships in the harbour, were shelled. Dagit was scared witless for the most part. Her friend Gertrud got hit in an air raid and lost a leg and both kidneys, and could not be saved on the operating table. Dagit’s friend Ellen, was hit by shrapnel and died after many days in agony. Her friend Pete tried to calm Dagit down one evening, and when she went to sleep during a raid, he went to polish his shoes in the foxhole, that he and other enlisted men, had dug for themselves. His foxhole was shelled and he lost both legs at the hip. After three months in hell’s acre, they were finally relieved by another hospital.

Dagit really got to see lots of Italy. Now and then, the nurses would have some delights. Being sent to Capri for rest, going on excursions to Naples, Rome, Florence and later on to Venice, Lake Maggiore. They would get new uniforms. They would get chances to go dancing and partying. But for the most part, war was hell for them.

What touched me the most, was Gertrud and Ellen dying, and Mary’s drinking problems. Mary got engaged to a young man that was always stationed near by and they were planning their life after the war, but after a weekend in his flat, his interest for her cooled down and she did not hear from him again, not even after the war. But there were many, many tragedies. I even cried when one of the nurses had bought an alabaster elephant for her mother and had had doctors put it in a cast, so she could send it to the US. It still arrived in pieces. I cried when Dagit’s friend Jon declared that he loved her, even though he was married, and she told him that it could not be. I cried when Italians broke in to their tents and stole both souvenirs and their clothes! Finally I cried when they cried, entering the harbour of New York, seeing the statue of liberty, in early October 1945.

It’s a very well written book, very touching but nothing for the squeamish. I had nightmares every night while reading this book! If I have any complaints, it is that the book lacks an epilogue. It would have been nice to heave heard how things sorted themselves out for both her male friends but also Danny, Mary,and Lena. And most of all, how Avis Dagit’s life turned out. Very late in the book, she mentions these men that had been flocking around her, but that she had no romantic feelings for. And she mentions towards the end, a boyfriend that she had in the US before the war, and that she didn’t love him either, him being ten years her senior, and that they had grown apart. One wants a conclusion somehow. To see that life worked out!

Obviously Avis Dagit did well for herself because it says on the back of the book that she went on to study Anesthesia and she did change surname so she must have married, but still…

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