Dr. Clif Cleaveland
More than 100,000 women served as military nurses in World War II. Among them was Vera Gustafson Palmer of Red Bank who died on July 15. Her talents, devotion and serene countenance brought comfort to thousands of wounded and sick soldiers and civilians in North African and Western European campaigns involving the United States Army.
A 1939 nursing graduate of Chicago’s Augustana Swedish Lutheran Hospital, Vera Gustafson, who would be called “Gussie” during her military years, volunteered along with scores of nurses, physicians and technicians from that hospital to enter Army service in October 1942. They formed the nucleus for the 25th Evacuation Hospital.
Following 18 months of rigorous stateside training the 25th Evacuation Hospital team sailed first for North Africa. Ms. Gustafson’s job there was that of senior triage nurse. She and a physician rapidly evaluated and stabilized sick and wounded who arrived by ambulance, stretcher, and sometimes under their own power.
From triage, patients might go directly to surgery, or to a medical tent or holding area. Some died in triage. From North Africa, her unit, which could erect a 750-bed medical and surgical hospital in three hours, moved ashore from a hospital ship in support of furious fighting in central Italy.
Next, the 25th Evacuation Hospital followed the Seventh Army ashore in Southern France. As the army advanced northward through France and into Germany, the 25th followed closely, quickly taking down and reassembling its hospital under canvas. The hospital was often so close to action that artillery rounds whined overhead.
Once in Italy a near-miss blew out all the windows in a building in which the 25th had taken shelter.
Ms. Gustafson and her colleagues treated American and French soldiers, French and German civilians, and recently freed American prisoners of war. The registry of patients of the 25th Hospital shows illnesses ranging from pneumonia to tuberculosis to severe frostbite. Wounds ranged from minor lacerations to complex brain, chest, and abdominal injuries. Twelve hour shifts meant nothing in times of heavy casualties. The team worked until they were finished.
In the spring of 1945, Ms. Gustafson’s hospital had moved near Munich. She responded to a call for volunteers who would provide the first organized medical care for the just-liberated concentration camp at Dachau.
Ten nurses, several doctors, and technicians formed a detachment that would labor for the next 10 days to bring essential care to starving, brutalized survivors of the infamous camp. Many suffered from typhus and other far-advanced infectious illnesses. Many would die despite the group’s best efforts.
Other help finally relieved the volunteers from the 25th. Of all the suffering that she witnessed during the war Dachau left indelible, painful memories.
Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. By November of 1945, Lieutenant Vera Gustafson had her honorable discharge and returned to Chicago. Like the great majority of this Greatest Generation she built an honorable life of civilian service.
Following her marriage to Walter Palmer, a fellow soldier of the 25th Hospital, she moved to Red Bank where the couple raised two sons. She worked for a time as a nurse at Erlanger Hospital.
I was privileged to know Vera Palmer as patient and friend for 30 years. Reluctant to talk of her military service, she responded to my request in the spring of 2002 to speak of her wartime experiences.
We devoted a Saturday afternoon to her reminiscences. We looked at a scrapbook and snapshots taken at stops on the long journey of the 25th Evacuation Hospital — pictures of tall North African and French soldiers, the triage tent, wrecked buildings, a haunting picture of an emaciated, young man standing at the gate to Dachau. She spoke fondly of sister nurses now deceased and particular patients who left especially poignant memories.
The clinical listings of the hospital log became, in her accounting, flesh-and-blood, precious sons of America to whom she had given her best. I read notes from doctors and nurses with whom she served and from German friends who were hungry children when she first met and found food for them.
“How did you do it?” I asked her at the conclusion of our talk.
“It was my job,” she answered simply.
She rests in peace.
Contact Clif Cleaveland at email@example.com.