Resource

A Letter from the Front

A letter from a nurse stationed in Europe to a friend at home.

Margaret A. Aschenbrenner to Marian S. Turner

“Margaret A. Aschenbrenner to Marian S. Turner,” April-May 1945. State Historical Society of Missouri-Columbus.

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Summary

Berlin just now surrendered also the German army in Italy. Hurrah! A note at the top of letter stating that Germany surrendered to the Allies before the letter was sent.
Gretat, France
Normandy
3 May, 1945
Peg’s (the author of this letter) location.
Dear Marian,
The V Mail & the continuation of it written 29 March. Reached me yesterday. That was very good time considering it had traveled almost half of Europe into Germany and back to the coast of France.
Peg received Marian’s letter from March 29 the day before.
Sallie has not yet had a chance to read it since she is spending a 3 day leave in Paris. Peg’s friend Sallies has not read Marian’s letter because Salle is on leave in Paris.
I am on nite duty & if we stay here a short time, I, too, may go to Paris again. I have had 2 brief visits there. It is truly beautiful and a very interesting city.  Peg is working the night shift. She hopes to visit Paris the next time she has leave. She has visited Paris twice and enjoyed it.
I certainly was glad to hear from you and glad you and Wes are now having a few pleasant times together. It will be a real treat for me, when I get back home again.  Peg expresses her appreciation for Marian’s letter and hopes they will be together soon.
As you see, we have been on the move again. It would be quite a job to describe our life and trials during the awful battles for the Rhone & Rhine rivers. We never worked as hard and as long hours in our lives before. Nor did we suffer such awful cold and discomforts. Now that it is past we are grateful for the experience and the privilege of being there when so badly needed. Just as we were folding up our tents to steal across the Rhine, a new army order came thru in which nurses over 35 yrs. Were not supposed to be so close to front and combat zones with the armies. We were with the 9th army. So 3 of us were transferred to the rear areas. Sallie Warren, Christine Scalllen, & I came here about 2 weeks ago. After such active duty at the front, we did not, and still do not appreciate this assignment. Up front I had charge of a tent ward of 36 patients & had 3 corpsmen under me. The patients are pre operatives, seriously wounded, surgical. We worked 15-16 [hours] daily but did not feel the hardship of it. We objected more to awful living conditions & our C.O. did not believe in putting heat or lights in our living tents. This made life very difficult and unbearable. Now where we are is a very backward area with very little if any nursing to do at all, & we are disgusted with it. Have asked for transfer to a busier hospital near a more interesting city or transfer to the U.S.A. Can’t say now what might happen since the war is just about to end over here any time now.  Peg explains that she and her fellow nurses have moved since her last letter. She describes working near the front during the battles for the Rhone & Rhine in Germany. Working during the battle was incredibly difficult.
The military just passed a rule says nurses over the age of 35 cannot work close to battle. Peg, Sallie, and a friend were relocated because they are over 35.
Peg does not enjoy her new assignment after working at the front. During the battle she took care of 36 patients and managed 3 staff members. She worked long hours, but it was important work.
In her new assignment, she has very little to do. She would like to request a transfer.
You know me, I like to work hard and play hard. I don’t go for this half-baked type of nursing where one just sits sweating out the war. This hospital has been overseas 33 months in Ireland, England, & France since D. Day plus 16 last June. They never saw a single hit of action. I, for one, could never enjoy such a slow existence. I was in the army 1 year on 15 April and 5 months over seas on 1 of May. Sure covered quite a bit of territory in that period. Our first operation was at Herzoggenrath, Germany.  Peg states again that she wants to work hard at a better location. She has been an army nurse for a year and overseas for five months.
We felt we were very busy then, but when we moved up to Gelden, Germany, we were 11 miles this side of the Rhine before the final push for the Rhine. Could never tell you the awful roar of the guns day and night for days and days. The aircraft seemed enough to destroy the world, & then, the final day we had 500 admissions on the first nite. There are only 40 nurses to our Evacuation Hospital unit. Well that is sort of self explanatory.  Peg describes her work during the battle. She could hear guns and airplanes. The hospital she worked in served 500 patients in one night with just 40 nurses.
I suppose the army felt the old gals might crack, but during our 2 heaviest pushes, we had an epidemic of measles & complication pneumonia among our younger girls, so the old gals did all the work. Peg jokes that the army does not want the “old” women to crack under pressure. But she points out the older nurses have worked hard.
I shall agree our chances for longer life are better back here, but we just hate the idea of sort of being put out to pasture. One would grow stagnant, go to seed, and die of boredom, if one had to stay here a very long time. 
Peg agrees that she is safer in her new location, but she still wants to be near the action. She is bored.
Now since the war is coming to a finish, there is an air of expectancy and maybe soon we all shall move. I do hope not to C.B.I. [though].
Peg acknowledges that the war will be over soon.
I hear from Jean quite often. She seems to be doing fine at school. Of course, does not come home often during the winter [months], but school will soon be over. 
Peg talks about a mutual connection named Jean.
Must close now, give my regards to all.

Love,
Peg

“Margaret A. Aschenbrenner to Marian S. Turner,” April-May 1945. State Historical Society of Missouri-Columbus.

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Background

While women’s military service most often included work away from the front lines, nurses were an integral part of combat and regularly interacted with deployed soldiers and sailors. Approximately 59,000 American nurses served in World War II. Nurses served in hospitals under direct fire, on trains, ships, and planes, and all other places where they were needed. American nurses were highly trained. This resulted in a low mortality rate for American soldiers. The Army reported that fewer than 4 percent of American soldiers treated in the field died from their wounds.

Nurses’ experiences varied depending on where they were stationed. However, all of them had to quickly adjust to a life that was wildly different from home. Nurses worked long hours, took few breaks, monitored dozens of patients, witnessed horrific injuries, and traveled long distances. It was a demanding and unforgiving role that took a mental and physical toll. The bonds of friendship created between nurses and maintained through letters from home helped ease the stress of daily life at the front.

About the Document

This letter was written by Margaret (Peg) Aschenbrenner to Marian Turner of Hatboro, Pennsylvania. Peg was stationed as a military nurse in Germany and France in the spring of 1945. Little is known about either woman beyond the existence of this letter. There is no record of how Peg and Marian knew one another, but the letter suggests that they were either close friends or relatives who had mutual friends. This letter was written on May 3, 1945. Victory in Europe (V-E Day) was declared on May 8, just five days later.

Vocabulary

  • CBI: China-Burma-India theater of war. This was considered a highly dangerous and difficult assignment. 
  • C.O.: Abbreviation for Commanding Officer. A military term for an officer who is a supervisor or manager.
  • combat: Fighting in a war. 
  • deployed: Troops in position for military action. 
  • mortality rate: The rate at which people within a specified category die. 
  • station: Assign someone to a specific activity or place, commonly used in military work.
  • V Mail: Short for Victory Mail. A secure means of sending mail between armed forces and those at home, using microfilm. 
  • V-E Day: Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945. The day the Allies declared victory over the Axis powers in World War II. 

Discussion Questions

  • Who wrote this letter? To whom did she write it? Where was each woman located?
  • How does Peg describe life as a nurse at the front? What kind of work did she do? Who did she serve? What kinds of living conditions did she encounter? 
  • What recent challenge did Peg and her two friends encounter? Why were they relocated and how did they feel about this new assignment? 
  • What does the Army’s decision to relocate Peg and her two friends say about the military’s stereotypes regarding age? 
  • Why did Peg join the nursing corps and what did she think about her work and its importance? What details in the letter help you answer this question?
  • This letter was written five days before victory was declared in Europe. How does this shape how you read this letter?
  • What does this letter tell you about how relationships and friendships were maintained during the war? Imagine having to write letters to your best friend to stay in touch. What would that feel like? 
  • Why was it important to have highly trained nurses available at the front during World War II? How does Peg’s letter highlight that importance? 
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Suggested Activities

  • Compare this letter to the nurse recruitment poster. How does each present a different view of wartime nursing? How does this letter change your impression of the poster and vice versa? 
  • Consider the many ways women contributed to the war effort. Combine this letter with the WAACs article and the homemakers guide poster. How did each type of work contribute to the greater good? What sacrifices did each kind of woman make? 
  • Connect this letter to the account of Black social workers on the French front during World War II. How were experiences at the front similar or different between World War I and World War II? 
  • This letter is taken from a collection of World War II letters digitized by the State Historical Society of Missouri. Encourage students to view more letters and compare narratives here

Themes

AMERICA IN THE WORLD

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