My godmother, Mary Sommerhauser Russell, chose to serve in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during WWII because she was tired of wearing white nylons. Nurses back then, much in demand, had a choice as to which service they could join.
“I had good looking legs and wanted to show them off. I liked the Army uniform better.”
While she admits it sounds vain, she has no regrets because, with the army, she saw real action. Mary landed on Omaha Beach in August 1944, two days after the Liberation of Paris. She was 22 years old.
She tells of sailing on the RMS Queen Mary, which had already been whisked to Sydney, Australia, to be converted into a troopship, painted navy gray, stripped of its finery and had degaussing coils added to protect the ship from magnetic mines.
For her journey to Europe the approximately 72 nurses were sequestered on the upper deck with the thousands of male troops below.
“I had a date every 15 minutes,” she smiles slyly. “But then in the middle of the night they came and made us move to a lower deck.”
Well, that got Mary’s goat. She rose early the next morning to see who had taken her precious upper deck and when she looked up, there, standing at the railing, was a well-known world leader dressed in his famous blue jumpsuit, holding his cigar. Winston Churchill traveled frequently as “Colonel Warden” on the Queen Mary, who, because of her speed, was difficult for any U-Boat to catch, and became known as the “Gray Ghost.”
Raised in Butte Montana, in a German and Irish household, Mary knew how to get a job done.
“When we got there they kept telling us we would have a hospital, but we worked in tents in the fields. To save our precious penicillin we would dig holes in the cold ground, put the vial of penicillin in a condom, then in a can and bury it. There was no refrigeration. You made due.”
She talks of how the snow covered soldiers arrived at their medic tents with disfiguring frostbite, the engineers that stayed with the makeshift hospitals to keep the equipment running, the death and hope they all lived with daily.
There is no telling how many lives she touched in an attempt to save our boys and the horror she keeps privately tucked away.
But I know that from now on I will refer to First Lieutenant Mary Sommerhauser, Mrs. Ralph Russell, who just turned 95, as the real Queen Mary–for all the love and support she gave to the hundreds of troops on the ground in the European Theater. I am so proud she is my godmother.