... a special story of a shock team nurse in World War II ...
This is a different kind of war story. A fifty year old war story.
It's about Kathryn Driscoll Bistany, a nurse one time from Melrose, now with her husband Sam living in Fitchburg. She is the oldest sister of some of the more famous Driscolls, names that many Melrosians will quickly recognize -- Jack, Jim, Bob and David, all of whom have made a major niche in the modern history of our city.
Kay's story -- as reticent as she was to get into detail -- is a familiar one in modern day America, even though most of us were not born when this action took place. But there are few viewers who haven't seen at least some of the television episodes of MASH, which was the fictional story of a front line medical team during the Korean War. Kay Driscoll Bistany could have written the scripts for many of those half hour segments. It was her story, too, except her time-slot was set in the horrendous years of World War II, and the stage was not Korea but the bloody shores of Anzio, and the fight that led from one end of Europe to the other.
The magnitude of the death and mayhem that axis and allied armies inflicted upon each other in World War II is beyond description, and when pushed for some hint of that terror, Kay looked down in her lap and the tears began to flow. It was all half a century ago.
In all, she spent eight years as an Army nurse, including three very long years of World War II as a member of what was then called a shock team -- the forerunner of what was to become a MASH unit, a mobile army surgical hospital. Her shock team was that compact medical team of four medical people who were set up in tents somewhere behind the fighting, but on occasion found themselves in the middle of it. Other than the heroic infantry medics, these people were the first professional medical contact for the hundreds of wounded American soldiers coming out of hot action.
The team consisted of a doctor, a nurse and two non-com medics. On their shoulders fell the job of determining who had life-saving priority to the surgical suit -- that holey tent with the red cross painted on it that served as a mobile operating theater. In modern days, it is called triage, saving a life long enough for the soldier to reach the OR.
The nurse on this team was a second lieutenant named Kathryn Driscoll, once of Melrose, Massachusetts. Single, proficient, good looking and adventurous.
"Those doctors were the real heros, the real miracle men," Kay said, "working tirelessly during the endless battles. They were the best the army could find, and their skill saved endless numbers of our people. You just can't imagine the conditions, the primitive medicines, the terrible wounds our army doctors were facing, day after day for year after year.
"I couldn't count the number of American boys who are alive today because of the people on those shock teams, the doctors and the shock team nurses -- and the surgical teams that were right behind them," Kay recounted. "Not only Americans, but there were times when we found we were treating Italians, French and at one time in Austria, even German and Russian boy-soldiers. Toward the end of the war, it seemed as though both the Russian and German armies were made up of boy-soldiers, some not old enough to shave."
Our conversation took place over tea at the kitchen table, in the home of Melrose's Jim and Barbara Driscoll, and although it wasn't planned that way, as the word spread that Kay and Sam were coming to town, the family took advantage to join the party. It was brother Jack, whose MIT media team sponsors the Silver Stringers and the Melrose Mirror, who corralled some dozen visiting members of the family into the living room during the interview.
Kay was born in 1915 in Brooklyn in New York City, and when the family moved to Springfield, she went to school there. She trained as a nurse at Mercy Hospital in that city, then joined her parents after they had relocated to Melrose in the mid-thirties. There followed half a dozen years spent as a nurse at Malden Hospital before she got the itch to move on, in 1941.
"I just got tired of the hospital routine, I guess," Kay said. "And then I saw an ad, it was in the paper, that said the army was looking for nurses. It sounded intriguing, exciting. Yes, the war was already on in Europe, but President Roosevelt said that we were not going to be involved."
"I applied at the Boston Army Base and by March of 1941 I was sent to Camp Edwards, down on the Cape. We went right to work in the army hospital, but it wasn't exactly what I expected. Shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, I became part of the 6th General Hospital, formed from doctors and nurses from Mass General, and we all moved to Stark, Florida.
The Allied armies -- American, British and Free French -- had landed in North Africa just before the 6th followed them, setting up a general hospital right on the main street of Casablanca. "I remember that every Tuesday at noon, all American personnel had to put on their gas masks and wear them for three hours," she said. "Of course we were the only ones walking around Casablanca with gas masks, which drew endless ribald comments from the locals. And I remember Casablanca as a startling beautiful city."
Except for the fact that they were in Morocco, her job was just like it had been in the States -- standard hospital duty, filling out army forms in triplicate.
Still not satisfied with her part in the war, Kay soon asked for transfer, this time to be closer to the fighting. She landed in Carrano, Italy, just below Monte Casino, and got the shock of her life. The shooting war began for her the day she put her foot on Italian soil.
"I joined the Second Auxiliary Surgical Unit just east of Naples -- we were the first nurses to join a mobile surgical unit. At times we were within a few miles of the shooting. The war seemed to be all around us. We were seldom out of earshot of the sounds of war, the artillery shells exploding, rifle and machinegun fire, and it didn't take us long to learn the difference between German and American fighters overhead by the sound of their engines.
"We like to believe that the German pilots weren't shooting at us, but there were times when machine gun bullets would tear through some tents. Sometimes it was only because the Messerschmidts were strafing a convoy just ahead of us, and they were just flying too fast to be that accurate.
"Yes", she said, "we did lose two, a doctor and a nurse, but both deaths occurred before I arrived. After that, we never lost any of our people", she continued, "which was a miracle, considering our proximity to the fighting."
"When we first arrived at Carrano, we were receiving four or five casualties a day. But then suddenly the trucks would come pouring in, and we'd have the wounded lined up. The numbers surged to thirty or more at our Battalion aid clearing station. Some days you were busy, some days you had time to wash clothes, to clean up."
"We moved a lot, as the fighting progressed up the boot of Italy. We moved in convoys, and the German planes would attack right down the line of trucks. Sure, we had big red crosses painted on top, but it was amazing that none of our group was ever hit, considering the holes that perforated the canvas."
When asked how she kept her sanity among all the carnage, she said that "You become immune to it, but you never get used to it. At first it is shocking, but you soon learn to cope. If you didn't, you simply couldn't function, you wouldn't sleep at night. We were younger, more resilient then, but no, we never became calloused to it". At this point she paused for some private thought, and tears filled her eyes.
"There was one time a couple of us went down to Salerno, a doctor and I thumbed our way back to meet my brother Jim, who was a sailor on an LCT. He came back with us to Sparanesi for two days. That was strange because the last time I had seen Jimmy, he wasn't even shaving. I was sort of in quandry, whether we should offer him a drink or a cigarette. He looked so young and strange in his clean whites. The rest of us were in army fatigues and muddy combat boots.
The first night Jimmy was there, several soldiers got into a brawl. I ran out of the tent, thinking that they had ganged up on this poor sailor in his clean whites. But no, the fight was between soldiers.
"During the off hours we were able to get something to drink. We did have a ration of liquor and cigarettes, but our favorite was something called a yakie dockie, which was alcohol and lemon powder. We had to improvise. But that was really something, that lemon powder. We'd use it to rinse our hair, clean the stoves, and as a base for our drinks. Yes, I smoked, up to 18 years ago. I used to swap my liquor ration for cigarettes.
Kay's 2nd Auxiliary Surgical Group landed in Italy on September 9, 1943, south of Naples. Three months later they moved north to Marcianise, where they spent Christmas -- in tents. The fighting was slow, tough and expensive in terms of trading lives for territory.
"We seldom saw a city", Kay reminisced. "It seems we were always parked way out in the country, occasionally near some little town. I remember the people were good to us, they came to us for medical attention, to say thank you for driving out the Germans. I remember going through Rome one time, in a recon; there was this very sober sign stretched across the street that read 'Welcome To The Liberators'.
By mid-1944, the German forces began to crumble and the 2nd Surgical was constantly on the move north, past Rome in June to Follonica, to Cecine in August, where the group was moved west to Saint Tropez in France.
"Actually my team landed on Dday in the invasion of southern France, at Cavaliere, and I joined it four days later, on August 15, of '44" she said. "We were with the Seventh Army. and followed it all across France". In September the 2nd Aux had been moved north through France to Lons le Saunier, then Epinal and Lixheim where they spent Christmas. Shortly after that, they crossed the Rhine and moved into Germany, spending three months just north of Switzerland near Sarrebourg, reaching Kaiserlautern by the end of March, 1945.
From there, with the war closing down, they passed through Hardheim, then into Austria, where they began receiving young soldiers from the Russian army. The last move was to Augsburg on May 4, before they were transferred back to Italy in June, the on home to the States.
"In fact, towards the end of the war, most of the German soldiers were either youngsters or old men -- as young as thirteen or fourteen, as old as 65. They had just exhausted their supply of men. I remember the Americans brought in an Italian prisoner one time, an officer who was wounded but still his uniform was clean and trim. He was very austere, very proper. I used what little Italian I knew to question him about his wound, and after we found it quite difficult to communicate, he suggested in an almost perfect accent that we speak English. He had been educated in the United States.
"When the war was finally over in 1945, I was transferred to a general hospital in New Jersey, then again to the hospital on Governors Island in New York harbor. In 1948, Sam came in with appendicitis, and our first meeting was when he came to have the sutures removed. We were married at Fort Jay six weeks later". Sam, a professional soldier, was in military intelligence at the time, and finally retired as colonel in 1970.
"For most of the time in Europe" she explained, "I was a first lieutenant, but I made captain in '48 back at Fort Jay. I had gone into service in March, 1941 -- nine months before Pearl Harbor -- and was discharged in September, 1948".
"I still keep up with my war comrades, even after all these years", she said, staring into her empty cup of tea. "Those of us who are left. There are two nurses from Florida and Louisiana that I stay in touch with, and there's a once-a-year update published by what's left of the original 2nd Aux".
In the end, she had spent eight years as an army nurse, and almost three under combat conditions. She had been bombed, strafed, and the 2nd Aux tents had been peppered with shrapnel. She had treated victims of war, both soldiers and civilians, from over a dozen countries, both enemies and allies. It would be impossible even to estimate how many men and women are alive today because of her being there.
As for Sam and Kay, they went on to have three daughters, two of whom are nurses. Sam retired in 1970, after 29 years in the army, and the couple settled in Fitchburg. They are now grandparents many times over.
As a footnote to Kay's story, it was Sam who revealed quietly that Kay had been awarded a Bronze Medal for out-standing service rendered during those three years in a combat zone. She was opposed to making that public, but we insisted that it was an important part of her story. And that is why the news of the Bronze Medal is part of a closing footnote, rather than in the lead paragraph.
"I never received the medal", she argued. But there is the commendation, in her service record, her husband pointed out. She and the other Shock Team Nurses deserve that honor.
Map of 2nd Auxiliary Surgical Group's path through WWII