Twenty-two year old Joy Lillie from Coopersville, Michigan, began her service with the U.S. Army Nurse Corp during WWII on April 1, 1943. She was originally assigned to a hospital ship serving wounded soldiers from Sicily and Italy. Later on she was reassigned to a field hospital unit and found herself in full combat gear (including helmet) climbing the bluffs of Normandy searching for wounded soldiers six days after the landing at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944.
Lillie and 17 other women in her platoon were on the front lines of every major campaign in Europe: Normandy, Northern France, Battle of the Bulge, Rhineland, and Central Europe. Her medical team advanced as the battle moved forward. They were never farther than thirty miles from the front line. Joy recalled the time they got too close to the front and the whole platoon spent twelve hours in a ditch waiting for the fighting to stop. The 51st Field Hospital’s tents and cots could be relocated to treat the wounded. “We got used to the sound of the airplanes, the bombs, the fighting” she says. “I was brave in those days. The idea was to get as close to the front lines as possible, do the repair work, and send them to the evacuation hospitals as soon as possible.”
They worked twelve-hour shifts, and had 50 men in their care. The platoon’s facilities were primitive, as expected, and everyone bathed using their metal helmets. Joy wrote home that she would go 30 days without a bath. The medical team had to make do with what was available. As the winter months settled in, it became so cold that the blood and plasma would not flow. Engineers brought in pot-bellied stoves to warm it enough to start the flow. Twice during their time there, they were able to setup in real buildings; one was an abandoned schoolhouse and another a blown out public building. But it was a welcome change to have a real roof over their heads.
On April 12, 1945, their platoon was the first medical unit on the scene of the gruesome German death camp, Nordhausen, a death camp created by Nazis for prisoners too weak or ill to work in the tunnels of Dora-Mittelbau work camp making German ockets, as it was being liberated. They found dead bodies stacked on top of each other like “cordwood”.
The nurses patched up the wounds of the living and helped where they could. Dysentery was a major problem as they attempted to feed the liberated prisoners. This particular prisoner of war camp did not have gas chambers, but instead held political prisoners. They weren’t fed enough to live on; if they could no longer work, they were left to starve.
Joy served overseas for two years, eight months stateside, and earned the rank of first lieutenant. The bronze star was given to her for working 72 hours straight during the Normandy invasion. In 2002, Pete Hoekstra delivered the remaining medals commemorating her service to her country. She was awarded the following medals: Bronze Star, American Campaign, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign, WWII Victory, Normandy Medal, and Honorable Service Lapel Button WWII.
Following the war she and her husband Russ who was also in the military were re-united in January 1946, and they had each other to help work out some of the scars left from the hardship of battle. They established a home on a small farm near Grand Rapids, and raised a family of ten, and Joy stayed home caring for the family for seventeen years. Then, she took a refresher course in nursing and went back to caregiving for 20 more years. She died at the age of 91 in the fall of 2011.
Cindy Laug, “Joy Lillie: Nurse Goes to War”, Grand Rapids Historical Commission Blog, March 9th, 2012
Susan Harrison Wolffis, “The Nurse Who Went to War”, Muskegon Chronicle, March 31, 2002, front page.
For further reading,
Fessler, Diane Burke. No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in WWII. Michigan State Univ. Press. 1996. Also available online.
Monahan, Evelyn. And if I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in WWII. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Norman, Elizabeth M. We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan. Random House, 1999.