Second World War nurse shares heartbreaking memories from overseas

It took 70 years for Joan Doree to break her silence about her experience as a nurse in the Second World War.

Friend pens story about late Sask. veteran

Joan Doree was a Saskatchewan-born nurse in the Second World War. (Submitted by Olive Caldwell Lee)

Joan Doree was one of Olive Caldwell Lee's oldest friends. Doree, who grew up in Saskatchewan, was a nurse in the burn wards in England during the Second World War.

Recently, Doree shared her wartime experience with her friend for the first time. Shortly after, Doree was admitted to the hospital. She died this February at 97.

This is Doree's story told in Lee's words. 

It took 70 years for Joan Doree to break her silence about her experience as a nurse in the Second World War.

I was on a normal visit with Joan, 96, at her west end apartment in Vancouver when the dam broke and she gave permission for me to record her words. 

"The first thing that hit you was the smell. It was like no other smell in the world: The smell of rotting and rotten flesh. You never got used to it, but after about 15 minutes your sense of smell is blunted and it's a bit easier," she said.

She paused remembering it, then said, "No one complained. You just carried on."

Joining the military

Joan was 25 years old when she went overseas as a member of the Canadian military.

She grew up in Saskatoon and trained as a nurse there. She said it was the education afforded to the poor man's daughter. 

She tried to enlist as soon as she graduated in 1940 but the military wanted nurses with experience and maturity. She applied again in 1943 and was turned down, but in January 1944, the military wanted her immediately.

She was part of a contingent of nurses from Canada that arrived in Liverpool, England, just in time for D-Day, when waves of Allied Forces were landing on the beaches of Normandy, France.
Troops and landing craft occupy a Normandy beach shortly after the D-Day landing. The bombardment of the beaches began at 6 a.m. on June 6, 1944, and within hours soldiers from Canada had established the beachhead at Juno Beach and the German defences were shattered. (Canadian Press)

They were sent immediately to a Canadian military hospital in Basingstoke, England, to receive the wounded from the war front.

The number of casualties was heavy and many of the men suffered severe burns.

Burn unit

The hospital's burn unit became the site of Joan's war. It was the terrible suffering of these men that burned its way into Joan's heart. That haunting remained 70 years later.

Joan sobbed as she recalled treating a soldier who had burns over most of his body and was conscious the entire time. 

"When we got back, we felt there was no way to cope other than to forget," she said. 

But she didn't forget. She was overcome with the thought that people were targeted with such horror. 

Urgency to treat soldier

The soldiers were jammed into the huts, as many as 40 soldiers in a ward. The cots were so close together that there was only standing room. The only source of heat was from a bucket-sized coal stove at one end of each hut. Coal was severely rationed, even for wounded soldiers. The only other source of heat was from the men's bodies.

It wasn't the challenges of nursing that lingered most in Joan's mind but the urgency of the treatments for the soldiers and the pain inflicted in giving the treatments.

"As soon as the burned soldiers arrived at our hospital, they received injections of plasma four times the normal concentration in order to counteract the enormous loss of body fluid through their burns. This was a real lifesaver. To get the plasma ready you had to mix granules of dried blood very vigorously with distilled water before it could be injected into the patient," she recalled.

With a burn patient, it was hard to find a spot that was not too painful.- Joan Doree, as told to her friend Olive Caldwell Lee

It was common to see a nurse shaking a bottle containing the plasma with one hand while doing something else with the other. 

Joan became increasingly distressed as she recalled what was involved in giving the penicillin. It had to be administered every three hours in order to maintain adequate levels of antibiotic in the blood.

"With a burn patient, it was hard to find a spot that was not too painful," she said. 

Soldiers with severe wounds had to be submersed in a saline bath in order to separate the dressing from the wounds.Only a handful of solders could get a bath per shift.  

"It was always hard to know who was the most desperately in need for all of the men were seriously burned, some all over their body. It was a desperate time altogether," she said.

Remembrance Day ceremonies took place Friday. (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

It took a great deal of energy for Joan to recount these stories. Her voice was strong as she relived it and then she would collapse. She regained her strength as she continued to tell a story of two young men who helped her at the hospital for the rest of the war. 

"The staff must have realized that neither of them were old enough to enlist and kept them off the front line. They turned out to be very helpful, a godsend. I don't know how they managed, with the awful smell and all, but they were very good," she said. 

At this point Joan had become a warrior herself. In all the 45 years that I have known her, she has been an intrepid fighter — for the disadvantaged, the sick and for those who care for them. She learned her lessons early and learned them well.

Her prairie upbringing and her stern sense of right and wrong came into play many times. Following orders was all very well but when a soldier's welfare was at stake, then she was a fighter.

No typical days

Soldiers who were not Canadian might wind up at Basingstoke for a time until they were stabilized enough to be transported to a British hospital. Considering the limited personnel at each stage, the nurses did amazingly well sorting out patients along the route.

"Soldiers who could fight, even though they were wounded, were returned to the front line. Snipers spent long hours at the front, often with no relief. One sniper had suffered a head wound and passed out," she said. 

There were so many planes that there was no space for light between the layers of planes. The sun was cut off completely.- Joan Doree, as told to her friend Olive Caldwell Lee

"One soldier told me, 'Maybe it was just as well I got hit [the expression for any injury], for I think I would have gone crazy if I hadn't.' He went on, 'I was out in the field and I was trying to get this man to the first aid unit. His arm was torn off and there was blood gushing everywhere. I grabbed a pile of hay to try to staunch the blood but it kept gushing out. He died in my arms. There was blood all over him and all over me too.'"

Joan said soldiers liked to play jokes on one another and on the nurses. A few soldiers tried the trick of grabbing the end of the nurses' veils and pretending to blow their noses into it.

Soldiers also helped with the other burn patients as best they could.

The nurses worked 12-hour shifts with one day off per week. 

"Otherwise," Joan said, "you won't be able to cope and you will become casualties too."

Second World War memorial in Regina. (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

The one day off consisted of getting on the train to London or biking around the countryside. 

"I remember getting to London and seeing blocks and blocks simply leveled. One time we saw people going into a pile of rubble. After a bit we realized that they were living in the rubble. It was quite a shock," she said. 

"Early one morning I heard an enormous roar. I went outside and saw a black cloud overhead. Then I saw layer upon layer of bombers taking off. There were so many planes that there was no space for light between the layers of planes. The sun was cut off completely, and all I could think was how glad I am that they are not coming to bomb me."

New Year's Eve

On New Year's Eve 1945, the wounded were still pouring in and the atmosphere in the hut was dismal, cold and dark. Knowing how much the Scottish soldiers valued having a 'wee dram on Hogmanay,' Joan thought she would try to get them something. 

"I got the mickey of cheap scotch I had brought from Canada as an emergency ration. When the medical officer came into the ward I asked him if he could get something to add to the mickey. He produced two bottles of beer and two 'double scotches' he managed to sneak from the mess bar," she said. 

They divided up the small supply of cheer between 35 to 40 patients.

"Later in the evening, a patient covered with soggy saline dressings called me over. He reached out, took my hand, kissed it and said, 'I'll never forget this,"' Joan said, weeping.

She remembered how short they were of supplies — so much so that after the war, she apologized to an ex-soldier who had been at Basingstoke as a patient. He was astonished and insisted that the hospital was the best he had ever been in.

"It was warm and safe and like being in a cocoon," he told her.

The aftermath

Joan also talked about how she and others coped after the war.

"There was a great deal of shell shock, of course now called PTSD. Most of the men and women did not speak of their experiences," she said. "They knew no one would understand so they just tried to put it behind them with varying degrees of success."

I am glad that I took part in the greatest struggle our generation knew.- Joan Doree, as told to her friend Olive Caldwell Lee

Perhaps the heaviest burden they felt was the recollection of comrades who did not make it back.

I noticed that Joan always said "soldier" rather than "patient." I felt that this reflected the way in which the staff regarded those in their care, always taking into account the honour due to them for their sacrifice.

As Joan recalled this time in her life her voice became stronger and the stories more vivid. She was amazed at the memories that came back to her.

"I have never spoken of these things in all the years since the war — at least I cannot recall ever doing so. When we nurses got together once a year, no one referred to this time in our lives. We talked of what we were doing now."

I asked her how, in retrospect, she felt about her decision to go to war as a nurse. She looked me squarely in the eye and said, "I am glad that I took part in the greatest struggle our generation knew."