For the Boys: The True Account of a Combat Nurse in Patton’s Third Army Review

for the boys

By NCR Davis
Haverton, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2023
ISBN 978-1-63624-158-6
Photographs. Map. Pp. xv, 222. $34.95

For the Boys is an account of the experiences of Lieutenant Mary Balster, a young woman who was determined to put her nursing training to use in support of the U.S. Army during World War II. Written by her daughter, NCR Davis, many years after Mary Balster’s wartime service, For the Boys is built upon the letters, diary entries, and personal memories of the young woman from Minnesota who had just finished college and nursing training before being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps. 

This challenging writing project began when Davis was given her mother’s letters and her Army Service Diary entries in 1990. These existed because Balster’s mother had her wartime letters typed and bound and saved many photos and her Army-issued diary.

Accompanied by her close friend and fellow nurse Lorraine, Mary joined the Army Nurse Corps in February 1943. Her father, a World War I veteran, was initially opposed to her joining, because he knew what combat was like. Nevertheless, he soon became her devoted supporter and correspondent. In March 1943, Mary and her friend Lorraine reported for duty as members of the recently formed 39th Evacuation Hospital which was training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.   

Davis provides readers with excellent descriptions of her mother’s reactions to Army life. She met soldiers from all over the United States as the “39th Evac” went through months of demanding training during maneuvers taking place in Tennessee in the fall of 1943. Many of the photographs in the book portray doctors, nurses, and medics during this field training.

The 39th was committed to preparing for its wartime duties, which would cause the unit’s 500 doctors, nurses, medical aidmen, and support staff to operate near the front lines. The Army’s evacuation hospitals were designed to provide urgently needed surgical and medical treatment for combat casualties, and to care for soldiers evacuated from the front lines because of serious illness or injuries. Once stabilized, these patients would be evacuated to general hospitals further to the rear.

The 39th was alerted for deployment in December 1943 and sailed for England aboard the British troopship HMS Andes in February 1944. Balster would meet a young Army lieutenant on that voyage who became special to her. Their relationship turned into a love that sustained them during the combat they faced in Europe and grew into marriage after the war.

The unit continued training in England before assuming its duties in France, supporting Patton’s Third Army, which had recently arrived and was engaged in combat operations. Mary and her friends were faced with the horrific injuries suffered by combat troops. The entire staff provided the best possible treatment due their patients. Sadly, Balster found that the dedicated care provided by the doctors and nurses of the 39th Evac was not always enough to save their patients.

Balster’s service would carry her through France in the fall of 1944. As winter approached, she continued caring for wounded and ill soldiers while facing her own health challenges. The 39th even came under fire from German artillery and sometimes small arms fire when the unit strove to maintain its close support of Patton’s advance.

The letters written to her family during the desperate fighting in the Ardennes in December 1944 and during the continuing combat in the last months of the war in Europe are frank descriptions of what life was like for this young American who was suffering from “combat exhaustion.” Balster fully expected to be reassigned to the Pacific Theater after the war in Europe ended, but with the surrender of the Japanese, she was able to return to the United States and was a civilian once again in November 1945.

Readers will profit immensely from delving into this book, discovering what life was like for nurses and women in the U.S. Army during World War II.  

Brigadier General John W. Mountcastle, USA-Ret.
Richmond, Virginia