"Easy Company! Listen up! Gather up around me."
Slowly, the men followed Lieutenant Meehan's request.
"Move it up! Come on, gentlemen! Let's go!", he called, waiting for the soldiers to gather. Standing on the hood of one of the jeeps, he continued: "The Channel coast is socked in with rain and fog. High winds on the drop zone. No jump tonight."
Some of the men groaned and muttered complaints to each other as Meehan finished: "The invasion has been postponed. We're on a 24-hour stand-down."
"Son of a bitch", Bill Guarnere swore, voicing what many of them thought.
Ella patted him on the shoulder in consolation before turning around and facing 'her boys'. "So, any ideas on what we're gonna do now?", the girl asked, tilting her head and innocently blinking up at her friends. Being only 5'2, she looked even smaller next to her fellow paratroopers.
"Get rid of all this shit", Joe Toye huffed, tugging at his chute.
She scratched at the grease paint on her cheek and pulled a face. "Guess we'll get to smear this stuff on each other's faces again tomorrow", she said, getting a few smiles and chuckles out of her disgruntled friends.
Ella Sawyer hadn't expected to end up with Easy Company. Not at all. When she had enlisted, she had expected to become a nurse. She couldn't have known that the Army had decided to experiment with females in combat.
"You what?" Ella ducked her head at her mother's startled exclamation.
"I want to sign up for the Nurse Corps, Mama", she quietly repeated.
Isabel Sawyer née Tomaschett sank back down onto her chair and took a deep breath in an obvious effort to calm herself.
Ella stood there in silence, waiting. The only sounds that filled the kitchen of their tiny home were the ticking of the clock on the wall and the birds singing outside.
Finally, Isabel spoke. "Ella, charina, you know being a civilian nurse is hard enough. And you want to volunteer for the Army Nurse Corps?"
"Yes." It was all that needed to be said, no use beating about the bush.
Ella raised her head to look at her mother. Her expression was calm and open, genuinely curious. The young girl sighed. "I..." She faltered. "I just... I need to do something, Mama. We barely get by, even if I help out on the farms and at the clinic. I can't bear it anymore, being here, being reminded of-" She broke off and dragged a hand through her caramel-brown locks, exhaling heavily. "I just want to help", she finished weakly, looking at her mother, hoping that she would understand.
A soft, fond smile spread on Isabel's lips. "I know, love, I know. And I think, those men will be very lucky to have you as their nurse."
"Really, Mama? You...you'll allow it?" A bright grin lit up Ella's face, making her eyes sparkle with excitement.
Isabel's smile widened at her daughter's joy. "I will get Dr Miller to vouch for you and give proof of your skills. And I am coming with you to the enlistment office", she declared.
Ella flung her arms around her mother's neck. Isabel stroked her daughter's wavy locks and gently whispered in her ear. Her daughter's reply was slightly muffled, but no less heart-felt.
The next day, the two Sawyer women sat side by side in a small, bleak office in front of a large desk that had seen better days. Ella had just had a complete check-up where she had been weighed, measured and had even gotten vaccinated. It had been rather uncomfortable for her, but she had swallowed her embarrassment and endured the examination stoically.
"And you work at the clinic of this Dr Miller?", the nurse in charge of enlistment asked Isabel after she had finished reading Dr Miller's letter of recommendation.
"I am the nurse there. My daughter has been helping out for a long time and has often assisted me and the doctor. She didn't go to nursing school, but she is just as competent", Isabel replied politely.
"And you are 18 years old, Miss? Pardon the question, but you look a bit young."
Ella smiled brightly at the woman. "Thank you, how very kind of you, ma'am."
Nurse Adams laughed.
"I can assure you, Ms Adams, Ella was born in 1924. She was born a few weeks early, you see", Isabel explained. Ella had indeed been born prematurely, almost 6 weeks before the due date.
Nurse Adams laughed lightly. "Oh, well, that'd do it. As long as you are strong enough, size doesn't really matter. 5'2 is within the requirements, after all."
A few minutes and a signature later, Ella had officially signed up for the Nurse Corps.
Isabel squeezed her daughter's hand and returned her proud smile.
It was early summer in 1942 and time to say goodbye. Ella was going to be trained at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, and would go there by train. Isabel had taken Ella to the station in Dover.
She hugged her daughter tightly and said: "I am proud of you, charina. Don't you ever forget that."
Ella smiled and straightened her uniform jacket. "Grazia, Mama. Ha di liab."
Isabel dropped a kiss on the crown of her head and gave her a light nudge towards the door. "Don't forget to write", she called as Ella got onto the train.
"I won't!", the young girl called back. She leant out of the window to wave at her mother as the train pulled out of the station.
The journey to Atlanta was long and boring. Ella had read her medical manuals from cover to cover more than once and was pretty sure that she would be able to quote them verbatim by now. She had also written in her journal, a gift from her mother for her 14th birthday.
Nobody had wanted to sit next to or across from her. Probably because she was a woman. Or because she wore an army uniform. Or both. It suited her just fine. Ella spent her time wondering what the future held for her. She was under no illusion about the training. It would be extremely hard and she didn't expect the men to welcome her with open arms. They were bound to be sceptic.
In Atlanta, a driver picked her up. Special arrangement, he said. "The Lieutenant Colonel wants to see you right away, Miss."
Ella asked him why, but the man didn't know anything else.
"'s all I know, Miss. 'm just a corporal, Miss, they don't tell us all that much."
Arriving at Camp Toccoa, Corporal O'Leary guided her to one of the buildings. "Don't worry about your bags, Miss, I'll take care of 'em."
Ella stifled a snort. As if she worried about her luggage. There was hardly anything worth stealing in there, apart from a few pictures and a knife, but those items just held sentimental value. Her family didn't have the money for extravagant clothing or luxuries. All she had – and all she needed, really – were the basics. Most of her clothes, except for the underwear of course, was army-issue anyways. She thanked him none the less.
Another corporal ushered her into the office.
"Miss Sawyer, sir", he announced, saluting.
"Thank you, Lorraine. Dismissed."
A tall man with a serious face stood before her. He wore a moustache and the lines on his forehead made him look stern. He shook her hand, his grip firm just like she had expected. "Miss Sawyer, I am Lt Colonel Sink, Commander of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Please, have a seat."
Ella sat down, hands fidgeting in her lap. She waited as Sink settled into his chair behind the desk.
"I would like to discuss something with you", he spoke, looking her in the eyes. "You have signed up to be a nurse, am I correct?"
"Yes, sir", Ella answered, wondering where this was going. Was there a problem?
"As you know, the Army relies on the people of our country and their effort to help the war", the Lt Colonel continued, "For that reason, they have started a whole new experiment to ensure that our boys get the best medical care possible. And you, Miss Sawyer, are seen as the ideal candidate."
Ella's eyebrows creased slightly. Ideal candidate for what? "Sir?", she questioned.
Sink regarded her with a serious expression. "To become the first female combat medic in the history of the United States Army."
For a moment, there was silence. Ella had just barely managed to keep herself in check, otherwise her jaw would have dropped. They wanted what now?
"I realise, this is a lot to process", Sink allowed, "You would go through the same training as our other medics, that includes physical training as well. You would receive no special treatment whatsoever, meaning you would have to work even harder than any of the men." He folded his hands. "But as I said, this is a trial run and nobody would think any less of you if you'd rather become a nurse instead."
Ella had listened quietly to Sink's words. She had heard the underlying tone and didn't miss the implication. Finally, she wondered: "Why me, sir? Surely, there are more suitable candidates?"
He seemed surprised. "You are young, fit and healthy. Combat medics have to be quick and agile and judging by your stature, you are very nimble. You were top of your class in high school and you have already gathered some experience in the medical field beforehand. Plus, your presence would certainly help boost the morale of the men. You have a very particular charm, Miss Sawyer, if I may say so."
The young girl nearly scowled at the words about boosting the morale. But she expertly schooled her expression into neutrality and inquired politely: "Sir, if you don't mind me asking, what do I get out of this?"
An amused look appeared on Sink's face. "You will be payed 50 $ more as a paratrooper. And if you succeed, you have the gratitude of the men, the Army and the country. Your story could inspire hundreds of people here, especially young women like yourself."
The girl contemplated the Lt Colonel's arguments. A bigger salary would mean more money to send home to her mother. Fame and gratitude weren't things she was interested in, but a small voice inside her whispered: "Aren't you tired of people looking down on you? Belittling you?"
All her life, Ella had been told so many times she couldn't do this or that. Because she was too small, too young or simply because she was a girl. And so, she made her decision.
"I want to become a combat medic, sir", she spoke.
Lt Colonel Sink nodded approvingly. "Excellent." He stood up, Ella quickly following suit. He shook her hand. "Welcome to the 101st Airborne Division, T-5 Sawyer."
Ella beamed at her new commander, saluting him.
"The men have been arriving all week, training begins tomorrow. You'll be assigned to Easy Company. I will inform your company commander now. He intends to make Easy Company the best of the best."
He called a runner. "Get me 1st Lieutenant Sobel", he ordered. The private saluted and scurried away, but not before staring at Ella with wide eyes. Sink turned to her again. "Well, Corporal. I wish you good luck", he said, effectively dismissing her.
The stares and whispers around her made Ella uneasy. There had been some wolf whistles and lewd comments before, but they had quickly been silenced, thankfully. Her cheeks were still burning with embarrassment. What were you thinking? Basically living in the middle of a bunch of men?, she berated herself inside her head while at the same time being grateful that she had a bunk on the far end of the barrack. She was all too aware of the eyes boring into her, studying her intently as she quickly put away her meagre belongings, trying to keep her trembling hands busy.
She heard them talk quietly to each other.
"Who's the chick?" "What's a girl doin' here?"
Taking a breath, the young girl steeled herself for the onslaught of questions that was sure to come. Her shiny new dog tags tinkled lightly when she righted herself.
"Say, baby-doll, didya get lost or somethin'?"
It was the same man who had leered at her. He was wearing a suggestive smirk that sent a cold shiver down her spine and made her shoulders tense.
"Knock it off, Archer", the man on the bunk to her right said. His name tag read 'Martin'.
"Well, he's got a point", a third, redheaded man remarked.
"I heard that the Army was experimenting with women in combat. I thought it was a joke", commented another guy. He had a twinkle in his eyes that gave him a mischievous sort of charm.
Ella swallowed. "I'm one of your medics", she explained, praying her voice didn't betray how scared she felt.
"What? C'mon, you're tiny! I could lift you with one hand!", a dark-haired man with a prominent jawline burst out.
"Better a small medic than no medic", Ella replied dryly, looking him straight in the eye. She wondered where the sudden burst of courage had come from.
To her surprise, the man laughed and effectively broke the ice. "I like her", he declared, getting up and offering his hand. "Bill Guarnere."
Ella shook it and smiled tentatively. "Ella Sawyer."
One after the other, the men introduced themselves. "Damn, girl, you're skin and bones!", one of them – his name was Joe Liebgott – remarked.
"Thanks. You're of course the bulkiest person in the world", she replied, but there was no bite in her words. He winked.
"Hey, why's your footlocker labelled J.V. Sawyer? I thought your name was Ella." Don Malarkey looked utterly confused.
"It is. Everybody calls me that."
"What's the J.V. stand for then?", Muck wondered.
Ella flashed them a dimpled grin. "That's for me to know and for you to hopefully never find out."
"Get dressed! We're lining up! Move it, people!"