The faces of soldiers haunt Leila Morrison -- wounded soldiers, and those who died during World War II while she worked as an Army nurse across Western Europe. She still grapples with the horrors she saw in April 1945 at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, just after its liberation. More than 50,000 people died there. For years, she says it was too painful to talk about what she witnessed. Now 95, she doesn't hold back, hoping that when people hear her story, they'll understand the high cost of freedom.
We spoke with Leila as part of a series that documents the stories of Coloradans who survived World War II. She was assigned to the 118th Evacuation Hospital, a mobile medical unit that provided emergency care in the field.
Leila told us what was on her mind as she walked across Omaha Beach not long after the Normandy invasion, about comforting wounded soldiers, the horrors of witnessing Buchenwald after the Holocaust, and her gratitude for President Truman ending the war against Japan with the dropping of atomic bombs. Edited highlights are below, followed by a full transcript.
On how she felt at Omaha Beach:
“As we walked in that sand at Normandy, I couldn’t help but think of all the boys, young boys that had given their lives, and I just felt like I was on sacred land walking across where those fellas had walked and given their all.”
On what it was like treating and comforting the soldiers:
“It would be everything from shots through the head, through the body, through the legs and by the way, out of the Battle of the Bulge, we had many [with] frostbite. It was the coldest winter they'd had in fifty years there and many fellas lost their limbs from the frostbite. … They didn’t seem scared at all. They would tell us about home and about the things they were missing and how anxious they were to get back to things. And one that I remember in particular whipped out his bill fold and showed me a picture of a little boy, three-years-old. He said, 'This is my son and I’ve never seen him.'"
On what she saw and felt at Buchenwald:
“We arrived in Weimar, Germany and they told us Buchenwald was [nearby]. Well we weren’t aware of that and they said, 'This hospital unit will have to go down there in the morning and help out.' So the next morning, we were ready to go and they called us and said, 'No, you nurses can’t come.'
The doctors were there and they said conditions are so deplorable, we can’t let you nurses come in here. … I think they were just trying to save us some heartache. That was where they did so many, in the laboratory there, [medical experiments] ... So we went down the next day. … [And saw] a lot of horror. A lot. Something you’ll never forget. [They] introduced us to a man from Czechoslovakia and he had been a prisoner there for quite a while, and he took us all through, even underground. ... He showed us the window where they told the prisoners to take their clothes off and slide down this slide into the basement, and there was a big stick there, real thick, a lot thicker than a baseball bat, and as they slid down, a guard would stand there and hit them in the back of the head and knocked them out. … I thought, this is a factory of murder. How in the world could you explain something like that?”
On how she learned of the atomic bombings:
“It was strange because they assigned each one of us to a camp close to our home to have our orders cut for a thirty-day leave and so I was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and while we were sitting on the side of the track in a troop train -- we had stopped there -- some little boys came by and they said, 'Hey, did you soldiers hear about that great big bomb the U.S. dropped on Japan?' We didn’t believe them. We said, 'What do you mean?' 'Oh, it was a great big bomb. One bomb would annihilate a whole town.' And we just laughed because we’d never heard of such a thing.”
“Well of course, at first, it was just unbelief, but we found out it was true and we were so thankful. They estimated our casualties at a million and a half. So imagine a million and a half more casualties.”
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. Faces haunt Leila Morrison of Windsor, Colorado, the faces of soldiers she saw die in World War II. Morrison was a U.S. Army nurse; she treated wounded soldiers across Western Europe and for years, she says it was too painful to talk about the horrors she witnessed. Now ninety-five, she doesn’t hold back, hoping that when people hear her story, they'll understand the high price of freedom. We spoke as CPR News documents the stories of Coloradans who survived World War II and to note that this conversation may include some graphic descriptions. And Leila, welcome to the program.
Leila Morrison: Thank you.
RW: You grew up in Blue Ridge, Georgia, one of seven siblings.
RW: When did you know you wanted to be a nurse?
LM: Oh, I think I was just born to be a nurse and I was happy all through my career, never sorry that I was a nurse.
RW: Never sorry. You graduated from nursing school in 1943 at age twenty-two and shortly after, volunteered to be a nurse for the U.S. Army.
LM: Well I was young and single, and my mother died before I’d remember, and my father had died when I was twenty, and even though I had wonderful siblings, I just felt like I could go and it would be easier not having a mother and dad worrying about you.
RW: What was training like to be a part of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps?
LM: Well it was really different than anything I’d ever been through and by the way, I had basic training right here in Denver at Lowry Field.
RW: Oh, I see. You’ve come full circle by being in Colorado.
LM: Yes and oh, we had to learn to salute and march, and the regulations of the Army, which I was completely ignorant of before, but it was a lot of fun. We laughed because we’d do things wrong. We had a sergeant that was teaching us how to march and, right-face, left-face, about-face, and we didn’t know what that meant, and sometimes if he said, right-face, maybe I did a left one, and I’d be looking at the one behind me right in the face and it would be so funny.
RW: I didn’t realize that nurses in the Army learned all that stuff.
LM: Oh yes, mm-hmm.
RW: You were assigned to the 118th Evacuation Hospital. This is a mobile medical unit that provided emergency care in the field.
LM: That’s right.
RW: You were first sent to England, eventually to Normandy, France.
RW: Arriving not too long after the D-Day attack there.
RW: What was on your mind when you arrived in Normandy?
LM: I realized and had read a lot about the boys that first landed there on June the 6th.
RW: Omaha Beach.
LM: Invasion, mm-hmm and as we walked in that sand at Normandy, I couldn’t help but think of all the boys, young boys that had given their lives, and I just felt like I was on sacred land walking across where those fellas had walked and given their all.
RW: It was during the Battle of the Bulge, which began in December of 1944 that you had your first real patients in the theatre of war. This was Nazi Germany’s final attack on the Western Front, a surprise assault on the Allied forces in the Ardennes Forest and it was one of the bloodiest and most brutal battles of the war with soldiers trying to hold off a German advance in freezing temperatures.
LM: Yes. Well we were, like you said, a mobile unit. We lived in tents the whole time we were there and our hospital was in tents.
RW: And how often would that move?
LM: We moved often as our lines would move and only two times we had to fall back because we went too close, and they said, “Oh, you nurses can’t be up this close; go back.”
RW: We can’t protect you here.
LM: Mm-hmm, yes.
RW: And what do you remember about treating those soldiers?
LM: See, I was in the shock and pre-op tent. We only took care of emergencies and we could not give them whole blood because at that time, they had no means of preserving whole blood and get it clear over there.
RW: What could you administer?
LM: That was the next best thing and we gave many, many units of plasma.
RW: And this speaks to the shock that they’re in.
RW: A lot of them lost a lot of blood.
LM: You couldn’t send them to surgery with in shock. They had to be out of that.
RW: If that unit was moving so often and you had patients who couldn’t move, how did you move a whole sort of mobile hospital?
LM: Well, we had 250 regular soldiers assigned to us and that’s what they did. So -
RW: But they would have to move the patients too?
LM: Oh no.
LM: No. We waited until maybe we’d be there two or three days, maybe a week, and we wouldn’t have sent them back unless we knew they could make it.
RW: OK. So you sort of clear out that class of soldiers and then you pick up and move on.
RW: Got it. What kinds of injuries do you remember?
LM: It would be everything from shots through the head, through the body, through the legs and by the way, out of the Battle of the Bulge, we had many frostbites. It was the coldest winter they'd had in fifty years there and many fellas lost their limbs from the frostbite.
RW: How scared were they when they got to you?
LM: Oh, they didn’t seem scared at all. They would tell us about home and about the things they were missing and how anxious they were to get back to things. And one that I remember in particular whipped out his bill fold and showed me a picture of a little boy, three years old, and he said, “This is my son and I’ve never seen him.”
RW: Oh, he’d been born after he was deployed?
RW: My goodness. Did that young man make it, do you remember?
LM: No, that was one disadvantage we had, being in emergency-only. We never knew how they turned out.
RW: How did you, if you did, try to comfort the soldiers as you treated them?
LM: Well you tried to be cheerful, tried to have a smile on your face. We would take time to look at their pictures and listen to them a little.
RW: Were they excited to see a woman?
LM: Oh yes, they were very excited and they worried about us. They said, “Oh, you girls shouldn’t be up this far. You’re far too close to the front. You shouldn’t be here.” And we’d reassure them we were OK.
RW: You’d reassure them?
RW: Do you remember close calls?
LM: We were fortunate they never bombed our hospital. We had a great big red cross on the top of each of our tents.
RW: And that was, at least for you, that was honored, apparently?
LM: Well, that was telling the enemy that we were med and we were unarmed.
RW: Would you ever treat enemy soldiers?
LM: Yes, we had some.
RW: Tell me about that.
LM: Well I did feel a little funny treating them, but they’re God’s creation too and maybe they’re there because they had to be. I’ve looked at many other prisoners and I would think I know we could be good friends. I know that enemy likes a nice home; he likes a full stomach. He likes a nice clean bed at night just like I do and you do. So I had empathy for them too, but -
RW: So these were prisoners of war that had been captured by the U.S.?
RW: Boy, you’re making me tear up on that one, Leila.
LM: I’m sorry.
RW: Well no, don’t be sorry.
LM: You want the truth, so yeah.
RW: I do want the truth. You were part of the team that provided aid to prisoners at Buchenwald in Germany?
LM: Mm-hmm, yes.
RW: This was after U.S. troops liberated that concentration camp in April of 1945.
RW: The largest concentration camp on German soil proper.
RW: And during the eight years that that camp operated, more than 50,000 people died there.
RW: What did you see when you arrived at the camp?
LM: We arrived in Weimar. It was just outside Weimar, Germany and they told us Buchenwald was there. Well we weren’t aware of that and they said, “This hospital unit will have to go down there in the morning and help out.” So the next morning, we were ready to go and they called us and said, no, you nurses can’t come. The doctors were there and they said conditions are so deplorable, we can’t let you nurses come in here.
RW: What were they afraid of, with you going in?
LM: Seeing the inside of that concentration camp. I think they were just trying to save us some heartache. That was where they did so many, in the laboratory there that did …
RW: Medical experiments?
LM: Uh-huh, many of them.
RW: Oh my!
LM: And with drugs and everything.
RW: So they had cleared the bodies away before you arrived?
LM: Yes, they had; mm-hmm. So we went down the next day.
RW: What do you remember seeing when you arrived?
LM: A lot of horror. A lot. Something you’ll never forget and introduced us to a man from Czechoslovakia and he had been a prisoner there for quite a while, and he took us all through, even underground. The thing that impressed me so much, I think, was the crematory. It was up on a little incline and it was a building, a brick building. He showed us the window where they told the prisoners to take their clothes off and slide down this slide into the basement, and there was a big stick there, real thick, a lot thicker than a baseball bat, and as they slid down, a guard would stand there and hit them in the back of the head and knocked them out.
RW: Oh my goodness.
LM: I think they gave them gas in there.
RW: Yeah, yeah.
LM: And then had an elevator up to the ground floor, and there ñ it was a huge oven, the best I can remember. I think it was eight on each side and afterwards, I walked down this little hill, I looked back and I thought, this is a factory of murder. How in the world could you explain something like that? Innocent people; the Jewish people are just like you and me. They love a good full stomach; they love their children, their family. They’re no different than we are.
RW: Were you able to be of any help as a nurse when you got to the camp? Were there people who needed your services?
LM: Inside the camp?
LM: No. Oh well, I’m sure there were, but they’d be very weak. Oh, every one of them, you wondered how they could even stand up and breathe. I’ve never seen such thin people.
RW: So you didn’t really do much treatment at the camp?
LM: No, not inside there; no, they had cleaned it up pretty good. Well you see, the people were anxious to get out if they could and the others, most of them were too weak or already gone.
RW: You left Europe in 1945. What do you remember about coming back to the United States?
LM: We were mighty thankful to get back to the States and one of the things you’ll probably be surprised at was the thing that impressed us so much as we looked out from the ship coming into the harbor: all the windows were in. We hadn’t seen anything, but all the buildings across Europe were all blown out.
RW: Oh, the fact that buildings had windows was such a different site from what you had seen?
LM: Well that’s true because we hadn’t seen them for the whole time and we’d say, oh, look,
RW: You had been so used to the war zone, you forgot what it looked like not to be in one.
LM: It was wonderful. Oh, how great it was to put our feet on American soil.
RW: Now you’d expected to head to the Pacific to treat soldiers fighting Japanese troops.
LM: Yes, mm-hmm.
RW: But you never wound up going?
LM: Oh no. We were some of the first troops that came home and they said, “The reason we’re taking you home first is because you’re seasoned troops, you know what’s going on and you know how to work. So we’re going to take you back to the States first and you’ll have thirty days leave, and then thirty days of more training.” Because of ñ working in the islands would be a lot different than going across Europe.
RW: Yeah, I imagine a whole host of different diseases, different issues.
LM: Yeah, that’s right.
RW: And then President Truman ordered the U.S. military to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
LM: Mm-hmm, he did.
RW: That changed the course of the war and it changed your future.
LM: It sure did and we were so thankful.
RW: I think for those who did not live through World War II, it’s hard to imagine that you could find gratitude, I suppose, in the dropping of the atomic bombs. Tell me about that.
LM: It was strange because they assigned each one of us to a camp close to our home to have our orders cut for a thirty-day leave and so I was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and while we were sitting on the side of the track in a troop train, we had stopped there, and some little boys came by and they said, “Hey, did you soldiers hear about that great big bomb the U.S. dropped on Japan?” We didn’t believe them. We said, “What do you mean?” “Oh, it was a great big bomb. One bomb would annihilate a whole town.” And we just laughed because we’d never heard of such a thing.
RW: What did you think about these bombs that sounded like something out of science fiction but had actually been real?
LM: Well of course, at first, it was just unbelief, but we found out it was true and we were so thankful. They estimated our causalities at a million and a half. So imagine a million and a half more casualties.
RW: That’s what you focused on was the idea that so many more could die if the war continued?
LM: Right, right, right.
RW: Did you continue being a nurse, Leila?
LM: Oh yes. I’m even still a nurse today. I live in an old folks’ home and it’s surprising. I’ve been retired for at least forty years and some of the people that live there will come up and, “Oh, last night, I had this and I couldn’t sleep, and they get in the doctor, gave me these pills. Do you think that’ll help me?”
RW: Once a nurse, always a nurse?
LM: Well, that’s for sure; yep.
RW: You speak about the war a lot these days. What do you think is the most important thing for younger people to understand?
LM: Well I think to put it kind of in simple words, but it isn’t simple: Freedom is not free. We paid a real high price for it, just like anybody that’s in war.
RW: Thank you so much for being with us.
LM: It’s my pleasure. I feel it’s my honor to remind people of what our country’s gone through and I hope that I can impress a few how thankful we are that we’re Americans.