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A nursing life: GF woman cared for wounded during WWII

On this Memorial Day weekend, Anna Walker of Grand Forks is thinking again about England, about the young men and women she lived and worked with nearly 70 years ago and the wounded who filled wards of her hospital after D-Day.

Anna Walker
Anna Walker, 90, of Grand Forks, still has her dog tags from her days as a U.S. Army Nurse Corps nurse during WW II. Walker left for Europe as a 22-year-old where she treated wounded soilders from the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. Herald photo by John Stennes.

On this Memorial Day weekend, Anna Walker of Grand Forks is thinking again about England, about the young men and women she lived and worked with nearly 70 years ago and the wounded who filled wards of her hospital after D-Day.

Walker, 90, was 23 then, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. She worked the night shift, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

"The night before D-Day, we knew it was happening because a bunch of planes came over," she said. "They were coming, and coming. What a roar that was, into the night and into the morning.

"We got a lot of paratroopers after that."

The patients came back from France with fractured limbs, burns and shrapnel wounds,


"But they were eager to get back to their units," she said.

"There was one little trooper, such a nice young guy. He came to me and said, 'Lieutenant, I have been in this hospital twice now, and I know I'll be going back to the fighting. But I haven't had a single pass. I'd like to get into town and see what it's like.' "

It was against rules, but she took pity on this one and told him about a field adjoining the hospital grounds and where he might be able to hop a fence and get into the nearby town.

"You have to be back by bed-check," she told him, and he promised he would.

Shortly after he left the hospital, however, the nurse remembered that German prisoners of war were in one of the hospital's wards. A sentry might mistake the fence-hopping GI for an escaping POW.

"But he was back in an hour," she said. "He said he was afraid he'd lose his stripes if he was caught."

Walker is still a little embarrassed telling the story, as if she or the soldier might still get into trouble a lifetime later. But she is proud of the story, too, and tells it with a smile.

"Those were happy days for me, even though it was war and we saw all those shrapnel wounds," she said. "We had Glen Miller and his music, and we had a good bunch of nurses."


Always a nurse

She was born Anna Hoffman in 1921 in Wadena, Minn. At age 2, she moved with her family to South Dakota and later to Iowa, where her father worked as a sharecropper through the droughts and economic depression of the 1930s.

When her father lay dying during her senior year of high school, Anna cared for him.

"I always wanted to be a nurse," she said.

She attended nursing school in Fargo, graduating in 1943. A few weeks later, she joined the Army Nurse Corps and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant.

"On Sept. 11 or 12, 1943, I was on the Mauritania, going to Europe," she said. "We left Pier 92 in New York, and it was mostly troops on board. We landed at Liverpool and were sent to Newton Abbot in Devon, where we set up a new hospital."

She was 22 years old.

"Oh, I was foot-loose and fancy free," she said. "And I was eager to find something to do, to be a part of things."


Wounded soldiers who had been treated first at field hospitals were brought into the hospital's wards to recuperate.

She has two photo albums, filled mostly with pictures of her and other nurses, doctors and medical orderlies at work or at rest on the hospital grounds. She has snapshots of a few soldiers, as well.

The nurses were under strict orders not to fraternize with the soldiers. But that didn't keep the soldiers from trying.

"This was a kid who had designs on me," she said, laughing as she flipped the page, consigning the smiling young man back to history and memory.

"I would tell them, 'Keep your kisses and everything else for the girl back home,' if they got out of line," she said. "But so many of them got 'Dear John' letters from home, and that's when they really tried to cozy up to the nurses."

Enlisted soldiers, officers, even a few war correspondents passing through invited her out for "good times on the town," she said. One Army Air Corps pilot even suggested she fly with him from England to Casablanca, in North Africa.

"I need the flying time," he said.

"Right," she said.


"I never went out alone, but I went with four other nurses and a couple GIs to London once. The guys gave us each a rose, and we danced until 3 in the morning. It was the best evening I ever had, but it was such innocent fun."

She and other nurses also treated themselves to a stay at the grand Imperial Hotel at Torquay, on what was called "the English Riviera," shortly after a German V-2 rocket struck just outside the London-area hospital where they had been temporarily assigned for a few weeks.

"The Imperial," she said, savoring the memory. "Hitler was going to take that over as his headquarters when he invaded England.

"He didn't make it. But we did."

'Very dear to me'

In 1945, as the war approached its end, Lt. Hoffmann was transferred to an Army hospital in Scotland.

"We had some liberated American prisoners of war, and patients who had been in the Battle of the Bulge," she said.

Many of those soldiers had come close to starvation. Some were close to losing hands and feet due to exposure.


"Many couldn't walk," she said. "Many didn't want to talk. It was sad, so very, very sad."

She came home in November 1945 aboard the Queen Mary, sharing the great liner-turned-troopship with hundreds of U.S. and Canadian soldiers.

She worked for the Veterans Administration in Fargo, where she met Joseph Walker, who had served in the Army in France and Germany. They were married in 1947.

In 1953, the family moved to Grand Forks, where Joseph worked for the railroad and Anna worked at the old St. Michael's Hospital, which became part of United Hospital, then Altru Health Center. She retired in 1962.

Joseph's health has not been good recently. With the help of their children, Anna has been caring for him. At 90, she is still on duty.

She may make it to the North Dakota Veterans of Foreign Wars state convention in Grand Forks later this week, she said, but she isn't as mobile now as when she raced down those hospital corridors in England.

She also hopes to visit Lewis & Clark Elementary School again on Veterans Day to show her pictures and remind the children that old veterans were young once, laughed and loved and were loved.

"I have my dog tags with me, my mess kit, even the menu from the ship that carried us over to England," she said. "I'm telling you, those kids are so thrilled. Nearly every year, they invite me back."


In addition to her scrapbooks and dog tags and such, Anna Walker has three letters she received from former soldier patients. They thank her for caring for them and lifting their spirits at a dark time.

In one letter, a private who had returned to the United States wrote that he was glad to be home, but he missed his nurses.

"I keep those letters in a safe," Walker said. "They are very dear to me."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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