UNITED STATES ARMY NURSE CORPS
Willa Cromwell knew all too well that war did not stand still for emergencies. “On our way to England, in the middle of the English Channel, one of the troops on board had appendicitis.” Willa, an Army Corps nurse during World War II, remembered an appendectomy had to be performed on the ship on which she was traveling. Although she did not participate in the surgery, Willa said the doctor performing the surgical procedure did not have the proper equipment but had to improvise with whatever tools he could pick up and heat. “The bombs were going over at the time, bad shelling,” Willa recalled.
Willa was born in Durham, North Carolina, on September 26, 1911. She was the daughter of Wade Dolph and Mary Marshall Mangum and was raised in Petersburg, Virginia, with five other siblings. Willa studied nursing at Johns Hopkins and Columbia University, specializing in liver and kidney injuries.
Willa’s date of entry in to active service was August 12, 1943; this was the second time she had been asked to join the United States Army. She served overseas for thirteen months in the European Theatre of Operations. During that time, Willa supervised the work of three nurses and seventy corpsmen, assisted by thirty French civilians, in the handling of nearly four hundred patients.
“I was taking the temperature of a patient in the hospital when they announced the war,” Willa recalled. “There were three of us who finished school, and we were going in the service.” Willa described how her path had altered its course when she entered the military. “What happened was that I wasn’t supposed to go overseas. I was taking a course at Hopkins that would be needed for a type of injury to the abdomen. That would be a place most likely to be injured. At that time a hospital in New England was being organized, and I was to help set up and furnish the hospital for bladder and intestinal injuries.” The hospital was not built, and Willa’s plans changed. “They didn’t build this hospital, because they took the girls that were supposed to be there off of those orders and sent them to England. I went to Land’s End, England.” Willa recalled traveling to England in a convoy. “There were five ships surrounded by ‘little ships’ [destroyers and destroyer escorts] for protection. They would go around you, and then come back and forth.”
Willa Cromwell clearly remembered her arrival on Omaha Beach after D-Day. “I didn’t stay in England too long. The Ninth Army was in France, so that’s where I was, behind the Ninth Army. They sent us over, and we landed on the beach.” Willa said that before leaving England she had stashed away a bottle of Scotch. While approaching the beach, Willa fell into the water and the bottle broke. Always one to find humor even in the direst situations, Willa quipped that she landed in “Scotch and water.”
“We went from Omaha, then behind the troops that were moving up,” Willa continued. “We were in the second wave, not D-day. The first wave had already gone in. I don’t think the nurses went over on the first wave; there were no women in the first wave.” Even so, Willa described the perilous landing on Omaha. “I fell onto the beach and broke my gas mask. Believe me, I had to scramble to get up, with nobody to help me get up. When they said, ‘Move,’ I moved! There were a few stray bullets. I was too busy ducking my head to know who went where. If anyone would ask me if I was scared, I used to tell them, ‘Ask the laundry!’ Sure I was scared. Stray bullets had been hitting our helmets. I was nearly blind and couldn’t hear for a week.”
Willa, who weighed only 104 pounds, recalled the challenge of hauling rations, equipment, and belongings to field hospital sites. “I was carrying a pack that weighed at least forty pounds. My shoulder and joints were misplaced. I didn’t feel well for awhile.”
“Any sleep we got would be on the ground,” Willa recollected. “We were behind the troops, backing them up. The troops had evacuated and moved up.” She and the other members of her unit occupied a building that formerly had been a riding stable. Again, Willa’s keen wit surfaced. “We had to clean out a little bit. I wrote to my mother about sweeping out manure from ‘Napoleon’s Riding Academy.’ You had to be humorous about it. The building used to be a stable. My mother said she could see me cleaning it out. You didn’t want to worry people about what you did. That’s why we had a sense of humor.” Willa’s mother took comfort in that humor and from the photograph of her daughter in Army uniform that she kept taped inside her Bible.
Despite the courage, determination, and sacrifices of those who served in the military during that time, Willa believed that women did not always get the acknowledgment they deserved. “A group of us got recognition from one of the troop commanders on one of the waves. He reported it when he got in touch with headquarters, and they sent it afterwards. It was a leaf to fit on your sleeve, one that you pinned on. They called it a ‘Recognition Leaf.’ I don’t think many were issued. At that time the commander of the troops said in his reports that he appreciated the work the girls were doing. A lot of people did not.”
Willa felt a sense of pride about her military service. “I had joined the Army Nurse Corps, and I came out of the army a Captain. I don’t know. That’s about as good as you could do. They didn’t hand out honors to the nurses.”
As was the case with many families, Willa was not the only member to serve in the armed forces. Willa had three brothers who also honored the American spirit with their military service. Willa shared an amazing story about her brother Clarence, who was also referred to as “Chief.” “I had a brother who was on two different ships. Both had been blown up by submarines and damaged. We called him ‘the Jinx’.” Incredibly, this same brother survived a plane crash. Willa’s mother learned of the crash through a newspaper account. “My mother picked up the Sunday paper. That’s how she found out what happened. While my brother was on a plane from California heading east, the plane crashed. It started through the trees somewhere. The Indians have a reservation up near the border. Anyway, there were two survivors, my brother and one other. The Indians pulled out the dead and the survivors. It was so far up near the coast no one could get in.” Willa’s brother went home to Petersburg, Virginia, for two days on survivor’s leave, still wearing the same torn and frayed jacket from the plane crash. Clarence resumed his military duty at the conclusion of his survivor’s leave. “After he saw my mother, he went back out again. He made it.”
Willa also recounted a story about another brother Wade, who had gone over enemy territory in a glider. “He landed on enemy territory. I have a copy of a red piece of paper that was in one of the bushes along the way on the road. The enemy dropped it for the men on gliders in enemy territory. You could pick these papers off the trees, and the papers would say that if you wanted to desert, the enemy would be good to you. That’s what they would tell them.” The actual paper that Willa had in her possession read: “Even the bravest soldier can sometimes get into a hopeless situation. It is then his right to surrender. Such a thing is honorable; otherwise there would never have been a Geneva & Hague Convention. If you are afraid of being taken prisoner, then remember this: Every German soldier will treat you exactly in the same fair way as he himself expects to be treated if he should be taken prisoner.” At one point during the war, Willa had the opportunity to meet with her brother Wade in Paris while they were both on leave.
Willa’s youngest brother, Robert, also served for two years in the United States Navy after the war in 1945 in the Occupation Service on a submarine assigned to the Pacific region. He was later transferred to a submarine tender, operating in the Philippines, Hawaii, and Japan.
Willa had been married for nine years before she went in to the service. Her husband, Melvin Cromwell, who served in the United States Navy, was relieved of his shipboard duties and reassigned to headquarters in San Francisco, California. “He was at Fisherman’s Wharf, on the harbor,” Willa remarked. “When I finally got a letter from him, he had the nerve to say he didn’t like Navy food. I know I got angry, because here I was eating rations, and he was eating at Fisherman’s Wharf!”
A collection of Willa’s photographs showing fellow soldiers and nurses outside tents pitched temporarily in battlefields, dressed in full combat gear, managing smiles beneath helmets, documents her journey throughout the war. Her memories also reveal the shocking truths of the Holocaust. After Germany surrendered, Willa was a witness to the unspeakable atrocities of a Nazi concentration camp. One photograph reveals a crematorium set in the ground on a hill. Hundreds of bodies, at least four rows deep, extend beyond the horizon. Six American soldiers stand, as if frozen, in the foreground overlooking the horror. An equally disturbing photograph depicts a dead prisoner, half-clothed and emaciated, lying next to a freshly dug pit. A man, most likely a civilian, stands over him while other men in the background shovel graves, the final act of dignity for the infinite rows of victims who suffered the same cruel fate of the Nazi regime.
Although Willa spoke of Adolph Hitler with reserved disapproval, her facial expression belied an unmistakable revulsion. “Hitler had several places that he and Eva Braun [his mistress] went. They would go there and spend time. The heck with the fighting. He wouldn’t have anything to do with that,” Willa said resolutely. “I’m sure that Hitler didn’t spend any time in front of his army,” she added with a note of disdain.
War-weary soldiers occasionally took desperate measures. Willa explained how an otherwise brave soldier would intentionally injure his foot or arm just to get out of the service.
The war finally ended for Willa and for millions of other servicemen and women who had entered a conflict which championed democracy and human rights. “I was in Belgium, waiting to come home at the end of the war,” Willa reflected. We stayed there for five months. We came in to Boston three days before Christmas on the Thomas H. Barry.”
Willa’s husband returned from service about the same time. Willa pondered about the adjustment to civilian life. “I don’t know; most of them had the same feeling I did. When it was over and you could get away from it, you did.”
After the war Willa moved to Philadelphia, where she participated in a polio immunization program serving approximately five thousand children. She served as President of the Martin County General Hospital Auxiliary while living in Williamston, North Carolina. Because Willa was very adept at knitting and sewing, she taught both skills as a volunteer with the North Carolina Extension Service. While there, she was also an instructor in the literacy program.
Willa was proud of her decision to join the United States Army Nurse Corps and considered it an honor to serve. She firmly believed that she was needed, and she truly deemed it her patriotic duty to perform her job to the best of her ability.
Willa’s final residence was at Catered Living in Ocean Pines, Maryland. She entered into eternal rest on January 6, 2008, at the remarkable age of ninety-six. Her memorial paver at the Worcester County Veterans Memorial at Ocean Pines reads, “Willa Cromwell, Captain, U.S. Army Nurse Corps, World War II.” The Memorial provides an enduring tribute to those who serve and have served their country, honoring the essence and uniqueness of each individual. Willa will be remembered for her patriotism, dignity, humor, and the wealth of knowledge and experience she selflessly shared with others, as well as for the courage to face the “ultimate sacrifice” for the freedom of future generations.