Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Blizzard of ’49 began 70 years ago today

By Con Marshall

Of all the events that have occurred since pioneers arrived in this part of the country about 135 years ago, few have caused more hardships than the Blizzard of ’49. Deep snow, high winds and bitter cold combined to make it unforgettable to anyone who experienced it. By comparison, it has made 99 percent of the storms before and since seem mild.

Not only was the original blast, which began on Sunday, Jan. 2, 1949—70 years ago—a ferocious one, but the conditions persisted for nearly two months. The duration of the harsh weather helped make the blizzard historic.

Only some winters in the 1880s could match ’49’s knockout punch, old-timers reported. The blizzard covered a wide area. The entire western half of the United States felt its sting. It brought the hardest freeze to California in 35 years and snow fell in places that don’t usually receive snow, such as Los Angeles and Phoenix.


But no area suffered more than western Nebraska and the neighboring regions in South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado. At least 61 inches of snow fell at the Chadron airport during January.   From January 18 to 27 the temperature was below zero every night with an extreme of 29 below recorded on January 21. The month was Chadron’s coldest ever, according to Weather Bureau records. The average temperature in January was 7.3 degrees, more than 15 degrees below average.

Lots of hardship

The siege brought hardship to everyone. Farmers and ranchers were hard-pressed to keep their livestock alive, railroaders found that getting the trains through was impossible, many vehicles were piled under huge drifts, some rural schools were not in session for more than a month, and food and fuel supplies became desperately low in numerous locations.

It finally took the 5th Army, one of the world’s most powerful forces, to dig out western Nebraska. The unit’s huge bulldozers, along with those from a couple of Colorado construction companies, worked for three weeks in Dawes County before everyone was liberated by “Operation Snowbound.”

The storm cost millions of dollars, but amazingly, the loss of human life was not high and livestock deaths amounted to less than 10 percent in northwest Nebraska, although some stockmen suffered more heavily.

The manager of the Chadron Municipal Airport, Solomon (Sully) Luft, reported at least 40 inches of snow fell from Jan. 2 through Jan. 5, although he admitted there was really no way of measuring it because of the extremely high winds.

Drifts of 10-20 feet were the rule rather than the exception and in some rural areas drifts 40 feet in height piled in canyons.

Most Chadron stores did not open for business, and few ranchers ventured more than a few yards away from their buildings on Wednesday, January 5, which was the worst day.

Chadron’s Main Street was reduced to a single lane and stayed that way for a couple of weeks. About the time the roads and railroad tracks could be cleared, another blast would strike and clog things up again.

It was at least January 28 before the first freight train from the east reached Chadron and the railroad didn’t resume full operations until mid-February.

The first train from the west into Chadron arrived on February 1 and carried a fleet of Army bulldozers. Pictures taken in western Nebraska showing mountain-sized drifts towering high above the old steam engines were run in nearly every daily newspaper in the nation.

When he retired in 1975,  Lib DiTonto, a Chicago & NorthWestern engineer, recalled he was stranded in Cody, Nebraska, for 21 days because of the blizzard. At one point, the C&NW reported it had 1,000 cars of freight headed west that were backed up in Long Pine.

The Burlington Railroad said it spent $1 million clearing its tracks. A Burlington official said at the end of February: “Nowhere in the 100 years of existence of the railroad is there any record of a storm so severely intense, prolonged and widespread as we’ve experienced these past three months.

Help finally arrived

U.S. Army "Weasel" -
Photo courtesy of Casper College History Center 
The first outside help for Dawes County came from two Army weasels (small, full-track vehicles) from the Lowry Field Air Rescue Squadron in Denver. They arrived around January 21 and ran relief missions to rural families. Toboggans were quickly built to skid behind the weasels, which could pull about a ton of supplies.

The weasels spent nearly three weeks in the county, much of it on the Table south of Chadron, where some estimated up to 100 inches of snow fell.  One family said that the weasel crewmen were the first outsiders they had seen in 30 days.

When a weasel crew reached the Bob and Ruby Soester farm 15 miles east of Crawford on February 7, they found 86 dozen eggs piled on the kitchen floor in every type of basket and container. The incident even made the Denver Post.

Lola Soester Garner of Crawford, then a seven-year-old, remembers that when the family finally did go to town to sell the eggs and get supplies, they got stuck and had to be pulled out by a neighbor.

Nebraska National Guard C-45 aircraft also
provided assistance during the 1949 blizzard
(Nebraska History photo collection)
Following the weasels was “Operation Haylift,” organized by the Chadron Jaycees. A total of 1,854 bales of hay were dropped from C-47 transport planes to starving livestock on 29 ranches in the Chadron area.

The Chadron Milling Co. reported distributing the equivalent of 22 railroad carloads of livestock feed in January before running out of oats and barley until new shipments arrived by rail.

Then came the bulldozers. The Hesser Construction Co. of Greeley, Colo., had 15 bulldozers working out of Chadron to go with those from the Army.   Eight more bulldozers operated out of Crawford.

An Army report stated that crews opened 450 miles of county roadways, 2,000 miles of trails and roads through ranchland, reopened 500 to 600 miles of roadway and liberated an estimated 26,000 cattle during the three weeks the equipment spent in Dawes County.

There was virtually no travel on the county roads on the Table in January.  Around February 1 more than 20 cars, several trucks and a bus were finally dug out of drifts along Highway 19 (now 385) across the Table.

Numerous pilots flew mercy missions transporting expectant mothers and the ailing to hospitals, dropping food and medicines in isolated spots and locating marooned livestock. They also dropped countless packages of food to farm and ranch homes throughout the region.

The Red Cross had handbills printed and dropped from planes, suggesting people in need of help to use blankets, hay or other contrasting materials to make codes in the snow that could be seen from the air.

Afterwards, it was admitted that few of the messages, even if they were attempted, proved useful because the continuing wind and snow probably obliterated them before they could be spotted by pilots.

Livestock losses mixed

The livestock losses were significant, but not as severe as during some winters in the 1880s. The vast Bay State Cattle Company, which headquartered in Banner County, reported its herd was reduced from 150,000 to 50,000 head during the winter of 1885-86.

The cattle losses in ’49 were heaviest in the Sandhills, where they drifted onto the frozen lakes. The Furman Ranch in southern Dawes County had 30 head of yearlings die in the Niobrara River.

Pete Witte of Chadron remembered that his parents lost about 100 head of spring calves in the storm on their Mule Creek unit on the Pine Ridge Reservation about 14 miles north of Oglala, S.D.  He was attending Chadron High School at the time. A pilot flew him home so he could help with the livestock, but he recalls he couldn’t do much because the snow was so deep that even horses “played out” in a short time while trying to check on livestock that was away from the ranch headquarters.

Witte also recalled that because there was so much moisture in the storm his family put up lots of prairie hay the following summer. He said while mowing around the Fourth of July along the south side of a canyon he spotted a small snow drift which had lasted six months after the storm arrived.

The United Press reported an estimated 174,200 cattle and 153,200 sheep valued at more than $29 million died during the first 35 days of the blast in Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota.

Some unusual stories appeared once the weather let up and ranchers could search for their critters. Jim Blundell dug out three geese that had been buried for 27 days and reported them to be in good health on his farm in southern Dawes County west of Dunlap.  Deadhorse rancher Elam Grantham found three hogs alive under a 12-foot drift.    A horse owned by Bruce Parsons south of Harrison was found alive trapped in a shed, although five other horses in the shed were dead.

Chadron railroader G.A. Linn recalled that near Van Tassel some cattle had wandered down the tracks and fell through the ties on a bridge. When a snowplow reached the scene, some were still alive, although their feet and legs were frozen so badly that they had to be destroyed.

Several humans died

As far as human suffering was concerned, the Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation, some of whom were living in tents, were hit the hardest.   Federal funds were eventually made available to assist them.

Several persons died in the region, although the toll could have been much higher.

The first victim apparently was Harriett “Mammy” Brown, of Gordon, an 85-year-old black lady whose frozen body was found in her home soon after the storm began.

Among others who perished were a young Crawford man, Wayne Yohe, who began walking when his pickup hauling pigs became stranded north of Cheyenne; a farmer near Hemingford whose body was found by a train crew; two Alliance Civil Air Patrol flyers whose plane hit some telegraph lines and crashed into a house; and an Alliance gas deliveryman whose body was found beside a haystack after his truck stalled,

Others were luckier. After the roof had blown off of their trailer house during the night of Monday, January 3, a young Mirage Flats couple, Kenneth and Audrey Peck and their 18-month-old son, Jerry, nearly didn’t make it to the Leon Glenn home only 200 yards away.

The Pecks, who were still living on the Mirage Flats when they were interviewed in 2010, remembered the ordeal well.

It was a miracle that we made it,” Audrey said. “We wandered around quite a while because we couldn’t see where we were going. We were so cold and tired. I finally fainted and dropped the lantern I was carrying. When I did that, Kenneth caught a glimpse of the Glenns’ house. He was able to take Jerry to the house and then came back and got me.

However, several of Jerry’s fingers were frozen during the ordeal and required medical attention.

In addition, two snowplow crewmen survived a 19-mile hike from their snowbound plow in Sioux County to Fort Robinson.

Blizzard stories told

Bill & Virginia Coffee
(Photo courtesy of Chadron State College) 
A story written in the mid-1990s by Moni Hourt of Crawford told how Sioux County rancher Bill Coffee left his wife and daughters at the Hat Creek Ranch north of Harrison when the storm seemed extraordinary and he rode a broncy mule 10 miles east to the Warbonnet Ranch, where most of his cattle were located.

The hired man at the latter ranch had left to celebrate the New Year and couldn’t return.

Most of Coffee’s food supply while he batched was from a Jersey milk cow that he butchered after her udder froze and broke. It was 60 days before Coffee was reunited with his family, but he pitched enough hay to save the herd.   
  
When Mary Siegrist of Hay Springs was interviewed at age 104 in 2013, she had special memories of the blizzard. On New Year’s Day, she was taken to the Gordon hospital for minor surgery. She could have gone home in a few days, but since Highway 20 was blocked, she had to stay nearly two weeks.  She finally reached Hay Springs in a hearse when an undertaker came to the hospital to pick up a body.  The strange modes of transportation continued before she arrived at the family farm.  A neighbor came to town with his team and wagon to buy coal and she rode home on top of the load.

The effects of the storm lingered. Rural roads became quagmires once the drifts started melting. Ranchers spent weeks repairing fences that had been broken down by the snow and flooding became a problem in many areas.
     
Dawes County made the news in another way in January 1949. A Hereford steer named “Cupid,” shown by Lois Mae Hamm of Whitney, was the grand champion at the National Western Junior Stock Show in Denver. It was both the first and the last time that a steer from Dawes County won the coveted honor.

Even this story has a “Blizzard of ’49” twist.

A long-time resident of southern California, Lois Mae said she didn’t remember all the details, but recalled that her father, Royce, “had a terrible time getting Cupid to the highway” so they could take him to Denver.

I was staying in Crawford so I could go to high school and I didn’t see it, but I think the county road crew opened the road to our place (about six miles south of Whitney) special so we could make the trip.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

128 years ago today – Wounded Knee Massacre

by Larry Miller

One of the most tragic and brutal incidents in our regional history – indeed, of North American history – occurred 128 years ago today. The slaughter of somewhere between 150 to 300 American Indian men, women, and children became known as the infamous "Wounded Knee Massacre," and took place along Wounded Knee Creek north and east of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, about one hour driving time from Chadron. 



Burial of the dead in the "fight" at Wounded Knee was captured in the photograph above by Chadron photographer George Trager of Northwestern Photo Company. Accounts of the event vary, but most agree that this horrific incident marked the end of the the open armed conflict between that was commonplace across the western frontier for more than two decades. 


Belatedly, I've become increasingly intrigued by the events leading up to the massacre, as well as the history that has evolved in "Indian country" in the years since. A catalyst for this interest was our good friend Leonard Little Finger, whose death in 2017 caused me to reflect upon our friendship – and made me realize how little I really knew about Leonard's youth. And I knew.....know.....even less about the Lakota culture.


Growing up not far from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, it's not like there was no opportunity to learn more.  Alas, youthful endeavors for me didn't include much curiosity about things beyond sports and girls.  And then work, marriage, and raising kids seems to intrude on any latent curiosity that might have existed about learning more regrading our Indian neighbors.  Such is life for many of us.


Now, having missed a rare opportunity to commune with my late friend Leonard about his heritage, I've been pursuing secondary sources ranging from books and magazine articles to video documentaries.   And so it was that on the first day of winter, December 21st, I happened across this BBC documentary of Rich Hall's "Inventing the Indian."  

It deals with a wide range of "Old West" misrepresentations, and it's certainly not a television documentary done in traditional form.   After all, it's written and hosted by a white comedian, Rich Hall, who is part Cherokee,  I found the 90-minute program interesting, informative, and – in places – laced with humor.  Yes, it's even fun to watch, although that seems ironic, given the somber topic.  He may be a comedian, but Rich Hall writes and tells a good story.  We haven't "fact-checked" all of its contents, but it seems consistent with much "legitimate" academic research and writings that I've seen. 

Oh, yes, there's also a bit of nasty language, but if you can stomach the reality of what history has reported about Wounded Knee, you can easily ignore or digest the salty language.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The CCC had a big impact across our region!

Given the close proximity of the Black Hills to Dawes County – and the abundance of Civilian Conservation Corps projects all across America in the 1930's – this video should be of great interest to history buffs across the region. Dakota Life is a wonderful series produced by South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

I think you'll enjoy this "Reflections and Preservation" episode of the Dakota Life series. The "CCC in the Black Hills" segment was produced by Brian Gevik. Perhaps it'll spur you to visit the small but impressive CCC Museum on the outskirts of Hill City, South Dakota.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

"Real"-"D" is better than "3-D"

(Editor's Note:  The following story was written nearly a decade ago, in 2009, when 3-D television was on the horizon and about to take the media landscape by storm.  Alas, it seems that storm was an errant forecast.  But we do have "AI" and "Twitter." ....sigh.)

by Larry Miller

As a 10-year-old kid, I was on the cutting edge of technology. I just didn’t know it.

Scrunched down in row #10 of the Pace Theater in Chadron – bedecked with nifty paper and plastic glasses made for the occasion – I ducked and yowled as a “House of Wax” barker slammed a rubber-ball from the movie screen straight for me and my friends.

The plot of that 1953 Vincent Price movie was a bit thin, but it was enough to satisfy me and my buddies. The highly-touted three-dimensional (3-D) technology was what really grabbed us and left indelible memories imprinted on our youthful minds. But 3-D movies didn’t succeed very well in the marketplace and were gone within a few years.

Fast-forward nearly 70 years and 3-D seems to be making a come-back.

Spurred by the notion of selling lots more new-fangled television sets, giant TV set manufacturers like Samsung, Sony, Vizio, and Panasonic say they’re going to really push 3-D television sales during the coming year. They enjoyed a big surge in the sales of high definition receivers over the past couple of years. They fear sales will soon slump and are looking for something to excite consumers.

Given the enormous strides made in television production technology in recent years, it’ll be fun to see what the set manufacturers can do.

Despite the fact that I worked around television most of my professional life – including the days before even rudimentary “chroma-key” or “green screen” techniques were used – I remain amazed at just how good these new technologies are. I’m still trying to figure out how those innovative rascals manage to show me the “1st and 10” line down on the football field, just like it’s really there….players running over it, obscuring it from sight, as if it were really a part of the field. Wow.

But I’m an early skeptic that 3-D will go far in the television world – at least so long as special eyeglasses are required. Some 3-D units will required battery-powered glasses.

I already have difficulty keeping track of where the various television remote controls are – the TV, the cable box, and the DVD player – so adding another device to the shelf might be a bit tricky. And batteries? Well, Triple-A would be good, since I keep them in stock, but I fear they’ll be using something smaller. Something lighter. Something that’s proprietary. Something costly! Pre-holiday reports indicate that the special glasses will likely cost at least $50.

Of course, making the TV receiver is only one part of the tricky 3-D equation. Local television stations are only now completing their conversion from analog to high definition local programming. Unless there is ample 3-D content available for broadcast, efforts to lure consumers to buy new sets – again -- will be doomed. After all, content is king.

But looking at most television programs these days, I’m not sure the television industry has quite figured that out.

Perhaps we’ll just take a simple stroll outside to enjoy a beautiful sunset – no 3-D glasses required.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Chadron man finds way to honor his fallen brother


by Con Marshall

Determined that his younger brother’s ultimate sacrifice nearly 50 years ago will never be forgotten, Rolland Sayer of Chadron has spent about six months gathering materials for a special tribute and took it to be displayed at the Furnas County Museum in Cambridge, Neb., last week.
              
It is a shadow box containing the medals, ribbons and certificates that Terry Sayer had earned. A photo of him and the U.S. flag given to his family at his burial are also placed in the 28- by 30-inch shadow box. 
              
Nebraskan Terry Sayer, U.S. Army
Died in Vietnam - 1969
Terry Sayer was 21 and just 35 days away from completing his year-long tour of duty in Vietnam when he died March 6, 1969, apparently as the result of small arms fire. 

The Sayer family lived on a Furnas County farm near Holbrook, about seven miles from Cambridge.
              
Like others who lose loved ones, particularly at wartime, Rolland Sayer has long grieved the death of his brother. While they were 13 years apart in the family of 14 – nine boys and five girls – Rolland says Terry was more like a son than a brother.
              
Much of that feeling is because shortly after Terry graduated from Holbrook High School in 1965, he came to Chadron and lived with Rolland and his wife Nancy for two years before he was drafted into the Army.
              
“We were close,” Rolland relates.  “He was a really good kid.  We got along well and Nancy liked him, too.  There were never any problems with Terry.”
              
Just like his older brother, who was a bricklayer, stone mason, carpenter and construction foreman for more than 50 years before retiring about 16 months ago, Terry worked construction during his stay in Chadron.
              
Much of that time he helped build the High Rise Dormitory at Chadron State College, Rolland remembers. 
              
Terry was inducted into the Army on June 13, 1967. He served with the 11th Light Infantry Brigade, 4th Battalion, 21st Infantry, B Company. Following basic training at Fort Polk in Louisiana, he was stationed in Hawaii several months before being sent to Vietnam, where he rose to the rank of sergeant. 
              
Rolland said his brother was among the soldiers referred to as “tunnel rats,” those who were often assigned to clear and destroy enemy tunnel complexes.  According to Wikipedia, the tunnels were linked to hospitals, training areas, storage facilities, headquarters and barracks. When constructed with sophisticated ventilation systems, Viet Cong guerrillas could remain hidden underground for months at a time, the Wikipedia information states. 
              
During his tour of duty, Terry often sent letters home.  His mother, Mabel, saved each of them and in the late 1980s when her health was failing, gave Rolland a suitcase filled with them. 
              
Rolland said there’s one problem with the letters. None are dated and there’s no indication where Terry’s unit was located or what its assignments were. 
              
The suitcase also contained the U.S. flag that the family received at Terry’s burial and the medal containers, but they were empty.

Rolland Sayer of Chadron with a display honoring his late brother, Terry.
Army Sergeant Terry Sayer died in Vietnam in 1969.

That made it necessary for Rolland to have them duplicated so they could be displayed.  He contacted the Dawes County Veterans Service Office in Chadron and began the process of acquiring the medals.
              
Rolland said Darrell Marshall of Chadron, a Vietnam veteran and a leader in area veterans activities for a couple of decades, provided much help.  Fortunately, Terry’s DD214 form that every veteran receives when he or she is discharged or, as in Terry’s case the family receives, was in the suitcase. It lists the citations the soldier earned. Rolland had filed it years ago at the Veterans Service Office in Chadron.
              
The next step was to submit the request for the duplicate citations through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Office of Public and Inter-Governmental Affairs. It verified that the request was legitimate.
       
About two months after the request was submitted, the materials arrived.  The Sayers took them to Hobby Lobby in Scottsbluff to be framed.  The resulting shadow box was completed in mid-October, a few days before Rolland and Nancy took it to the museum in Cambridge to display.
              
The medals include two bronze stars that are awarded for heroism. They were accompanied by certificates, noting that one was for ground combat and the other for operations. 

The medals also include two purple hearts that are presented when a soldier is wounded, a National Defense Service Medal, a Vietnam Campaign Medal and a Vietnam Service Medal, along with a rifle marksmanship medal.

All were provided by the government without charge, but the package did not include a Vietnam Gallantry Cross that the South Vietnamese government awarded foreign servicemen who fought in the war.  Marshall knew that medal was available at the Army-Navy Store in Rapid City, and Rolland purchased one to complete the display.

Terry’s display is not the only one honoring a member of the Sayer family at the Furnas County Museum, which Rolland and Nancy said is outstanding.  There’s also one for Maurice Sayer, Rolland’s cousin from the Orleans community. The aircraft he was piloting was shot down in New Guinea during World War II.

Serving their country is a tradition for the Sayers. Seven of the nine boys in Rolland’s family served, including Rolland, who was stationed in Germany most of the time during his two years in the Army beginning in 1957.

Rolland is relieved that his “labor of love” project is completed, but noted it was difficult for him to “give it up” at the museum last week, even though that was his goal all along. However, a large photo of the shadow box taken by the Sayers’ granddaughter, Sheyenne Sandstrom, is already on the mantel above the fireplace in their home.  


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
NOTE Thanks to Con Marshall for sharing this story with Dawes County Journal

Monday, October 8, 2018

A story about Marcella LeBeau

(NOTE:  After driving along the outskirts of Liege, Belgium just three weeks ago, I was reminded of that city's history – and of South Dakotan Marcella LeBeau.  A World War II Army nurse who served in a military hospital at Liege after the Allies liberated the city 74 years ago this month.  The following was written in 2016 for the Black Hills Journal.  I hope you find Marcella LeBeau's story as inspirational as I did.  -- LM)

by Larry Miller 

The short, soft-spoken former Army nurse was asked how she coped with the harsh realities of working in an Army hospital in war-torn Europe during World War II.

Marcella LeBeau - July 17, 2016
Without hesitation, Marcella LeBeau responded, “I didn’t have time to worry.  I had work to do.  There were patients to care for, transfusions to be done, and there were buzz bombs overhead.  I just didn’t have time.”

You could hear a pin drop as this 96-year-old veteran nurse stood under the shade of a small tent outside the Fort Meade Museum at Sturgis, South Dakota last weekend (7/17/16).
    
She shared stories of her experiences during World War II, from the D-Day landings at Normandy to the historic “Battle of the Bulge” that helped change the direction of the war.

Marcella Ryan LeBeau’s story began on the Cheyenne River Reservation at Promise, South Dakota, where she was one of five children born to Joseph and Florence Ryan.  Her old hometown of Promise – nestled along the banks of the Moreau River – is gone now, inundated by the massive waters of Lake Oahe.

Her name belies the rich Lakota heritage of which she is so proud. Her mother was a member of the Two Kettle Band of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and a descendant of Rain in the Face, who fought at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  Her great grandfather, Joseph Four Bear, was a reluctant signatory to the infamous Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.  Her father, a rancher, was Irish.

Marcella’s Lakota name is Wigmunke Waste Win, which in English means “Pretty Rainbow Woman.”

Growing up we had no electricity and had to haul water in.  I remember my father had a big garden, and geese, horses, and other animals.

My mother died when I was 10, and I was sent to the boarding school at the Old Cheyenne River Agency.  It was a horrible experience.  If you didn’t speak English, it was terrible.  Students would be beaten – whipped – and there were instances of rape and attempted rape.  It was very traumatic.”

She convinced her father that she and her siblings weren’t getting a proper education, and they transferred to the St. Elizabeth Mission School at nearby Wakpala.  After getting her diploma from St. Elizabeth’s, Marcella enrolled at St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Pierre.  She completed her studies there in three years, graduating in 1942.

About 50 persons attended Marcella LeBeau's presentation outside the Museum
I sewed clothing for my friend Marie Weaver, and pajamas for my brothers and sisters.  We had come through a tough drought, and I had the same pair of shoes for three years, binding them with tape to hold the soles on.”

When I graduated from St. Mary’s, I had no uniform or shoes for the ceremony.  I was fortunate that my father was able to buy them for me.”

After working for a time at the Public Health Hospital at Fort Thompson, Marcella took her first out-of-state job in Pontiac, Michigan.

It paid $140 a month, plus room and board.  It seemed like a lot of money.”

World events, however, were deteriorating, and the United States was in the clutches of World War II.

I was working in the surgical ward in Pontiac, and we kept hearing radio announcements about the need for Army nurses.”

Lieutenant Marcella Ryan - 1944
Shortly thereafter, Marcella and her friend Marie Weaver decided to “see the world.”
  They were among the 104,000 young nurses who were recruited by the American Red Cross to become Army nurses and serve at Army hospitals at home and overseas.  They enlisted in April 1943, hoping they’d be able to serve together as brand new 2nd Lieutenants.

But Marie was assigned to go to Colorado, and Marcella was sent to Torney General Hospital in Palm Springs, California for "training."  It was the old El Mirador Hotel, which the Army had bought at the outbreak of the war and converted into a 1,600-bed general hospital.  While undergoing no real military training, Lt. Ryan was issued her uniforms and was temporarily assigned to work in the  psychiatric wards.

She then received orders to join the 76th General Hospital unit in Boston and was soon on a troop train headed for Chicago and then Boston, where she and others awaited their overseas assignments.  Shortly thereafter, she found herself aboard the troop transport USS George Washington for the 14-day voyage to Liverpool, England.  The United States was making preparations for an invasion of Nazi-occupied France.

After arriving at Liverpool, nurses of the 76th General Hospital were transported to the coastal community of Llandudno, Wales, where the new arrivals underwent orientation to the European Theatre Operations and preliminary professional evaluation.  While there, medical personnel lived in hutted camps or were billeted with families.   After about a month, Lt. LeBeau, who had lived with a family in a private home, was assigned to the medical facility at Leominister, England, about 100 miles northwest of London.

There she worked in the psychiatric ward – but soon submitted a request to be transferred to surgery.

In May 1944, their first patients began arriving in the surgical ward.  The work schedule was somewhat routine.

Then came June 6, 1944 – D Day.

We were called to our duty stations at 2:30 in the morning, and we began getting soldiers from D-Day. We were pretty busy after that.”
 
The work continued at a hectic pace for days on end.    By mid-August, the Allies had secured Normandy and were on the march toward Nazi-occupied Paris.   Lieutenant LeBeau and her unit were ordered to Southampton to embark aboard boats headed for Normandy.

Channel storms kept the vessels carrying the Army nurses and other troops at bay for three days on their crossing to the continent.  As they finally approached the shore, they wrestled their way down a rope ladder to a landing barge for the final leg of the journey to the beach.
LeBeau had been suffering from a severe toothache and immediately went to a field hospital – literally in a cow pasture – for a root canal.  Nurse LeBeau became patient LeBeau, but not for long.   She was soon back on the job.

Although much of Normandy had been secured, it was definitely a war zone.

There were still land mines and many German tanks that had been knocked out in the invasion,” she remembered.

On August 25th, the Allies liberated Paris from German control, and Lt. LeBeau and her colleagues were on their way the French capital.  The tide was turning for the Allies as they began pushing German troops back toward their homeland. LeBeau was temporarily assigned to the 108th General Hospital in Paris, where they treated Allied casualties as well as German prisoners of war.

A few weeks later, Allied forces regained the Belgian cities of Antwerp and Liege. LeBeau’s 76th General Hospital was ordered northward to the 1,000-bed hospital at Liege, where they would handle casualties from France and other war zones along front.

While the Allies seemed to be gaining the upper hand against the German army, things changed quickly.

76th General Hospital at Liege, Belgium - circa 1944  
On December 16, 1945, the Germans launched a massive surprise counter-offensive through the rugged Ardennes forest in an effort to reach Antwerp and disrupt Allied supply shipments.   The Allies had considered the Ardennes impenetrable and had left the area largely undefended.  Liege was between the front line and Antwerp.  For the U.S. Army, it would be bloodiest battle of World War II – the “Battle of the Bulge.”

At one point we were told to get packed and be ready for evacuation,” LeBeau remembered.

“It never happened.  I was young and didn’t know what war was.  It was probably a saving grace.”

With more than 600,000 Americans engaged in the fighting, casualties were high – more than 89,000, including 19,000 deaths.  Many of the wounded were sent to Liege for surgery and hospitalization.
 
Marcella and friend Bette Rohay
We had a wooden building that had been built for surgery.  I worked closely with two corpsmen and one nurse,” LeBeau recalled.  The city remained a target of intense aerial bombardment by German V1 and V2 “buzz bombs.” Some medical units and hospitals in the Liege area suffered casualties and damage not only from V-weapons, but also from conventional bombing and long-range artillery fire.
 
Army reports indicated the city was blasted with as many as 1,500 such devices. Hardest hit among the medical facilities was Lt. LeBeau’s 76th General Hospital unit on January 8, 1944.  The Army reported 24 patients and staff killed, another 20 injured, plus buildings and equipment that were damaged. Additional documents revealed that the 76th General Hospital staff  cared for their own casualties, cleared away rubble, and kept on working.

There were body limbs all over,” LeBeau remembered.  The buzz bombs continued night and day, but our work did not stop, as we cared for wounded troops and gave blood transfusions.  We were blessed with plenty of blood and penicillin, which was relatively new at the time and had to be administered every four hours.

I remember one of our hospital corpsmen, named Coffee, was deathly afraid of the buzz bombs and his situation became increasingly apparent, as he was going without sleep.  As we ate lunch together one day, I gave him a sleeping pill and had another corpsman put him to bed.  He was finally able to get some sleep.  I think if I hadn’t done that, he would have gone berserk.”

There was little time to relax.  While there was an Officer’s Club in Liege, Marcella and many other nurses never went there, because they felt there was too much drinking.  They often found respite by visiting the home of a Belgian woman who worked at the hospital laundry.  She would invite them for tea and tarts, real treats in a time of severe food rationing.

The ravages of war leave behind many casualties.  For Lt. LeBeau, one incident remains vivid in her memory.

It was an American soldier who had been a prisoner of war and was rescued.  He was so gaunt.   Skin stretched over his bones.  He was so emaciated.  Your first inclination was to feed him, but of course, we couldn’t immediately do that.  His eyes.  A vacant stare.  I can’t forget that look.”
 
1st Lt. Marcella Ryan LeBeau's uniform
But even in the harshness of war, there were moments of humor, and Mrs. LeBeau reflected on an incident at the Army hospital in Liege when a red-headed Dutch patient approached the pretty young Army nurse.

American soldiers all have pin-up girls to help take their minds off the war,” he boldly proclaimed to LeBeau while handing her a photograph of himself.

Now I want to be your pin-up boy!

The photo was promptly tacked up on the bulletin board.

Within ten days of the German assault on the Ardennes, Adolf Hitler ordered his troops to halt their advance, stifled by dogged Allied resistance.  By early February 1945, the Allies had retaken all the territory they had lost.  The “Battle of the Bulge” was over, and the war was nearing its end.  Hitler committed suicide on April 30, and the Germans surrendered unconditionally a week later.  The war was over.

Lieutenant LeBeau completed about one year at the hospital in Liege and then was on her way home.  She was discharged at Des Moines, Iowa in February 1946.
She was awarded three bronze stars – for the Rhineland, Northern France, and the Battle of the Bulge.  The government of Belgium also presented her and others of their unit with special medals.  Those, however, would not be the end of many special awards for the girl from Promise, South Dakota.

As she contemplated returning to South Dakota, there was little to attract her.  Her father had fallen ill and was living in the “Old Soldiers Home” in Hot Springs.  So she went to Chicago and moved in with her younger sister, Johanna, who was in the Army Nurse Cadet Corps at St. Luke’s Hospital.   Marcella took a job as a private duty nurse. But in the next year or so, went to work for a hospital in Rapid City.

The following year, on September 4, 1947, Marcella Ryan married Navy veteran Gilbert LeBeau at Moreau, South Dakota.  Both hailed from the Promise area.   “Gib” was a Gunner’s Mate Petty Officer and served at Pearl Harbor  and later aboard two ships during the war.

The LeBeau’s had eight children.  After they returned to the Cheyenne River Reservation, Marcella was active in her children’s school activities and as a leader in 4-H.  She also continued her nursing work with the Indian Health Service at Eagle Butte, South Dakota, retiring as Director of Nursing after 31 years of service.

The Old Fort Meade Museum is open seven days a week from June through October 
But “retired” may not be the best description of this much-honored Lakota elder.

She and a granddaughter established a sewing business, and Marcella also became involved in gardening, care giving, and continued to share her experiences from many years in nursing.  She became a member of the tribal council – one of just two women elected to the body, and she also served as secretary for the Wounded Knee Survivor’s Organization.  As a long-time nurse, she was also instrumental in getting smoking banned from tribal offices.

Ties to her Lakota culture run deep for Marcella.  In 1999, after she and her son, Richard, had worked many years to recover a Lakota Ghost Dance shirt from a museum in Scotland, it was finally returned to South Dakota.  The shirt had been wore by a Lakota warrior who died at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.

As an Army officer and nurse, Marcella managed to rise above the cultural and economic barriers that faced her as a young Lakota woman in the mid-20th century.  She served her country honorably, and it was no ordinary “tour of duty.”

But sometimes, people forget.  Society forgets.  So it is good to remember. Her many friends and colleagues from the 76th General Hospital at Liege, Belgium, held reunions numerous times over the years to recall their experiences and renew friendships.  The gatherings took place in Des Moines, Iowa, and were, she said "great therapy."   Mrs. LeBeau and her friend Esther Westvelt Pierce made the trip every summer they were held.  Alas, the once robust group of Army medical personnel has dwindled and the reunions are no more.

Marcella LeBeau in Washington, DC
The French remembered First Lieutenant Marcella Ryan LeBeau.   She was among 100 World War II American veterans flown to Washington, D.C. in 2004 and awarded France’s highest civilian award, the French Legion of Honor (Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur) at the French Embassy.  It was the 60th anniversary of D-Day, and the honored veterans were then flown to France to visit Paris – and later to tour the beaches of Normandy. When she was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2006, Mrs. LeBeau was recognized not only for her Army achievements, but also for her 31 years of dedication to nursing.  A founding member of the North American Indian Women’s Association nearly a half century ago, Marcella remains a mentor and confidante for many young Lakota women – and her inspiring story reaches across generations and cultures.

More than 60 years after her service in the Army, Marcella told a researcher from the University of Arizona that she was never subjected to any discrimination or harassment while in the military.  But that was not the case after the war when she returned to South Dakota.   She remembered seeing signs in Rapid City that said, “No Indians or dogs allowed.”

I couldn’t buy vanilla extract in a grocery store, or rubbing alcohol in a drug store, because I was Native American.  Then in 1955, I think, the laws were changed, but to me, a law doesn’t change the hearts of men.”

Of her many experiences during World War II and in her long nursing career that followed, Marcella particularly remembers and often shares one story – about Eugene Roubideaux from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.

I was working one night in a Shock Ward – like an Intensive Care Unit – and was asked to see this patient.  He had lost both legs, and they were afraid that he might try to commit suicide.  So I went to see him.  His name was Eugene Roubideaux.  I took him newspapers from home, visited with him, and offered to write letters home for him, but he didn’t want to contact anyone.  I went over to see him often…and then, one day, he was gone.

After the war, I came back to the United States.  For 40 years I looked for him.  Every place I’d go to a nurse’s meeting, I’d ask if anyone knew Eugene Roubideaux, but I could never find him.

Then one day I met a young lady who came to our hospital to introduce us to a new form to be used at the hospital.

The next morning I got this call, and she said ‘This is Ann Lafferty.  Do you known Eugene Roubideaux?

I said ‘yes, I do.’”

’He was my father,’ she said.”

It was an emotional moment for Marcella, who was overcome by the news.

Mrs. Rafferty gave Marcella her father’s address and phone number and told her that he had divorced, remarried, and raised a large family.  He was living in Yankton.

I couldn’t call him right away, but eventually I did.

I asked if he remembered the nurse who stood at his bed in Liege, Belgium?”

I’ll never forget,” he responded.

For Marcella, who shared the story with the Veteran’s History Project, it was an emotional moment.

Some time later,” said Marcella, “we were able to invite him and his family to Eagle Butte for an honor dinner.”

It is not surprising that Marcella Ryan LeBeau wanted to honor another veteran.  Nor that she continues to be active in community and tribal activities.  That she remains a steadfast advocate for her family and her people.

More than 16 million men and women served in the military during World War II.  They are dying at a rate of about 492 veterans each day.  That means our nation will likely loose almost all of them within the next decade.

How fortunate we were to have had this “Greatest Generation” as our elders, our family, our friends, and members of our community – defending and nurturing us during one of the most difficult times in American history.

For many of these veterans, like Lieutenant Marcella Ryan LeBeau, the challenges they faced and their achievements, were particularly significant.
And a few of them, like Marcella, continue to make meaningful contributions to their families and communities.

We are blessed to have them in our midst.