by Paula Bosse
The opening paragraph from a chapter in Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation:
There are so many impressive numbers connected to World War II that it’s difficult for one or two to catch your eye. Here are a few that caught me by surprise: more than sixty thousand women served in the Army Nurse Corps. Sixteen died as a result of enemy action. Sixty-seven nurses were taken prisoner of war. More than sixteen hundred were decorated for bravery under fire or for meritorious service.
The chapter is titled “Mary Louise Roberts Wilson,” a profile of Mary L. Roberts, a Methodist Hospital nurse who enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps in 1942. She served with the 56th Evacuation Hospital Unit alongside many other medical professionals from Dallas (the unit — sometimes called the “Baylor Unit” — was organized by the Baylor University College of Medicine in Dallas). She knew she would be serving overseas in field hospitals in combat zones.
As far as seeing action, the worst of the worst for the 56th was on February 10, 1944 when their hospital tents on the Anzio beachhead in Italy were attacked by German long-range artillery shells for a full thirty minutes. Several operations were underway during the attack, and Roberts, the chief nurse of the operating tent, managed to keep a calm head and help to maintain as much order as possible.
“I wanted to jump under the operating table, but first we had to lower litter cases to the floor. Pieces of steel already were ripping through tents. There were four litters. I saw a patient on the operating table had his helmet near him so I put it over his head to give him that much protection.” (Mary L. Roberts, Dallas Morning News, Feb 23, 1944)
When the shelling ended, two enlisted men in the operating tent had been wounded, and elsewhere in the field hospital, two nurses had been killed and several other personnel wounded. As a result of their exceptional bravery, outstanding leadership, and “gallantry in action,” Roberts and two other nurses, 2nd Lt. Rita Virginia Rourke and 2nd Lt. Elaine Arletta Roe were awarded the Silver Star. No women had ever received the medal. As 1st Lt. Roberts had seniority, she was the first woman in history to be decorated for heroism in action.
Maj. General John P. Lucas surprised her and the other two nurses on Feb. 22, 1944 with an informal presentation of the medals at the same Anzio hospital that had been shelled only twelve days earlier. After the brief pinning ceremony, the nurses immediately returned to their duties, all feeling they were accepting acknowledgement for their team, not for themselves alone. Roberts spent 29 months overseas, and tended to more than 73,000 patients.
After the war, when Lufkin-native Mary Roberts returned home, she worked for almost 30 years as a nurse at a VA hospital in Dallas, and, rather late in life, she married fellow veteran Willie Ray Wilson. Mrs. Wilson died in 2001 at the age of 87. She was buried with full military honors.
Mary Roberts Wilson (1914-2001)
Sources & Notes
Top photo and first quote from The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw (New York: Random House, 1998).
For an exceedingly detailed history of the 56th Evacuation Hospital Unit, with several photographs, see here.
Articles on Mary Roberts from The Dallas Morning News archives:
- “Baylor Unit In Action” (DMN, Aug. 26, 1942): photo of unit, including Roberts, working around an operating table
- “Dallas Nurse, Two Others Win Medals” (DMN, Feb. 23, 1944): “The award, denoting exceptional bravery went to Lt. Mary L. (Pinky) Roberts, 1205 North Bishop, Dallas, Texas, chief nurse in an operating room hit by shell fragments.”
- “Nurses of Dallas Unit Serving at Anzio Doing Jobs Cheerfully Despite Many Hardships” by Wick Fowler (DMN, March 31, 1944)
- “Ends Military Career: WWII Recalled By Heroic Nurse” (DMN, July 26, 1964): photo and interview with Mary Roberts Wilson on her retirement from the U. S. Army Reserve
- “Happiness Is Being Part of a Team” by Jane Ulrich Smith (DMN, May 16, 1972), photo and interview, on her retirement from the Veterans Administration Hospital
- “Compassion Revisited: Nurse Reunites With GI She Treated For Serious Injuries In WWII” (DMN, Nov. 4, 1999): a reunion with former patient Dewey Ellard of Mobile, Alabama, brought together by Tom Brokaw
- “Distinguished Career In Medicine Followed — WWII Gallantry — VA Hospital Honors Longtime Nurse — Who Won Silver Star in ’44” (DMN, Nov. 6, 2001): interview with the then-87-year-old Mrs. Wilson, published two-and-a-half weeks before her death
- “Mary Wilson, ‘Angel of Anzio,’ Dies at 87 — WWII Nurse Known For Kindness Was Decorated For Bravery Under Fire” (DMN, Nov. 24, 2001)
Other women who were honored in 1944 for heroism and achievement in the line of duty:
Click pictures and articles for larger images.
Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.