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by Priscilla Rall

WWII Thurmont Nurse Follows Troops: Part 3

We continue with the story of Army nurse Mary Catherine Willhide as she nursed wounded American soldiers after the Battle of the Bulge. While stationed in Malmedy in Germany, Mary endured the explosions from German bombs for months in late 1944.

She was on night duty on December 16, sitting near a stove as she wrote a letter home. A bomb hit so close that it knocked the pen out of her hand. This is how she found herself in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge.

According to Mary, “you couldn’t hear anything for the terrible explosions…one knocked out the corner of one of our buildings. About a dozen people were killed in Malmedy about a half-mile away.” On December 17 at breakfast, the colonel told the nurses that paratroopers had dropped between Malmedy and Eupen, 30 miles away. There was to be a counterattack, but no orders had been received so far.

Around noon, infantry troops began jumping out of trucks right at the hospital’s front gate! Mary could hear the fire of small arms in the direction of Malmedy. At three in the morning, a nurse tore into Mary’s room to tell her that there was fighting in the streets of Malmedy and there was to be an emergency nurses’ meeting.

For the next two days, the casualties were heavy and her hospital had nearly 300 patients. Then, Mary noticed a very unsettling activity. All the traffic was now in reverse, including the tanks!

The nurses’ meeting took all of three minutes! The hospital staff was ordered to pack, and Mary wisely dressed as warmly as she could. Fifteen minutes later, they got the word that they were to be evacuated, and the colonel asked for five volunteers to remain at the hospital. Apparently, there were no orders from headquarters, as there was another hospital in Malmedy and no nurses were left behind when they evacuated. The patients were being evacuated as far as possible in “trucks, ambulances, or anything we could get.”

As luck would have it, all nine of the trucks assigned to Mary’s hospital were still there. Forty nurses were placed in one truck. In the afternoon, the nurses from the field hospital at Waimes arrived with a harrowing tale to tell. They had just gotten out ahead of the Germans. Apparently, Mary’s headquarters had called the corps commander four times before they were given the order to evacuate. Mary wryly noted that if they had been told on the morning of the 17th, they would have had time to pack up all of the valuable hospital equipment. Unfortunately, they had to leave all of their medical equipment behind with seven enlisted men and one officer as guards. They worked through the night and had everything packed by 6:00 a.m. on the last truck, also carrying the last load of patients. According to a letter sent to her parents, Lt. Willhide was forced to move three times in one night during the worst of the Battle of the Bulge.

“Fortunately an engineer battalion held the Jerrys back after they had orders to retreat,” Mary wrote. An infantry division and an armored division had already started from above Aachen, but they didn’t arrive until Sunday afternoon and the rest the next day. It was too late. According to Mary, that was the trouble. If they took our troops out of the Aachen area, then the enemy could break through there. “In other words, we were biting off more than we could chew.”

Soon, the British moved into Aachen and the U.S. brought our troops south. According to Mary, “it was the airplanes that defeated the Germans who didn’t have enough support, and the Americans tore up their supply lines.”

A colonel from headquarters came and asked for three volunteers to come with him. Of course, Mary volunteered! She claims that the nurses weren’t too scared until the colonel asked them if the German strafed their jeep, could they make it to the gutter! “We said, brother, you won’t have to tell us more than once!”

He took them to Spa, Belgium, just 10 miles from Malmedy. They met the rest of the unit there. The main drive was towards Stavelot, Belgium, and then further south through St. Vith toward Bastogne. On Monday, December 18, we moved again to Hartze “where we had our closest call.” They stayed there just one night as the battle raged on only 10 miles east of them. Luckily, they moved out just two hours before the Germans took the place. “Thank God we were always just a jump ahead of them.” She realized just how fortunate they were when she saw the ragged and starving POWs from the concentration camps. On the 19th, they moved to Huij, Belgium, where they helped the 102 Evacuation Hospital, which was inundated with the wounded. “It was like Normandy all over again.”

Although Lt. Willhide doesn’t mention it in her letter, she received the Bronze Star with a citation for meritorious service on January 4, 1945. The citation reads “For meritorious service in connection with military operations as an anesthetist, 67th Evacuation Hospital, semimobile from 17 June 1944 to 27 November 1944 in France, Luxembourg and Belgium.”

Then, most of the hospital staff went on to Namur, where the Germans made their deepest penetration. Mary stayed there until January 7 and then went on to the 51st Field Hospital. From there, she went to Duren, which was in complete ruins. It took the men three days to clean it out. “There were dead Germans in the cellar and in the attic where they were housed.”

On March 25, Mary moved to Bonn, where she stayed at the Pathological Institute by the Rhine River. Next stop, Huborn, the next largest hospital since St. Mere Eglise. There, they cared for 30 Russians, all with head injuries. “If you ever saw a mess, that was it. No one spoke Russian, and they were afraid of us and wouldn’t stay on the operating room table, so I put them to sleep on the run!”

On May 4, they moved to Bayreuth, Bavaria, 280 miles by truck, taking 12 hours.

Mary went through Frankfort to Nuremberg, where she saw Hitler’s Stadium. Finally, the long-awaited V-E Day came. But there was still work for Mary. She moved to Marienbad, Czechoslovakia, a lovely resort town, where they set up yet another hospital on June 1. As time went on, Mary noticed that the Germans were less hostile towards the Americans. “Never have I seen a more bedraggled, dirty, sullen people than the German soldiers, who were all along the road. They were walking, riding in horse-drawn vehicles, trucks, and every imaginable mode of travel.” They had thrown the dice and lost.

Now Capt. Willhide, Mary Catherine finished out her tour of duty and then served in the Maryland State Department of Health. She died on February 15, 2001, at her home on Flanagan Road and is buried in Weller’s Cemetery in Thurmont.

by Priscilla Rall

WWII Thurmont Nurse Follows Troops: Part 2

We continue with the story of Mary Catherine Willhide as she nurses wounded American soldiers in Normandy. She noted in a letter home that there was no distinction between officers and enlisted men, with officers often helping enlisted men if the need arose. Mary was in a 400-bed hospital with everything attached; pharmacy, a generator for lights, X-ray equipment, all under tents. They had extra tents for patients in shock and those waiting for surgery. Mary was devastated by the number of badly injured patients waiting for treatment lying on the ground. She noted that they never complained, knowing how many severely injured soldiers were being treated but just asked for some food.

On Monday, July 17, 1944, another hospital temporarily took over their facilities so that the doctors and nurses could get some much-needed sleep. Then, on July 19, Mary’s hospital moved three miles down the road or about three fields over. Every night Mary could hear the American’s flak from the US “ack-ack” guns as the German planes flew over the hospital. “We slept with our helmets on” and “pieces would fly past so close you could hear the whiz,” Mary wrote in a letter to her family. The front was just 7 miles away and American soldiers were battling for St. Lo. Donald Null of Frederick was fighting there with the 115th Infantry and his brother, Austin, with the 30th Infantry, was killed there.

The breakthrough came on July 26, and Mary and her fellow nurses stood on the bank along the field and watched the American planes, 15 in each squadron. They flew from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the afternoon. They reminded Mary of wild geese flying. She also saw five Allied bombers shot down. “They would blow up in mid-air and leave a long black streak of smoke from the sky to the ground.” Tragically, some of the bombers didn’t get far enough over the enemy lines and they bombed our own troops. The casualties were heavy.

“On the night of July 31, we were told at 10 p.m. that we had one hour to be ready to move out. So we went three to four miles east of St. Lo, and the terrain there was the worst so far. We were in a field that our men took three times before we were able to hold it. There were large craters, holes and many mines not yet set off,” Mary wrote. Near our tent were three to four dead cows, plus the bodies of soldiers killed a week before. “It was another horrible sight never to be forgotten.” In fact, 13 soldiers were injured when a mine exploded, and one was killed. “How the rest of us escaped, God only knows because the engineers didn’t demine the place until after we had been there a week.” The smell, hot weather, and flies made life miserable. There were many critically injured soldiers, many with abdominal wounds that required colostomies. Their dressings changed every few hours. Mary and her team stayed there for 15 days.

On Aug. 15, Mary was moved to Mortain and the war was going fast. They were 75 miles behind the front and set up in an apple orchard. They were treated to steak and fresh eggs every day! “We only had a few bad days and then we were finished! We even got to see Reims. On August 31 we traveled 240 miles in two days and we ended up just 20 miles east of Paris at Pierre la Vie. On Labor Day I saw Paris, bought perfume and saw Napoleon’s tomb, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triumph and the Eiffel Tower!” Mary wrote.

Mary’s hospital was in a nice grassy area as the Allied armies raced towards Germany. She went into Paris with others on three different days. Then they moved to Bastogne, Belgium, on September 22, 1944. From there they went to Luxemburg where there was nothing but mud. There was a ridged blackout “so you can imagine stumbling around at midnight going to work. We worked from midnight to noon. We ate only one meal to save time. We were there two weeks. A German patrol came near the hospital and one enemy was captured. One of our ambulances was lost behind the line and was told how to find us! I think sometimes that we were not meant to be captured. We were wearing our nerves on our sleeves,” Mary wrote.

They were near Kleif in Luxemburg on Sept. 25 when the Ardennes offensive started. The Americans didn’t get very far because their tanks ran out of gas and couldn’t get through the Siegfried Line. On Oct. 5, Mary moved to Stavelot, Belgium, which reminded her of home. They rested there a short time before moving on to Malmedy in old Germany, where she first encountered hostile people. “We were told by the soldiers that if the Germans counter-attacked, they couldn’t hold the line. Our first taste of the breakthrough came on December 16 at 5 o’clock in the morning. The buzz bombs averaged 10 to 15 a day from October until it became almost a frenzy,” Mary wrote. She was on night duty Dec. 16, and was sitting around the stove writing a letter when one of the bombs hit so close that it knocked the pen out of her hand. She was in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge.