Finding a Decorated Army Nurse A story about WWII’s most famous correspondent, a combat nurse, and the need to remember our sacrifice.

Amy L. Nickles, far right, being awarded the Bronze Star in 1944. (Photo courtesy U.S. National Library of Medicine)

Recently I found a first edition of WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle’s Here Is Your War (1943) in some boxes of books I was moving. Its pages were foxed and brittle. They did not tear so much as crack, if I turned them wrong, and bits flaked off on the couch. The bits, called “confetti” in the book trade, are time’s old hijinks and nothing to celebrate.

Pyle may have been the most famous and best-loved writer of WWII. He followed our troops through England, Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, and the Pacific, was published daily or weekly in 700 newspapers, and won a Pulitzer for his human-interest reporting. It was his straightforward, plain-spoken style that connected with readers, and his obvious affection and empathy for our soldiers fighting in the biggest and bloodiest war in history.

Here Is Your War is an edited collection of columns he wrote for the papers in 1942 and 1943, on the invasion of North Africa—first against the Vichy French, then the Germans and Italians. Pyle tended to use the real names of Americans he met in the field, and sometimes their addresses back home. That reads oddly now, but it must have been a tremendous comfort to families in the States, who would not otherwise have been able to get quick or reliable word from loved ones. (For operational security, he did not usually give unit designations or exact locations.)

Pyle often lived rough for the years he followed our military, but he could come and go as he pleased, and he found his own comforts along the way. “American tent hospitals in the battle area were favorite hangouts for correspondents,” he says. “The presence of American nurses was alleged to have nothing whatever to do with it.”

Operation Torch was the first major airborne operation for the United States, and an event in which several hard lessons were learned, such as reconnoitering approaches to beaches in person, instead of relying on maps.

“There were two favorite hospitals where I dropped in now and then for a meal or a night,” he says. One was 80 miles behind the front; the other was “a mobile surgical hospital, which was usually only about an hour’s drive back of the fighting. That was the hospital that landed at Arzeu on the day of the North African occupation, and whose nurses were the first ashore in North Africa.”

Arzeu/Arzew is a port city in Algeria, between Casablanca and Algiers on the Med coast. These three cities were the invasion points for Operation Torch, November 8-16, 1942, the first big offensive of US troops in the region. Allied war planners knew it was too early to try to invade northwest Europe, and Torch became a trial of techniques for D-Day in Normandy a year and a half later. Operation Torch was the first major airborne operation for the United States, and an event in which several hard lessons were learned, such as reconnoitering approaches to beaches in person, instead of relying on maps.

Pyle names some of the American Army nurses: “Mary Ann Sullivan of Boston . . . Mildred Keelin, of 929 Ellison Avenue, Louisville, Kentucky; Amy Nichols, of Blythe, Georgia; Mary Francis, of Waynesville, North Carolina; Eva Sacks, of 1821 North 33rd Street, Philadelphia; Kate Rodgers, of 2932 Wroxton Avenue, Houston, Texas.”

“They were terrifically proud of having been the first nurses to land in Africa,” he writes, “and of being continually the closest ones to the fighting lines, and they intended to stay.”

“Like the soldiers, they thought and talked constantly of home, and would have liked to be there. Yet it was just as Amy Nichols said—she wouldn’t have gone home if they had told her she could. All the others felt the same way, practically one hundred per cent.”

In the original column, dated April 15, 1943, Pyle gives more details, even intimate ones, about the daily lives of the nurses of the mobile surgical hospital, precursor to MASH units:

 

“This gang is kept pretty much on the move. [A]s the war swings back and forth they swing with it. The nurses of this outfit are the most veteran of any in Africa…and they’re living just like the soldiers at the front. They have run out of nearly everything feminine. They wear heavy issue shoes, and even men’s G.I. underwear. Most of the time they wear Army coveralls instead of dresses.

I asked them what they’d like sent from home, and here is what they want—cleansing creams and tissues, fountain pens, shampoos and underwear. That’s all they ask. […] They eat out of mess kits when they’re on the move. They do their own washing. They stand regular duty hours all the time, and in emergencies they work without thought of the hours.

“During battles they are swamped. […] During lax periods the nurses fill in their time by rolling bandages, sewing sheets and generally getting everything ready for the next storm.

“They lead a miserably blank social life. There is absolutely no town life in Central Tunisia, even if they could get to a town. Occasionally an officer will take them for a jeep ride, but usually they’re not even permitted to walk up and down the road. They just work, and sleep, and sit, and write letters. War is no fun for them.

“They make $186 a month, and pay $21 of it for mess [food]. There’s nothing to buy over here, so nearly all of them send money home.

“Like the soldiers, they have learned what a valuable implement the steel helmet is. They use it as a foot bath, as a wastebasket, as a dirty-clothes hamper, to carry water in, as a cooking utensil, as a chair, as a candle-holder, as a rain-hat, and—er, ah—yes, even as an emergency toilet on cold nights!

“Being nurses and accustomed to physical misery, they have not been shocked or upset by the badly wounded men they care for. The thing that has impressed them most is the way the wounded men act. They say they’ve worked with wounded men lying knee-deep outside the operating rooms, and never does one whimper or complain. They say it’s remarkable.

“The girls sleep on cots, under Army blankets. Very few have sleeping bags. They use outdoor toilets. At one place they’ve rigged up canvas walls for taking sun baths.

 

The unit that Pyle could not name was the 48th Surgical Hospital, later re-designated the 128th Evacuation Hospital. It had two hospitalization units, for a total of 400 beds, staffed by 50 officers (most of them probably doctors), 60 nurses, and 275 enlisted men. The Mobile Surgical team worked for whichever hospital unit was most forward at the time, and could be supplemented by six auxiliary surgical teams attached to the 48th.

Pyle is brief, but it seems the six nurses he names are the same six who came ashore, under French artillery fire, with six doctors and 20 enlisted men, in the first wave of the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, led by Teddy Roosevelt’s son, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. The rest of the 48th followed a few hours later. The story of that unit is beyond heroic.

The 48th Surgical Hospital left the States on August 7, 1942, in one of the biggest convoys of the war. After stopping in Halifax, they landed near Glasgow, and took a train to England. They trained for months, then left the UK on October 23 for Africa. The unit provided close medical support, saving countless lives, as American and British troops fought through Tunisia and then Sicily. (The U.S. Army Medical Department Office of Medical History has a more detailed history of the unit’s service in North Africa here.)

At their one-year anniversary in combat, they had treated 21,305 men and performed surgery on 2,586. In November 1943 they left Sicily for England, “the most experienced Hospital in the U.S. Army,” “to train the new and inexperienced Hospital units for the planned Invasion of France,” according to a history of the unit.

A nurse from the (by then) 128th Evacuation Hospital, Second Lieutenant Margaret Stanfill, of Pemiscot County, Missouri, was the first American woman ashore in France, on D-Day + 4, near Utah Beach. She too had landed at Arzew in 1942. The 128th is said to have performed more surgeries in the next two weeks than they had in the previous year.

The 128th followed U.S. combat troops through France and Belgium, treated wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, and pushed into Germany, where eventually they were treating more POWs than Allied troops. Members of the 128th began to leave for home on bombers and ships between July and December 1945. On December 28 the unit officially finished its European duty and shipped for the United States from France.

 

 

•  •  •

 

Most of that was still in the future when Ernie Pyle met the six nurses. Pyle also would be moving through North Africa and Sicily (though he also went to the Italian mainland to cover the fight to push the Nazis up the peninsula). He returned to England, like the 128th, landed at Omaha Beach the morning after D-Day, and followed roughly the same path through France as the surgical hospital.

I thought it would be interesting to learn what happened to someone he mentions by name, to see if they survived the war and what their life was like afterward. I thought there even might be some chance one of them is still alive; if not, perhaps their family could tell me something of them, or I might find records or a media account to offer one more glimpse, beyond Pyle’s, of who they were.

As I looked through Pyle’s book at the names and home addresses, I kept coming back to the accomplishment and good humor of those nurses. Several were from big cities, and I thought this might make it more difficult to find them. But Amy Nichols, the only nurse quoted and who “wouldn’t have gone home if they had told her she could,” was from Blythe, Georgia, population to this day only 700. It seemed more than possible she might still have kin there, or someone who remembered her. If she did not, and if she had married, taken her husband’s name, and moved away from Blythe, the search might be impossible. How is that possible, in the digital age?

I searched her name, with no results. I searched for people in Blythe with the surname Nichols and called one household. The line was busy in a way that meant defunct. I emailed a Nichols in the area, and the principal of a local school, but got no replies.

As I looked through Pyle’s book at the names and home addresses, I kept coming back to the accomplishment and good humor of those nurses.

I called City Hall; they list only one number, and its voice mailbox is full.

The Blythe Library is not funded wholly by the government and has very limited hours.

My search was turning out to be fruitless, but then I discovered a roster online of all 48th/128th personnel, which is where I discovered that the young woman was actually Amy L. Nickles.

To my surprise, on my next search I found the photo of her, at the top of this piece, in a line of other Army nurses of the 128th being awarded Bronze Stars, October 16, 1944, in Belgium. (This was the period between the liberation of Belgium in September 1944 and the start of the German counteroffensive, the Battle of the Bulge, on December 16.)

The nurses are, left to right: Gladys Martin, Ora White, Genevieve F. Kruzic, and Amy L. Nickles. Since the Bronze Star is awarded at different levels of the military hierarchy, there is no single index for medal recipients, and I have no further information on Nickles’ award—and probably would not find any, unless I could see her military records, with the General Order that cites the award.

I called the county clerk’s office and asked if they had Blythe birth, death, and marriage records in their archive.

“No. we. do. not,” the clerk said. It was meant to be the end of the conversation, but I ventured to ask which office might have them.

“That would be”—she thought a second—“the Georgia Federal Records,” she said and hung up.

My search was turning out to be fruitless, but then I discovered a roster online of all 48th/128th personnel, which is where I discovered that the young woman was actually Amy L. Nickles.

A Baptist church secretary asked if I had called before; someone had called, she said; was I writing a letter?

The woman at the Post Office said she was only filling in, and to call several days from now, then sicced the fax machine on me with its antiquarian screech.

Neither Find A Grave nor the online obituary sites had a listing for Amy Nickles that matched. Find A Grave kept trying to auto-fill my name in the boxes.

Maybe something there is that does not love a wall. But have you met its cousin, something there is that does not want a wall remembered?

 

•  •  •

 

Everyone dies; it is not that. We all get tossed into the pond of eternity, eventually, and while there may be a soft plunk, the water calms quickly. My little problem is with people disappearing, especially without a trace. Most people since time immemorial have never been afforded any record they existed. Brief mentions can only set us wondering, and that breeds novelists.

Maybe we could really put the Internet to work and post Wiki-style bios for everyone, so in the future others can know how things went. If necessary, save them to quantum drives stored in salt caverns, and call it a seed bank of human possibility.

 

•  •  •

 

“He’s resting, but I’ll see if he wants to talk,” Mrs. Nickles said. The online white pages-style listing said her husband was 91, she in her 80s. I did not want to bother him in the middle of a fine Georgia day, but she had made a sound when I called that made me think I had the right people.

“Mack, there’s some fella on the phone,” I heard her say in the background. “He’s asking about your Aunt Amy.”

Mr. Nickles and I had a nice talk. Amy Lois Nickles was his father’s sister. She passed away from diabetes at the Blue Goose, he said, the local name for the Georgia War Veterans Nursing Home in Augusta, and Mr. Nickles thought she had a military funeral. He could not say in which decade that had occurred. His wife, whom he calls his advisor, could not remember either. He said it sounded about right that Amy would have been born around the same year as my mother, 1920.

Most people since time immemorial have never been afforded any record they existed. Brief mentions can only set us wondering, and that breeds novelists.

Amy “practiced as a nurse as long as she was able,” he said. He did not know if she had worked in Georgia; neither did Mrs. Nickles. (How many of us can recite the life story of an aunt with much detail or accuracy, especially if she has been gone for a while?) Mrs. Nickles said in the background, and Mr. Nickles repeated, that Amy had had “a love affair during the war.” She never married.

I explained about the Bronze Star. I could not tell if Mr. Nickles knew of it, but he knew about Ernie Pyle’s mention. He said he had other kin in that war. Mr. Nickles had served in Korea. “A different generation,” he said. I thanked him and wished him well.

I called the Blue Goose to ask if they could tell me anything about Amy Nickles, even just a date of death or location of a grave marker. I said I was calling from St. Louis.

Missouri, I added.

“We haven’t had anyone here by that name,” the woman said too quickly.

I have a bad habit of laughing when someone lies badly. It sealed my fate with her, but I softly suggested it might have been a very long time ago.

The administrator changed tack against my northern aggression. “We can’t release that information to anyone but a family member,” she said.

 

•  •  •

 

Ernie Pyle crossed paths with Amy Nickles and her gang sometime before April 1943. A lot happened in a short time after that—a lifetime’s worth of events. Pyle went on to become the most-loved war correspondent of his generation, but as early as the Italian campaign, he was saying of his best work, “I’ve lost the touch. This stuff stinks. I just can’t seem to get going again.”

The war showed him too much. He wrote home that he had to “continually fight an inner depression over the ghastliness of it all,” and after the liberation of Paris wrote in his column, “I do hate terribly to leave right now, but I have given out. . . . I’ve been immersed in it too long. The hurt has finally become too great.”

Mr. Nickles and I had a nice talk. Amy Lois Nickles was his father’s sister. She passed away from diabetes at the Blue Goose, he said, the local name for the Georgia War Veterans Nursing Home in Augusta, and Mr. Nickles thought she had a military funeral.

Nevertheless, after a few months at home in New Mexico, he left for the Pacific theater, but his writing had soured and was mildly critical of what he saw as a lesser effort. He was killed, less than four months before the war ended, by a Japanese machine-gunner on the island of Ie Shima, when he raised up to look out of the ditch he had taken shelter in.

Pyle was eulogized widely, including by Eleanor Roosevelt and President Harry Truman. His remains were buried on Ie Shima but were moved to Okinawa, then to Hawaii. A marker still stands where he died. It reads, “At this spot the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy, Ernie Pyle, 18 April 1945.” It might as well have said, “He saw a lot of this war.”

Amy Nickles’ experience was also the story of a surprising amount of that war. At the end of the war in Germany, she seems to have been one of only seventeen nurses still with the 48th Surgical Hospital, of the 60 who had been in the invasion at Arzew on November 8, 1942. She had likely been in more countries and combat zones than Pyle and had helped save many lives, maybe even someone in your family. But few remember her from life, the records are mostly lost, and I know of no markers.

It is the natural way of things to disappear, but our egos demand otherwise, and our belief in words and pictures soothes us.

 

•  •  •

 

Maybe Amy Nickles was lucky—luckier than Ernie Pyle, or Ernest Hemingway, or Martha Gellhorn, who all followed the same soldiers through Europe. Maybe Amy got out of the service mentally unscathed and lived a long life practicing her beloved vocation. Maybe she had others’ respect and gratitude, a wealth of memories, and a sense of accomplishment far greater than most people enjoy. Maybe she had more love affairs and got to experience many other pleasures of life. Maybe she was rarely lonely, or in pain, or worried about the future.

After all, how can you grieve someone when you do not know their story? I just miss my mom, I guess.

 

 

 

My thanks to Dr. Owen Johnson, Associate Professor Emeritus of Journalism, Indiana University Bloomington; Erika Dowell, Associate Director and Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts for the Lilly Library, IU Bloomington; and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas and Virginia Nickles.

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