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Caring for the wounded

May 26, 2002|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

The Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle of World War II involving more than a million men, resulted in about 81,000 American casualties.

Among the military hospitals the injured were transferred to back home was Bushnell General Hospital in Brigham City, Utah.

El Centro resident Margaret "Maggie" Brock was there.

She remembers the trainloads of injured soldiers from that battle that were taken to the hospital. It was her job to treat them.

Recruited into the U.S. Army's nursing service, Brock, who turned 80 in January, was transferred to Bushnell and found herself facing soldiers who had lost limbs, were paralyzed or were dying.

In her El Centro home recently, Brock talked of her experience as a World War II nurse — an experience she says she is happy to have faced because it was important to serve her country.

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Bushnell, just one of the hospitals where she was stationed during her four years in the military, was an amputee medical facility, so the wounds she dealt with were at times grotesque, and she was surrounded by men whose lives would never be the same.

Still, what stands out in her memory, though, is not the pain and suffering but the humor of the soldiers.

"I've never laughed so much in my life," Brock recalled as she sat in her chair, her Army fatigues close by. "The GI sense of humor is wonderful. They could make jokes about anything."

She laughed as she remembers how soldiers would roll up towels, place them under their arm pits and prevent her from reading their pulse so she would think they had died.

"Oh, they did so many things," she said.

She remembers one captain in particular who had both his arms and a portion of his chin blown off when a mine detonated. That captain was to undergo surgery at Bushnell.

Brock said when the surgeons went to remove the bandages to begin the surgery they found a dollar bill inside one of the bandages and a note telling the doctors to do a good job.

Brock remembers how the "fellas in the wheelchairs would get in there and race down the ramps." She said they would crash, re-injure themselves and the nurses would have to treat their new wounds.

Of course it wasn't all fun and games. There were patients who came to the hospital depressed about their injuries. She said those who had been there longer and come to terms with their injuries would try to help any soldier feeling sorry for himself.

"If there was ever a patient that felt sorry for himself, they would take him to another patient that was worse off," she said.

Then there were the heavy thunder and lightning storms in the skies over Bushnell. She remembers how the patients would react wildly to the thunder and the flash of the lightning as if they were still in battle.

"I cannot tell you how many times the fellas thought they were still in combat," she said. "They would try to find their foxholes. The nurses and attendants had to watch out for that."

Death was another reality for a World War II nurse.

"We saved some and some we couldn't," she said, adding she thinks she did everything she could to help save lives.

Born in a coal mining district in Pennsylvania but raised in the Imperial Valley, Brock was following in both her father and mother's footsteps when she became a military nurse. Her father was a veteran of World War I and her mother worked as a nurse.

Brock graduated from Central Union High School in 1939 and went on to attend Central Junior College. In college she decided to pursue a career in nursing. She did her training at Mercy Hospital in San Diego where, after three years, she became a registered nurse.

The military was actively recruiting women to serve as nurses in the war. Brock decided then she would join.

She did so in 1944 and was sent to basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash. From there she was transferred to Bushnell, where she would serve a tour until she was transferred to France. In France she worked in a seaport city in a military camp hospital.

Brock said she remembers how the soldiers there were waiting to be sent home and while they waited for a ship they would gamble. She said it was sad because the soldiers had made good money through the military, but some went home with nothing because they had gambled it all away.

Brock served a short time there and then was transferred for a 12-month tour of duty to a hospital in Nice, France. While she was serving there the war in Europe came to an end.

She could have come home, but she signed up for another 18- month tour, this time in Vienna, Austria. She had earned the rank of first lieutenant and was the lead nurse in charge of the surgical room.

She ended her service in the military there. She was discharged in 1948 and returned to the Imperial Valley to continue her career as a nurse.

If she thought she was done traveling the world, she was wrong.

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