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Obituaries

Mary R. Wilson, 87; First Woman to Win a Silver Star in WWII

November 25, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mary Roberts Wilson, an Army nurse who was the first woman to earn a Silver Star for courage under fire during during World War II, died Monday of a heart attack in Dallas. She was 87.

Wilson, who was profiled by NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw in his 1998 book "The Greatest Generation," was decorated for her valor Feb. 10, 1944, when German shrapnel tore through the surgical tent in Anzio, Italy, where she was supervising several operations.

"You could say I was fearful but not scared," the woman who was called the "Angel of Anzio" told the Dallas Morning News a few weeks ago. "There were so many soldiers depending on you."

Wilson served more than two years overseas before returning to Dallas, where in 1946 she became the operating room supervisor at the local Veterans Administration hospital. She held that post for more than 25 years.

The eldest of six children, she grew up in Texas and had just finished high school when her father died in 1930. Faced with no money as the Depression was beginning its long squeeze, the family moved to Mississippi to be closer to relatives.

Wilson went to work in a laundry to support her mother and siblings, but was let go when her employers learned that she was only 16. Her mother took the laundry job while Wilson stayed home to care for the younger children.

Two years later, at 18, she enrolled in a training program in Birmingham, Ala., to become a nurse. No gauzy visions of Florence Nightingale influenced her decision. "It was strictly financial," she recalled in an interview. "And in 1932 there weren't a lot of possibilities for women."

By 1941, she was operating room supervisor at Dallas' Methodist Hospital. Late that year, when the United States entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she volunteered for duty and became the operating room supervisor for the Army's 56th Evacuation Unit. By Easter 1943 she was in Casablanca, Morocco, assigned to follow the 36th, 88th and 90th infantry divisions of the 5th Army.

She landed at Anzio five days after the Allied invasion that began Jan. 22, 1944. Fighting was still fierce, and the medical staff worked 12- to 15-hour shifts tending to wounded soldiers.

At one point she was asked if she and her 50 nurses wanted to be evacuated. She said no, even though their lives were endangered. Among the thousands of casualties at Anzio, six nurses were killed.

On Feb. 10, 1944, German bombs and artillery came far too close for comfort. Shrapnel ripped through the operating tent. But Wilson was undaunted. "We had patients on the table," she told Brokaw, "and we wanted to at least get them off. I said something like, 'Maybe we can keep going before this gets to be too bad.' It went on for 30 minutes or so. We just kept on working."

Wrote Brokaw: "Her superiors were so impressed with her coolness and inspirational personal conduct, they recommended her for the coveted Silver Star." In a wire service photo snapped at the decoration ceremony several days later, she was shown in her operating room uniform, shaking hands with an officer and smiling. Next to her were two fellow nurses who also received the medal. But because of her senior rank, Wilson was decorated first.

She took her duties seriously, brooking no distraction. Once she crossed paths in the tent hospital with Bob Hope, who had come to entertain the troops. Wilson bellowed at him: "Either get out of the way or get busy!"

If Hope took offense, he did not harbor ill feelings for long. For years he sent the taciturn nurse handwritten Christmas cards, which she kept tucked in a scrapbook.

She may have been curt with visiting celebrities, but her wartime patients remembered her kindness.

In 1999, a former Army captain she had treated after his tank was blown up in Rome just before D-day in 1944 read about her in Brokaw's book and arranged, with NBC's help, to visit her. She did not remember the severely burned Dewey Ellard, who, 55 years earlier, had come to her bandaged head to foot. But he could not forget her.

"I had several people caring for me, but she was my No. 1 nurse," Ellard told a Dallas newspaper. "Even in my state, I could sense her compassion. . . . I knew she cared. And that meant a lot."

In 1960, 15 years after returning to civilian life, she married Willie Ray Wilson, an Army veteran like her, and became stepmother to his three children. He died in 1993.

She remained active in her last years with Bible studies, art classes and tutoring children from Spanish-speaking families. Earlier this month a conference room at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where she worked for nearly three decades, was named for her.

She rarely looked at her medal, which she kept in a chest, and seldom talked of her wartime experiences.

Even Brokaw had difficulty prying out her memories of the war, noting in his book that she "doesn't volunteer much" when asked to reflect on those years. She called herself "just an ordinary person"--one who lived an exemplary life, as Brokaw noted, like so many of her generation.

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