At almost 100 years old, Ellan Levitsky-Orkin is raring to go back to the site of her WWII service
Helping people is all retired nurse Ellan Levitsky-Orkin has wanted to do with her life. But in June, the Milford resident set out on a trip across the ocean and a journey back in time: she’s returning to Normandy, the site of the June 6, 1944, invasion that brought about the end Nazi Germany.
“It’s going to be my last hurrah,” the feisty 99-year-old said.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of what Adolf Hitler called his Fortress Europe, a stronghold so solid he claimed that any attempt to breach its defenses would lead to overwhelming disaster for any attacker.
Hitler’s words had the sting of truth. While his fortress was conquered and his armies defeated, it came at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides.
As U.S. Army nurses, Levitsky-Orkin and her sister, Dorothy, were there immediately after the 1944 assault on a mission to help save some of those lives.
Return to Normandy
She now uses a wheelchair to get around, but Levitsky-Orkin, who will reach the century mark Dec. 27, plans to take part in as many programs as possible during the week-long anniversary. She left June 2 to attend days of military parades, fireworks, picnics, concerts and military reenactors.
Some 30 C-47 military transport aircraft or their civilian Douglas DC-3 counterparts will take off from England June 5 carrying up to 250 men -- and women -- dressed as World War II paratroopers. Like the armada of more than 800 C-47s in 1944, they will cross the English Channel and the reenactors will jump into some of the drop zones targeted 75 years ago.
One of those aircraft will be the Texas-based “That’s All Brother,” which paid a visit to Dover Air Force Base May 4.
It will be a bittersweet journey: Levitsky-Orkin has been back to Normandy before, but this will be the first time without Dorothy, who died in December 2015 at age 98.
Born in Salem, N.J., Dorothy in 1915, Ellan four years later, the sisters were almost inseparable from the start.
Their mother, Fanny Levitsky, was a Ukrainian immigrant who, her daughter said, wanted the best for her family. When their father Isador died in 1920, Fanny opened a grocery store to support her daughters.
Despite economic hardships, Fanny was resolute in her resolve that her daughters would prosper, Levitsky-Orkin said.
“We grew up during the Great Depression, and there was no money to go to college,” she said. “But our mother was determined her children should be educated. She decided Dorothy and I would be good nurses.”
When Dorothy graduated high school in 1936, she was sent off to the Wilmington Hospital School for Nursing. Four years later, Levitsky-Orkin began her studies in Philadelphia. Both had earned tuition by working in a sewing factory.
After three years of intensive work, Levitsky-Orkin graduated with her nursing degree.
By this time though, the United States was fighting the war on two fronts.
‘I had to go’
Levitsky-Orkin’s desire to help wounded soldiers led to her decision to join the Army as a nurse.
“I had a good job and Dorothy had a good job, but I knew I had to go,” she said. “I called Dorothy and told her and she wasn’t very happy. But finally, she said that if I was going, then she would, too.”
Dorothy wrote to Army recruiters and offered to enlist, with the one caveat that the sisters always would be assigned together. Remarkably, the officials agreed.
With the agreement in hand, the sisters became Army nurses in April 1944 and were sent off to Fort George Meade, Md., to learn how to be soldiers.
“We hated it,” Levitsky-Orkin recalled. “We were not athletes and they made us march, march and march. They put the tall girls in front, and since Dorothy and I were both under five feet, we were in the back.”
This gave the fledgling soldiers a chance to hide and also to engage in a little resistance to Army discipline.
“They were trying to break us in to the Army, and we fought it,” she said. “We did what we had to do, but under protest.”
One time the sisters refused to march and picked flowers instead.
“There were just some things we decided we didn’t want to do,” she said.
They occasionally earned the displeasure of training instructors, but perhaps because the Army was desperate for qualified nurses, they never were disciplined, Levitsky-Orkin said.
After learning how to be Army soldiers, the sisters went to Fort Lee, Va., to become Army nurses. Following graduation in August, they headed directly to France.
Strangers in a strange land
Following a rough Atlantic crossing where the threat of German submarine attack still prevailed, the sisters arrived in Europe aboard the HMS Cynthia.
“Before us, all the nurses were sent to England first and then to France. We went directly to Cherbourg,” Levitsky-Orkin said. The liberated port had become the main staging area for supplies for fighting forces farther inland.
The sisters were assigned to the 164th General Hospital at Bolleville, about 30 miles south of Cherbourg. Dorothy worked on a ward while Levitsky-Orkin became an operating room nurse working out of a Quonset hut.
Being strangers in a strange land, the sisters had some interesting misadventures while in France.
While the Americans ate relatively well, they missed little touches, like fresh eggs and chicken. They’d often trade cigarettes and candy with the locals for better rations, and Levitsky-Orkin once parleyed her uniform shirt, complete with rank insignia, for a live chicken that quickly ended up in the camp kitchen.
It was a welcome break from the ubiquitous rations of Spam, which the nurses were served so often that 75 years later, Levitsky-Orkin still cannot stand the taste of the spiced ham loaf.
When it was cold at night, the only heat was from a coal-fired potbelly stove. Levitsky-Orkin once tried to add a bit of fuel in the form of gin-soaked paper. The resulting firestorm burned down the nurses’ tent.
In one instance she got Dorothy and herself in trouble after innocently collecting her sister’s pay as well as her own. The chief nurse reported them to the commander, who ordered them to report to him.
Positive they would be facing a court-martial, the sisters entered the colonel’s office, arm in arm, dancing like a vaudeville skit.
“The colonel just about fell out of his chair,” Levitsky-Orkin said. “Looking back, it was ridiculous two girls would be dumb enough to do something like that.”
Case dismissed, the colonel said.
Legion of Honor
The sisters spent almost a full year in the European theater, tending to wounded and recovering soldiers past the end of hostilities in May 1945. But the still ongoing Pacific war meant the sisters faced a further tour on the other side of the world. The Japanese surrender in September 1945 ended that possibility.
By that time, Levitsky-Orkin had thought about making the Army a career but after their mother fell seriously ill, both sisters returned to civilian life. Dorothy married and retired after a 28-year-career at the Veterans Administration hospital in Elsmere.
Levitsky-Orkin married Milford resident Benjamin Orkin in November 1946 and moved to the First State. Her mother, who lived with the couple for the last 21 years of her life, died in 1993 at the age of 101.
As she approaches her first century, Levitsky-Orkin likes to remain active. In June 2012, the sisters revisited Bolleville, where they were made honorary citizens. In September 2012 they traveled to Washington, D.C., where they were presented the Legion of Honor at the French embassy.
In November 2018, Levitsky-Orkin was on hand wearing her World War II uniform cap at the dedication of the Delaware Women’s Service Monument. Although many of America’s servicewomen returned to more traditional roles after their wartime service, she said she was pleased that many also blazed new paths and were being honored that day.
“It’s amazing that we weren’t forgotten,” she said.