Area nurses provided care in war zone

Their accomplishments are described in WWII memoir

-Submitted photo
Hospital tents are shown in the shadow of mountains in Italy.

These women of the 1940s had to be part Margaret Houlihan, part Florence Nightingale. They were mother figures in the midst of pain and death. At times, they were sisterly friends, and there were even times when they became sweethearts for men so far from home.

Perhaps nothing did more for the morale of Allied soldiers in World War II than the women who served beside them as nurses. Their stories have often been overlooked. As Women’s History Month comes to a close, there is perhaps no better time to reflect on the sacrifice they made in the cause of freedom.

North central Iowa was home to a number of young women who answered the call to care for the wounded, and even one who made the ultimate sacrifice for her nation.

Hamilton County native Avis Dagit Schorer left a remarkable memoir of life as a World War II U.S. Army nurse in her book “A Half Acre of Hell,” available at Kendall Young Library in Webster City.

“I remember her as just a very kind person who would do anything for person who needed help,” recalled her nephew Rod Dagit, of Williams.

Avis Dagit

Born at Churdan, Dagit grew up on a farm near Williams. She graduated from Iowa Methodist School of Nursing in 1941. Young nurses were being heavily recruited by the armed forces as hostilities heated up around the world. Dagit opted to join the Red Cross, with the agreement that she would only serve in the event of a national emergency. Even then, she promised her parents, Raymond and Alma (Arnold) Dagit, that she would only agree to serve here in the United States.

It wouldn’t take long to realize that no one in the Army, not even nurses, gets to decide where they will serve. She was called up from the Red Cross soon after Pearl Harbor. Dagit reported for active duty March 17, 1942. She boarded a train at Iowa Falls to report for basic training and would have only one leave at home until the end of the war more than three years later.

Veterans will easily relate to the tenor and pace of Dagit’s book. Even in times of war, as Dagit relates, it was often a story of “Hurry Up and Wait.” With time to spare in New York as they waited for their ship, Dagit faced the unexpected choice as to whether or not to buy a bathing suit at the iconic Macy’s department store. Several of her fellow nurses did, but Dagit’s practical side didn’t foresee having time to wear a swimsuit in a war zone.

Surprisingly, the military’s “Hurry Up and Wait” reputation would give them time. Her book offers glimpses of visits to exotic locales, from Casablanca to Bizerte, North Africa, and throughout much of Italy. Her detailed descriptions offer up places of incredible history and natural beauty, mixed with the stench of war and poverty. Her text speaks in the voice of the time; GIs often felt they were little more than ‘dogfaces.’

While she traversed much of Italy with the 56th Evacuation Hospital, it was her time at Anzio that was most gripping. The hospital was under almost constant bombardment and seasoned infantrymen told the nurses they felt safer in their foxholes than they did in their hospital beds. By the service men and women who served there, Anzio was dubbed, “Hell’s Half Acre.”

Gertrude Morrow

Somehow, the Army always kept them fed, if not warm and dry. Readers will learn the difference between K rations and C rations. They will celebrate with Dagit when she shares the story of her hospital camping in a potato field and finally getting fresh potatoes for dinner. They will feel the bitter cold of winter nights in tents heated with sticks of wood.

One of the joys of this book is meeting many of the nurses who served with Dagit. Like all service members, they were sure to form special bonds with those from the same state. Fellow Army nurse Gertrude Morrow was born in Algona in 1916. She grew up as a typical Iowa girl, belonged to 4-H, and eventually decided to study nursing. Like Dagit, she was a graduate of the Iowa Methodist School of Nursing.

Morrow was only 16 when her mother died. Within a few months, the family moved to Des Moines and she would graduate from Roosevelt High School.

Morrow was killed Feb. 7, 1944, when the Germans bombed the evacuation hospital where she was stationed on the embattled beachhead at Anzio. She was the daughter of Merrill and Mary (White) Morrow. She is buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery on the west coast of Italy.

Three nurses were killed that day at Anzio. The other two were Carrie Sheetz from Pennsylvania and Blanche Sigman, whose military records indicate that she was born in Ohio and lived in New York prior to enlistment.

-Submitted photo
Lt. Avis Dagit, right, manages to get a little rest on board an LCI on the way to Anzio. LCI stood for Landing Craft Infantry, which was a ship used to ferry troops to beaches.

However, Dagit recalled that Sigman claimed Fort Dodge as her home. For a person who may have lived in multiple locations, a military record would not include every home she ever had. A brief search of city directories shows at least two branches of Sigman families living in Fort Dodge in the 1930s. Had she lived here at one time? Did she simply have grandparents or other relatives here?

Sigman’s connection to Fort Dodge may be lost to history, but Dagit’s first-hand account that this nurse who died for her country considered Fort Dodge at least one of her homes, should not be discounted.

While Feb. 7, 1944, was a terrible day in the history of Army nursing, the losses were not done yet. Dagit would lose another very good friend only a few days later as the battle of Anzio dragged on.

Ellen Ainsworth was a girl from Wisconsin who loved to sing. With fellow nurses packed into the back of trucks, seated only on slats of wood riding across rugged terrain, Ainsworth would get everyone singing, starting each round with the Army Hymn.

Ainsworth was just 23 years old when she suffered a chest wound from German shelling on Feb. 10, 1944. Dagit recalls surgeons telling her that Ainsworth had little chance to recover, but she nursed her friend until her death six days later on Feb. 16, 1944, at Anzio. Her body is buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery.

Dagit had hoped to be discharged after V-E Day on May 8, 1945. Instead, she and fellow nurses began pistol training for the first time. Their combat experience at Anzio gave them the needed experience in the Pacific Theater. For them, V-J Day on August 15, 1945, was even more poignant, saving them from another bloody campaign.

The orders that would send her home came quickly, arriving on Aug. 20, 1945.

On the ocean voyage sailing back to the United States, Dagit thanked God that she had survived, and prayed for those who hadn’t. She would eventually take advantage of the G.I. Bill and become a nurse anesthetist. After a divorce, she and three children spent several years in Webster City, where she worked at Hamilton County Public Hospital in the 1960s, later moving to Minnesota. Dagit passed away in 2016 at the age of 97, leaving a rich, first-person legacy of life as a combat nurse in her memoir, “A Half Acre of Hell.”

Editor’s Note: The writer would love to solve the mystery of any connection Blanche Sigman had to the Fort Dodge community. Readers who may be familiar with the name or her history can contact the writer at lberglund@farm-news.com.


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