“Saving Private Ryan” is a fictionalized account of a detail of soldiers who, after the Allies have secured the beachhead on the coast of Normandy, France, are sent ahead to find and bring out an Army Ranger whose brothers had been killed in action.
By following a small detachment of soldiers as they work their way inland to save the fictitious James Ryan, the movie shows us the importance of brave individuals each doing their job and working as a team. While saving this one individual made for a compelling movie, real teams who saved thousands of soldiers, sailors, fliers and marines are sometimes overlooked. I’m talking about the men and women of the Medical Corps.
I’ve recently had the privilege of meeting one such individual, First Lt. Army Nurse Helene Frances (Wiggs) Cattani, who graciously invited me into her home and talked with me about her service in France administering to the wounded. After more than 70 years up north, Helene hasn’t lost her North Carolina accent or any of her southern charm. Strong and independent, but kind and always smiling, Helene possesses the patriotic enthusiasm of why her generation has come to be called the Greatest.
Helene was not yet 23 years old when she entered the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and reported for duty on March 10, 1943. Having studied her mother’s nursing books from the time she could read, mentored by her mother and aunt who were also nurses, and after three years of nursing training and a year of hospital practice tending to wounded and burned sailors brought in from oil tankers sunk by the Germans off the coast of North Carolina, Helene was ready to do her part.
Her brother was in the Navy and was stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. He fought throughout the Pacific until near the end of the war when he was wounded in the bloody battle for Okinawa and sent home.
Her unit traveled by train to Massachusetts for staging and preparation and on Dec. 6, 1944, they sailed off on the S.S. America to places unknown. Even though women in the Army expected no special treatment, that first day on foreign soil was quite sobering. Disembarking in Marseille, France, Helene hefted her duffle bag and followed the other nurses to their new quarters—an attic where she laid awake on her bedroll on a hard wooden floor listening to the frightening drone of war planes overhead. Comforts of home were not to be found here. Meals were served in their mess kits and their helmets became their wash basins. That first night was scary, but it didn’t diminish her resolve. American soldiers were fighting their way through France and pushing into Germany. And she was here to do what she could to help the wounded.
After a few days, her unit was sent by train to Dijon, France, to a riding academy which had been recently pressed into use as a makeshift hospital. She bunked in a Quonset hut and had to use an outdoor latrine. The need for this hospital became quite apparent as wounded soldiers began to flood in. The Germans had launched a counter-attack through the Ardennes in Belgium.
“We were getting patients in by wholesale,” Helene said. “They just kept coming.”
Helene and the other nurses worked 12-hour shifts to keep up, but there seemed to be no end. The 250 beds in the orthopedic ward where she worked filled rapidly. Something big was going on. She didn’t know it at the time, but what she was experiencing first hand would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
When asked what it was like having to administer aid to so many soldiers streaming in, Helene simply shrugged her shoulders, saying, “You did what you had to do. This was what I had signed up for, to use my skills and help my country and my fellow soldiers.”
Of working in the orthopedic ward in a converted riding academy, Helene said, “It wasn’t like a regular hospital. It was more like a field hospital. Sometimes a boy would have both arms in a cast and you’d have to write letters home for him and do everything, but the boys would help each other. They were such wonderful boys. Sometimes I’d meet a boy from my hometown and when he wrote home that he met me, his mother would contact my mother and they’d become friends and share information.”
Some new drugs had just been discovered. Helene explains, “When I was in nurses training we would use the sulfa drugs, but when I first went in the Army penicillin came out and it was so new they wouldn’t allow the nurses to give it. Only the doctors could give it. If a patient needed it in the middle of the night, you had to wake up the doctor and they would come give it. They’d give the shot of penicillin because we weren’t allowed. I don’t know what the reasons were because it didn’t take many months before they let the nurses do it.”
Helene met her future husband, Capt. Albert S. Cattani, in France. She was a Southern Baptist from North Carolina and he was a Roman Catholic Italian from Brooklyn. His outfit invited the nurses to a dance. She had been escorted by a colonel from his outfit.
“I didn’t know it at the time,” she said with a twinkle in her eye, “but he told his buddies he was going to steal me away from the colonel—and he did!”
I was captivated as Helene took me through her memorabilia: a banner depicting two blue stars on a white field and red border that her mother proudly hung in her window, signifying that two of her children were serving in the war; photos of her in Army uniform, the barracks and the riding academy/hospital; citations for her service; wooden shoes from France, and other memories. But I was most awed by her uniform jacket with the battle star decoration, signifying her service during that now famous battle.
When the war in Europe ended, Helene’s hospital unit prepared to go to the Pacific where a bloody fight to take the Japanese homeland promised to result in millions of dead and wounded. As her ship neared the Panama Canal, the atomic bomb was dropped and brought about a rapid end to the war. But if you think this is where Helene’s story ends, you don’t know Helene. After Albert’s death, Helene volunteered for more than 20 years at the VA hospital in Paramus. Now, well into her 90s, Helene continues to help veterans once a week at the New Jersey State Veterans Memorial Home in Menlo Park.
The war was hard. There were long hours, anguish and trauma, but Helene said, “I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything.”
Sebastian Rizzo is a member of the Madison-Old Bridge Historical Society. He occasionally writes the “Living History” column for Newspaper Media Group. The historical society invites readers to share springtime memories of Old Bridge for its newsletter. Send stories to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to 4216 Route 516, Matawan 07747-7032.