Posted on June 23rd, 2016 by:

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When Going is Tough, French Ambulance Girls in Italy Dream of Paris Days:

By Sgt. Ralph G. Martin

Africa Stars & Stripes Correspondent

WITH THE FIFTH ARMY IN ITALY—The old Italian Victrola scratched out some soft music and the pretty French girl with the flowing black hair waltzed around the room with a dreamy look in her eyes and an imaginary sweetheart in her arms.

“Tonight I am not here,” she said in a musical accent. “Tonight I am in Paris, wearing a long red evening gown and silk stockings and satin shoes and a flower in my hair.”

The scratchy record finished its song and she walked over to start it playing again. It was the only record in the room.

She smiled wistfully. “We are still very feminine girls, yes?” They still were. There were still traces of lipstick and powder on the faces of some of the girls in the room. They still giggled girlishly and—no matter how much their clothes disguised it—some of them were still pretty enough to be pin-ups.


In Italy, the gallant T-5 Sal Cannizzo helps French ambulance driver Nanou Calas with her kitting

But these 24 French ambulance drivers were far from Paris. They were in a tiny, cramped room in a damp Italian farmhouse where the garlic still hung from the ceiling. And they weren’t wearing evening gowns; they wore GI fatigues, leggings and hobnailed boots.

“When we first come here, the soldiers laugh at us,” said Renee. “They say we are girls, and we will wreck our machines and lose our way, and we are not able to stand all this dirty living of war.

“But we stand it. It is hard at first, and we are frightened when we are shelled and when we see soldiers die in our arms, but we stand it. And our ambulances they are clean and we never have accident. Now the soldiers they no longer laugh.”

All day and all night there are three ambulances, two girls in each one, making the 20 mile round trip to the front lines, within a kilometer of the actual fighting, to pick up the wounded and bring them back to the collecting station. Other girls in other ambulances take the wounded from the stations back to the field hospitals. And when there is a battle going on and the casualties are heavy, quite often all 12 ambulances are out on the road.

In the thick blackout, the girls have to guess at the road. They try to bypass the shellholes filled with water, and when the machine starts to slide in the slushy mud, they hold on tight to the wheel. And if they get a flat tire in a pouring rain, they must hurry and fix it because the wounded are waiting.

The two girls in each ambulance take turns, one driving, the other staying back with the patients—giving them cigarettes or water, peeling oranges for them, injecting morphine if they need it, talking to them.

When the first shift’s work is done, a new shift goes out and the six girls go “home” for a while. They pull off their heavy GI boots and put them near the fire to dry. They take the itchy leggings off their cold legs and slip out of their coveralls into skirts, home-made from GI pants.

If they are hungry, as they usually are, they have their choice of warmed-up C rations or cold corned beef or sliced Spam.

After chow the girls pull out their knitting and finish some woolen socks for soldiers. Or they write letters to their folks or sweethearts or husbands. Sometimes they play the borrowed Victrola’s single record. Or, if Josie isn’t driving, she takes out her harmonica and they all sing.

And sometimes they feel a little lonely and empty. When that happens, they sprawl on the floor around the fireplace and talk freely and intimately of their problems and dreams. For more than a year they have been very close.

They spent two dirty months learning all about automobiles and then several spotless months learning all about nursing.

Some of them were nurses in France and North Africa before they became ambulance drivers, but most of them are just typical French women, ranging from art students to farm girls. Giselle, the youngest, is 19: Armande is “something more than 35” and the mother of two soldier-sons.

“They ask me why I do this thing.” Said Armande, “and I tell them simply that I do it to shorten the war so I may be back with my sons.”

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