Sunday, July 22, 2012

Nurses in Combat Boots


On a recent visit with us, my mom brought a ridiculously heavy green suitcase full of what she told me was family history books. Not having time to cope with it, I set it in the “junk room” and spent a couple of months ignoring it. I know that there’s a reason I opened it up, but now I don’t remember why. But it was like opening up Pandora’s Box, because once it was opened, there was no going back! There were several family history books, but there were also many invaluable family mementos such as Uncle Phil’s medals, their WWII ration books and letters between my Great Uncle Phil and his grandmother during WWI (that's a whole 'nother blog post!). There were also dozens of clipped obituaries from many different newspapers, and someone had taken the time to make sure there was a date written on most of them. One such obituary was for Mary Aloise Canning. Mary’s mother, Ernestine Rose Vautrinot Canning was a younger sister of my great-grandmother, Grace Eugenie Vautrinot Wenz.
Here is the text of the obituary, from the Boston Globe, dated 4 Sep 1987:
          “DEDHAM – A funeral Mass was to be said Sept. 8 at St. Mary’s Church, Dedham, for Mary A. Canning, who died Sept. 4 at the Goddard Home, Jamaica Plain. She was 86.
          Born in Dedham, and a lifelong resident. She was a graduate of Massachusetts General Hospital Nursing School, Class of 1921. Miss Canning was employed at the hospital until 1941, when she joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. During World War II, she served in Casablanca, North, Africa, and assisted wounded troops through the Italian campaign, serving troops at Monte Cassino with distinction.
          Upon the conclusion of the war in Europe, she served in the Far East, arriving in Tokyo shortly after the Armistice was signed. She retained the rank of major when she retired. After she returned to Dedham, she worked as a public health nurse for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, retiring in 1967. Miss Canning was a member of the Dedham American Legion Post.
          She was the daughter of the late Thomas and Ernestine (Votreneau [sic]) and the aunt of Richard Canning of Wilmington, Del., Edward X. Canning of Fairfield Conn., Harry Canning of Hudson, Ohio, Thomas Canning of California and Rita Meuer of Hagerstown, Md.
          Arrangements were handled by the George F. Doherty & Sons Wilson-Cannon Funeral Hom, 456 High St., Dedham. Burial will take place at Brookdale Cemetery, Dedham.
Having an interest in military history, I was entranced to think someone with whom I was closely related played a critical part in such important campaigns in WWII. The more I read, the more I was impressed with her contributions and distressed to know that the involvement of these women has been so overlooked by history. I read an excellent work by Evelyn Monahan and Rosemarie Neidel-Greenlee entitled “And if I Perish,” which details their amazing service. When the troops landed in Africa, those nurses, including Mary Canning, were landing right next to them. Between Africa and Italy, they had two hospital ships bombed out from under them. In Italy, the nurses were delayed in landing for three days, but remained trapped with the troops on Anzio Beach, otherwise known as “Hell’s Half-Acre,” for the entire time of the German bombardment. This was the first time in U.S. Military history where nurses in uniform travelled just behind the combat troops, and in many ways, they were making it up as they went along.

Like Uncle Ned, she passed away before I was ever aware of her history. But I have been in correspondence with one of her nephews who graciously shared her photo with me. He told me that “she was a very outgoing person and liked to party. She spent much time keeping in touch with relatives. I don’t think she felt that all her activities were any hardship. She rather enjoyed all her adventures.”

 L-R Jack McLaughlin, Millie Irving Wenz, with her husband Fred Wenz behind her, Emily Wenz Morse, Mary Canning, Marie Wenz McLaughlin and Dot Irving Wenz (my grandmother). The occasion was probably the anniversary of the McLaughlins, taken at their home in Hanson, MA in 1975.

And I’ve just learned that I had actually met her in 1975! Oh, that I had known! Hopefully more research will reveal more details of her life and I’ll be able to update this post with more detail soon. 

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