World War II Army nurses, like Ellan and Dorothy Levitsky, joined a lineage started in World War I.
In 1944, the Levitsky sisters were licensed nurses working in Philadelphia hospitals when one of them got a wild idea.
Ellan was going to join the Army Nurse Corps. She isn’t too sure why. She just knew she had to go. Of course, Dorothy couldn’t let her sister go off to war all by herself. So she joined, too, but only if they could stay together. The Army made that happen from beginning to end.
On April 14, 1944, they reported to Fort George G. Meade in Maryland for the required basic training for nurses. By the time they left, they’d completed training and tests, earned commissions as 2nd Lieutenants and managed to earn a “goodbye and don’t come back” from their sergeant in charge. Neither thought they were particularly suited for certain athletic activities and had declined to participate, angering the sergeant.
Participating wasn’t optional when they received orders to serve with the 164th General Hospital. They boarded the RMS Scythia for a trans-Atlantic crossing on September 12, arriving at Cherbourg, France, 13 days later. They wouldn’t arrive in Bolleville—where the hospital would be established—for nearly two weeks.
There were plenty of disturbing scenes as they patched up wounded soldiers, but there were some lighter—if not dangerous—moments, too.
With only cots to sleep on and just one blanket, the French winter was frigid. There was a small stove in the center of the shared tent, but it didn’t always stay lit. Ellan’s answer was to soak a paper towel in gin and light it in the stove. It worked, but maybe a little too well. She burned the tent down—twice. No one was hurt, but when the Army threatened no replacement tent if there was a third fire, the girls bunking with Ellan, including her sister, took away her “fire-lighting privileges.”
By June 1945, the sisters were in Arles, France, learning about tropical diseases and thinking they might be headed for the Pacific. But like many at that time, they were spared their worst fears when Japan surrendered later that summer.
Both married after getting out of the Army. Ellan Levitsky Orkin settled in Milford, Delaware, with her husband. Dorothy Levitsky Sinner and her husband traveled extensively. When the sisters’ husbands had passed, they began annual trips to Normandy for the D-Day anniversaries. They decided 2014 would be their last trip and they practically had to revive their doctor when they told him they planned on going.
“After 70 years, it’s history. It’s like closure,” Dorothy told The Milford (Delaware) Chronicle. “Every year when we go over, the last thing we do is go to Omaha Beach Cemetery [Normandy American Cemetery]. If you ever have a chance to go anyplace out of the country, go there.”
“You stand at the steps. You look, you see the English Channel and all you see is crosses and Stars of Davids and you think, ‘God, take care of them,’” said Ellan. “Then … we salute, cry and then we leave.”
We honor you, Ellan Orkin.