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Published: Tuesday, 11/11/2008

Army nurse keeps medals, memories of World War II

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Eighty-eight years old now, Elsie Perch of Rossford keeps mementos of her experiences near the battlefront in World War II between the pages of scrapbooks.

There are many black-and-white photos of hospital tents and soldier friends, and dozens more of her female compatriots in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, in which Mrs. Perch served from 1942 to 1945.

And on a page with ribbons and medals honoring her service, there is a 2 1/2-inch piece of dark, jagged metal that one night in 1944 dropped from the sky above the Anzio beachhead in Italy, tearing a hole through the tent where she slept.

Three feet - the difference between where she laid her head that night and where the shrapnel landed - is what allowed Mrs. Perch to later become one of the nearly 75,000 U.S. Army and Navy nurses who returned home from the war.

But 215 Army nurses were not so lucky.

Today, as the nation honors the service of all its veterans, living and dead, Mrs. Perch will be thinking of the many brave soldiers who helped America and its allies win World War II.

While women such as herself were excluded from combat positions during the war, thousands were put in direct military service through nursing units and by doing traditional men's work in noncombat areas - freeing more men for combat.

More than 300,000 women served in the American military during the war, including the Coast Guard and as Women Airforce Service Pilots.

As a member of a nurse corps, Mrs. Perch and her colleagues tended to countless wounded soldiers, many with injuries grisly beyond belief.

"It's something you never forget," she said recently, flipping through her scrapbooks.

"If they were in pain, we gave them morphine. Oftentimes, when I asked them if they were in pain, they said, 'Oh nurse, don't worry about me. Take care of someone worse.'•"

A native of rural Wabash County, Indiana, about 70 miles north of Indianapolis, the former Elsie Getz had dreamed since childhood of becoming a nurse, and attended nursing school in Toledo at the former Robinwood Hospital in the Old West End.

Inspired by her two brothers to enter military service, she joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1942 through the American Red Cross.

She was stationed stateside until April, 1943, when she was assigned to North Africa in support of the Allied campaign against the German and Italian forces there.

Mrs. Perch described a nerve-wracking, zig-zagging journey in a ship convoy across the Atlantic Ocean that was punctuated by a late-night explosion in the engine room, setting off everyone's fears of a German U-boat attack.

She was stationed at a hospital in Tunisia, North Africa, and in February, 1944, received orders to join the 33rd Field Hospital in the Anzio beachhead, where American troops made an amphibious landing to cut off the Germans and shorten the war in Italy.

Mrs. Perch said she was called to Anzio to help replace nurses who had been killed. The nurses often worked out of foxholes covered by tents, survived on meager rations, and lived with the constant threat of German shelling and air raids.

Nursing became a practice in triage, as one nurse might deal with dozens of seriously injured soldiers at a time: "You could only do what was urgently needed."

Deaths were inevitable, and she speculated that during the war she witnessed hundreds of soldiers die.

And her duty often involved saving the lives of those whom her countrymen were fighting. Several patients in Anzio were German prisoners of war.

"We gave them the same care as ours," said Mrs. Perch, who later taught obstetrics at what was formerly the Mercy School of Nursing in Toledo.

"It didn't matter to us, but you can imagine how the other patients would resent it."

After Anzio, she followed the front lines as Allied troops advanced towards Rome, and cared for the most fragile patients who couldn't yet survive a trip to an evacuation hospital. In fall 1944, she received promotion to first lieutenant.

She returned to the United States the following January and married Navy Corpsman Daniel Perch, whom she had met while she was in nursing school.

The couple settled in Mr. Perch's native Rossford after the war, rearing three daughters and two sons, both of whom followed their parents into military service.

Mr. Perch died in 2006.

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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