Story of a nurse in World War II


By Vivian Blevins

Contributing Columnist

The year was 2020, and Lisa Poeppelman Burk, a speech pathologist, from Greenville, was missing her mother, Mary Rita (Zimmerman) Poeppelman who passed in 1993. She felt she needed her advice. Burke says, “My mother, a German American Catholic, had 12 children in 15 years, triplets one year, was capable, firm, and had a good sense of humor. She never complimented appearance and instead focused on virtues. She insisted we all have college and careers before marriage. We followed her orders, and she organized chaos well.”

Burke adds, “Being in her presence always filled me up when I felt depleted. My dad had passed in 2009, and I was feeling orphaned, common I guess when a second parent passes.” She retrieved a folder with family photograph, clippings, and such and located her mother’s obituary. For perhaps the first time, she paid close attention to one part of the obituary, “48th Surgical Hospital-128th Evacuation Hospital, U.S. Army.”

She went to her computer and began an internet search. Among the finding was a book entitled Heroes from the Attic by G. Jesse Flynn which she promptly ordered from Amazon. Then she went to the box of materials she had been given when her mother passed which included an Army photo album. She indicates she had seen it before but had paid little attention to it as her mother never talked about her military service. In the box was a photo of her mother with her two tent mates, and their names were inscribed on the reverse side, Margaret Hornback and Ora White.

When Heroes from the Attic arrived and she began to peruse it, she found that three of the photos in the box of her mother’s memorabilia were in the book. She realized that the stories of being a nurse in war zones in World War II in the European Theater were likely her mother’s experiences as well- if she had opted to tell them. She found the interviews of her mother’s tent mates highly informative.

Her first response was concern that her mother had not spoken to her children about her war experiences, but she finally conceded that she opted not to as she had been surrounded by death and carnage every day, soldiers with severe burns from the tendency of Sherman tanks which were prone to catch fire and no match for the German Tiger tanks,. At times these tanks were referred to as Ronson cigarette lighters.

She then called her mother’s youngest brother, Matt Zimmerman, a Korean War veteran, and asked him what he knew of his sister’s military service. He indicated that he knew very little but remembered an incident that was impressed upon his memory. Mary Rita and their mother would talk late at night. One time she told their mother that at the Battle of the Bulge ( 19,00 Americans killed; 47,500 wounded) the frostbite was so severe on some of the men, and the doctors and nurses were so overwhelmed, that a doctor marked the location on the legs where amputations were necessary, and the nurses would amputate.

Zimmerman also told Burke that his sister had served as head nurse at a German POW hospital at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. This conversation with Burke led Zimmerman to pull out his old uniform, and it was wrapped in newspaper with an article about his sister’s promotion to First Lieutenant.

When Princess Diana and Prince Charles were married, Burke remembers her mother’s fascination with the event and her familiarity with the names of all those in the royal family. Burke’s research led her to understand why. In an article in the Minster Post, she learned that her mother had met Queen Mary and the Duke and Duchess of Burford when she attended wounded soldiers who had been invited for an audience with British royalty.

In Heroes from the Attic, Burke learned about how these nurse lived: with very young German soldiers crying for their mothers at night, rain, mud, helmets as wash basins, heat from little coal stoves, straw on the ground between tents.

After the war ended, because she was fluent in German, learned from her German grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. before the war, Mary Rita was deployed to a liberated concentration camp, rife with malnutrition and disease, at Mauthausen where she contracted tuberculosis. She was treated for the disease in Germany where a Mrs. Wilm helped take care of her. When Mary Rita returned home, she cashed in the war bonds she had purchased so that she could send much-needed supplies to ravaged post-war Germany, Burk remembered at age 10 helping prepare care packages for Mrs. Wilm’s family, boxes that included candy, clothing, toys, and money.

Mary Rita returned home in 1946 as a first lieutenant.

Burk details some of what she learned from her research:

* Excitement she felt from learning how much good her mothers and others did,

* That survival rate for those injured in World War II surpassed the rates in World War I because of advancement in treating them,

* The U.S. was considering drafting nurses into military service at that time,

* 77 military nurses were held as POWs in Japanese camps,

* Nurses were performing their duties close to the front lines of battle, and

These women helped pave the way for so many women in the military, and other segments of American society, to follow.

In conclusion, Burk knows that her mother was forward thinking and never dwelled on the past. Thank you, Mary Rita (Zimmerman) Poeppelman, for your service and may you rest in peace. And thank you, Lisa Burk, for sharing part of your mother’s story. May our elected legislators in Washington, D.C., move swiftly on recognizing some of these women with the Medal of Honor.

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