Ena Belden: Nurse mended broken bones, crushed spirits

Tuesday, November 11, 2003November 8, 2007 

FERGUSON TOWNSHIP -- Ena Belden did all she could for the dying soldier.

For three weeks, the young nurse tended to him while his life ebbed away in an Army hospital in England, far from his wife and children.

"He couldn't write, but he could tell me what he wanted to write," recalled Belden, 81, of Ferguson Township. "So, I wrote letters to his family. And we really tried to make him live. It was sad. He had gunshot wounds in his abdomen and his intestines were all shot up, so he really didn't have a chance."< Rest: He would be the only patient Belden lost during World War II.

With the 194th General Hospital in England, France and Belgium, Belden treated hundreds of maimed, burned and traumatized men recovering from combat. She belonged to a vanguard generation in the Army Nurse Corps, which grew from almost 1,000 in 1941 to nearly 60,000 -- including 17,000 in Europe -- by the war's end four years later.

In part because of these nurses' skill, less than 4 percent of American soldiers receiving care in the field or behind the lines died, an "extremely low post-injury mortality rate," according to Judith Bellafaire's account of the corps published by the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Nurses were better trained than ever and were serving closer to the front. Shelled during the 1943 landing at Anzio, Italy, four of them became the first military nurses to receive Silver Star medals for bravery under fire -- one post humously. About 200 Army nurses lost their lives.

Belden's outfit, in the rear echelon, cared for patients recuperating to go home or to return to action. As another Veterans Day arrives today, she can still picture the men in her wards -- backs broken, limbs gone, minds ravaged. One 19-year-old called Belden, at the time only a few years his elder, "mom."

"They were just kids," she said. "To me, it was amazing how much control they seemed to have about the things they did -- getting into a plane and flying a mission and knowing that they possibly wouldn't come back. I just marveled at that."

In 1943, Henrietta Washele ski, a small-town girl from northeast Pennsylvania who later married an ex-flyboy named Bill Belden, was barely out of nursing school herself when she tried to enlist in the Navy.

She failed the physical, but as casualties mounted, trained nurses were desperately needed. In June 1944, when she was 21, the Army commissioned her a second lieutenant.

After basic training, she went to Woodrow Wilson General Hospital in Staunton, Va. At her request, she was posted to overseas duty, but not before the home front impressed her.

"You'd go downtown and have dinner at a restaurant and somebody would come over and pick up the bill or invite us to their homes," Belden said.

Her unit, the 194th, formed in Illinois -- 90 nurses, more than 60 doctors and about 200 enlisted men. Issued a steel helmet and combat boots in addition to her nursing uniforms, Belden learned to bivouac in the woods and dig holes for pup tents.

In October 1944, she arrived aboard a converted liner at damp, foggy England, home to the weary 61st General Hospital and 317th Station Hospital. Since the D-Day Invasion in June, a steady stream of patients had passed through their doors.

"The nurses were very, very happy to see us because they were burned out and ready to go on leave -- home really," Belden said.

Her unit split between the two hospitals, she went to work near Oxford with the 61st. Large tents heated by pot-bellied stoves served as quarters; wooden planks led to the hospital building. Blackouts and air raids were common.

Eight-hour shifts often stretched to 12.

"Particularly, amputees were the saddest thing because they went through a period of denial and disbelief," Belden said. "They used to talk about the phantom pain that they would be having. They'd scream with pain and they would have no legs. Many times, I was in tears -- not while there, but when I would get off duty."

On the job, nurses dispensed as much cheer as medicine. They played checkers by bedsides, read books, shared stories of trips to London. Entering a ward almost guaranteed grins and flirtatious remarks.

"And it was good for our ego, too," Belden said.

Bands like the Glenn Miller Orchestra regularly showed up; Belden recalls patients dancing with her despite leg casts.

"You tried to keep their spirits up," she said. "It was amazing how they would help each other. If somebody was acting up or was upset, the others would come around and talk with him and try to help."

In December 1944, the 194th regrouped and headed to northern France. The following March, it set up in a former school in Paris, an off-duty delight for the nurses.

The Germans surrendered in May, but the battle was just starting for some soldiers -- the one who trembled under his hospital bed in panic, the tanker whose buttocks had been blown off down to the bone.

Returning to the states as a first lieutenant in 1946, Belden wondered what happened to the tanker, who from his bed had flowers sent to her. Even now, she thinks about the men whose lives briefly touched her own. A lot has happened since then -- a degree from Catholic University of America; a long nursing career; eight children with Bill, who died this year -- but the youthful voices of long ago remain fresh in her mind.

"Some of them were so pleased when you came on duty," she said. "They would flatter you and say, `Oh, here comes my girl. I'm going to get better now.'"

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

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