As I mentioned the other day, I requested Bedpan Commando by June Wandrey from Interlibrary Loan. I just happened to stop by the library yesterday morning and found that it had come in the day before. The clerk showed me that I needed to have it back by the 9th and, since our library is closed on Sundays and Mondays, that meant I needed to have it back at the branch by the 7th. So I got it home and started reading. The edition that the Redgranite Public Library of Redgranite, Wisconsin sent me has rather large print, so it was a quicker read than I’d expected. In fact, I finished it this afternoon. The book was published in 1989 by the Elmore Publishing Company of Elmore, Ohio. I’ve never heard of them, and don’t know if this means the book was self-published. Even if it were, it doesn’t matter. Bedpan Commando is part diary, part letters home and completely fascinating. I learned about the book last fall, when I watched “WWII in HD” on the History Channel.
Wandrey was a young nurse from Wisconsin who enlisted in the Army shortly after graduating from nursing school at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She saw action in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany and was awarded seven battle stars for her efforts. Her last assignment was at Dachau, where she tried to nurse concentration camp victims back to some semblance of health.
In one of the early entries, a soldier seems to be disparaging Lieutenant Wandrey by calling her a “bedpan commando,” but she takes it as a compliment. As well she should. These women showed as much guts, heart and bravery as any man could have. And they did it despite the fact that they were prohibited from carrying a weapon.
The book is really interesting, and we see Wandrey change from a young, idealistic girl into a hardened veteran of a brutal war. But she manages to stay cheerful for her patients, and they all seem to appreciate her for it. The letters tell of the difficulties she and her mobile hospital faced, but we also learn of the ingenuity that she and her colleagues needed to do what was necessary for their own survival and that of their patients. We know the letters were censored, so what was cut out was likely even more chilling than what remains.
I found a couple of Wandrey’s comments to be particularly interesting. In several letters she is quite adamant about her dislike for President Roosevelt, and she even wonders if the votes of all the soldiers would be enough to counteract the votes of the people back home who couldn’t wait to re-elect him. In addition, she says she saw Roosevelt in person while in nursing school and was surprised to see that he was a cripple (that word may be impolite now, but it’s her word, so I’m using it). This brought back memories of the arguments surrounding the construction of the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington — advocates for the disabled wanted him to be portrayed in his wheelchair, but other people didn’t want that because Roosevelt did not want the general public to know he lived in a wheelchair, and the newspapers of the time cooperated by not publishing any photographs of him in his chair.
It was a quick read, but a thoroughly engrossing one, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in WWII. Wandrey died in 2005 and I am grateful she left her account of life just behind the front lines with us for posterity. I know that she felt frustrated being on the front lines and not knowing why so many young men were dying, but the fact remains that WWII was a necessary war, and that the world would most certainly not have been a better place with Hitler and his henchmen in charge.
I’ve read my library book and I’ve finished my finals, and I promise faithfully that I will begin Emma as soon as I can so I can report back as soon as possible afterwards.