Ed Saunders and WWI plaque

Ed Sunders shows a life-sized replica for a plaque honoring women veterans of World War I that will be permanently installed on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn. A ceremony to mark the occasion is at 10 a.m. Thursday. Saunders spent five years researching Montana women veterans.

BOB ZELLAR, Gazette Staff

Ed Saunders, a retired Army veteran and Laurel resident, was decorating veterans’ graves at Mountview Cemetery in Billings for Memorial Day several years ago when a white marble headstone caught his eye.

The Veterans Administration marker was for Florence Ames, a nurse in the Army Nurse Corps, in World War I. Born Feb. 12, 1882. Died Nov. 22, 1957. Engraved on the headstone were the lyrics to taps, something the VA doesn’t do.

Saunders was captivated.

Who was Florence Ames? Where did she serve? Why was there no military rank on her headstone?

A Gulf War veteran and genealogist with a keen interest in making sure military servicemen and -women are remembered and honored, Saunders began wondering about other women veterans who served in WWI.

“That’s what got it started. It’s been a very interesting project,” he said.

After more than five years of research that included scouring military and medical records in Montana and Washington, D.C., and searching for headstones in cemeteries, Saunders has documented the service of 23 Yellowstone County women veterans of WWI.

Saunders, along with the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 10, of which he is a member, is seeking permission from the Yellowstone County commission to install a bronze plaque bearing the names of the 23 women veterans on the courthouse lawn.

Saunders will be making a presentation to the commission at its Tuesday meeting.

During a recent briefing of the memorial plans, Saunders showed commissioners a life-size replica of the proposed plaque.

The goal is to dedicate the plaque on April 6, 2017, which is the 100th anniversary of the United States entering WWI.

Saunders said women served in U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps, with the majority of women serving in the Army Nurse Corps. Many of those women served in France and in evacuation hospitals near the front lines.

Twenty-three women with ties to Yellowstone County served in the war, he said, yet there is no monument or memorial to honor their service. The women either were born in Yellowstone County, entered military service from the county or are buried in the county.

Saunders also said he believes Yellowstone County’s memorial would be the first of its kind in the state.

Saunders’s research documented 21 women who served in the Army Nurse Corps. Two women who served in the Navy as yeomen in administrative support.

“I can personally and professionally vouch for these women. If I have missed a woman, it is not because I didn’t try,” Saunders said.

The research project took Saunders to the National Archives and Records Administration in a Washington, D.C., suburb, where he had requested to view actual reports from the American Expeditionary Force about the Army nurses.

A clerk rolled out 26 boxes of records. “She looks at me like, ‘you dummy,’’’ he said.

Saunders didn’t really know what he was looking for, only that he would know it when he saw it.

“I found it in the first box,” he said.

Saunders found a typed report by Sigrid M. Jorgensen, a member of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, with information on a unit in which one of the Yellowstone County veterans, Harriet O’Day Nielsen, served. Jorgensen wrote a historical appendix to an official report by Julia Stimson, who was the chief Red Cross nurse in France and the AEF’s chief nurse, he said.

Saunders spent several days digitally scanning the records.

Saunders also went through archives in the basement of St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, which had the only nursing school in the region at that time.

He reviewed the archives from the Montana State Library where he found records for 169 Montana women who entered the nursing corps. He transcribed all of those records and created his own database, a task that took about three weeks.

Other resources included the U.S. Army and Navy historical centers, federal census records, cemetery interment records and the Red Cross.

Though all of the research, the women were no longer names of long-dead veterans.

“These women really came alive,” Saunders said.

Getting to know them

As he reviews the list of names, Saunders offers comments about various women, as if he knew each personally.

“She worked in a front-line unit,” Saunders noted about Nielsen, who served in France and was cited for heroism under fire.

Born in Iowa in 1890, Harriet O’Day moved to Billings as a child, graduated from high school in Billings, went to nursing school in Minnesota and returned to Billings, where she worked as a Red Cross nurse.

O’Day entered the U.S. Army Nurse Corps on Nov. 14, 1917 and was sent in 1918 to France where she was assigned to Evacuation Hospital 4 about 2.5 miles west of “the human cauldron of Verdun,” Saunders wrote in a profile of Nielsen.

On Nov. 3, 1918, the Germans shelled the hospital for four straight hours, killing two sergeants and wounding others, Saunders wrote. The head nurse, knocked down by the explosives, ordered all available nurses, including O’Day, to evacuate the patients.

General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, officially recognized the nurses, including O’Day, for “heroic conduct when Evacuation Hospital 4 was shelled by enemy artillery.”

O’Day, Saunders said, remained in France for a while after WWI to care for wounded American soldiers who could not yet be moved. She eventually returned to Billings and served in 1924 in Panama. She also was a nursing instructor at Billings Polytechnic Institute, the predecessor of Rocky Mountain College, and was active in the Montana Nursing Association.

O’Day married Jens C. Nielsen, also a WWI veteran, in 1936 in Hardin. They had no children. He died in 1973, while Harriet O’Day Nielsen died in 1976. The husband and wife are buried next to each other at the Laurel City Cemetery.

Ames, whose headstone launched the project, was born in 1882 in Nebraska. In 1910, she was living in Billings. She entered the Army Nurse Corps in 1918 and was deployed to France, where she served in various hospitals.

Saunders’ research noted that in an Army report for Base Hospital 61, in Beaune, France, in October 1918, after Ames arrived, the surgical ward had only three empty beds of the 500 beds available. The influx of wounded soldiers, the report continued, increased the hospital to 1,600 beds with almost half being surgical cases.

Ames was demobilized and relieved of active duty in 1919 but apparently remained in the reserves, Saunders wrote.

Ames returned to Billings for a short time, then moved to California where she became a Public Health Service nurse. Ames traveled extensively, going to Hawaii, Panama and Guatemala, and eventually retired to San Francisco in 1953. She remained single and had no children.

Ames died of cancer in 1957 and her sister, Emma, returned her body to Billings for burial in the Mountview Cemetery. Emma, who died two years later, is buried next to Florence.

'Won't be forgotten'

All of the women, Saunders said, were in their early 20s when they volunteered for service. There was no draft. And the women had to be single, he said.

The American Red Cross provided the training for the Army’s nursing needs and the majority of nurses in the Army Nurse Corps started as Red Cross nurses, Saunders said. The Army did not start a nursing school until 1918.

Except for the Navy, the women did not get equal pay, rank or recognition for military service as men until 1947, Saunders said. While they served their country in WWI, women still were not allowed to vote in federal elections.

Saunders attributes the “culture of the day” for why WWI military women went unrecognized for their service. A lot of the women veterans “faded into history,” he said.

And that, Saunders continued, is the greatest tragedy that can happen to an American serviceman or woman.

“The greatest tragedy is they are forgotten; forgotten in life and in death by the very same nation, people and constitution they swore an oath to defend,” he said.

Having himself served 22 years in the Army and in combat service in the Gulf War, Saunders said he believes in not leaving any serviceman or -woman behind, in body, spirit or memory.

“That’s why I do this. They won’t be forgotten on my watch,” he said.

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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.