Lt. Mary L. Roberts, The “Angel of Anzio” — The First Woman Awarded the Silver Star

by Paula Bosse

silver-star_feb-22-1945Roberts (left) and two fellow Army Nurse Corps nurses receiving the Silver Star

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 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.

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baylor-unit_roberts_dmn_082642DMN, Aug. 26, 1942 (click for larger image)

roberts_texas-women-first_mcleroy_UTA1944 (Fort Worth Star-Telegram Archives, UTA)

roberts_dmn-022344DMN, Feb. 23, 1944

roberts_dmn_022344-photoDMN, Feb. 23, 1944

nurses_dmn_033144-wick-allisonDMN, Mar. 31, 1944

roberts-cover_army-nurse_april-1944Presentation of the Silver Star at Anzio

roberts_dmn_080153DMN, Aug. 1, 1953

roberts_dmn-072664-photoDMN, July 26, 1964

roberts_dmn-072664DMN, July 26, 1964

roberts_dmn_051672DMN, May 16, 1972

roberts_obit-photoMary Roberts Wilson (1914-2001)

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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.

To read three articles about Mrs. Wilson from 1999 and 2001 — including her obituary — click here.

Other women who were honored in 1944 for heroism and achievement in the line of duty:

women_ww2_medals_FWST_082044Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Aug. 20, 1944

Click pictures and articles for larger images.

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Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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