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A WWII Native American Nurse in the ETO – Intermission Story (15)

Lt. Ryan

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.

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 on 7/17/16.    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.”

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.

Lt. Ryan and a friend.

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.”

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

While undergoing no real military training, Lt. Ryan was issued her uniforms and was temporarily assigned to work in the  psychiatric wards.  She 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.  She enlisted in April 1943.

She was assigned to the 76th General Hospital and boarded the USS  George Washington headed for England.

Lt. Ryan LeBeau’s uniform.

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.

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.  The came the Battle of the Bulge!

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.

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.“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.”

Marcella Ryan LeBeau

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.”

For Lt. LeBeau, one incident remains vivid in her memory.

Marcella in France receiving the Legion of Honor

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Marcella Ryan LeBeau last year.

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.”

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.

Information was located from the “Dawes County Journal”.

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Military Medical Humor – 

On the job training?

“NURSE ADAMS, PLEASE REPORT TO ROOMS 13 THROUGH 100…YOU HAVE PATIENTS WHO REQUIRE YOUR ASSISTANCE!”

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Farewell Salutes – 

Mary Jean Coffield – Morgantown, WV; Nurse at US Army posts, WWII

Cleo Dyer – Stamford, CT; US Army Nursing Corps, WWII

Julia Fairchild – Luray, VA; US Navy Nursing Corps, WWII

C

Frieda Green – Eugene, OR; US Army Nursing Corps

Jean Jones Hawkins – Hopewell, VA; US Army Kenner Hospital (Ret. 30 yrs.)

Betty Kutchmire – Tampa, FL; US Army Nursing Corps

Gladys Renoe – Taunton, MA; US Navy Nursing Corps

Lillian Ritt – San Diego, CA; US Army Nursing Corps

Virginia Seledyn – New Britain, CT; US Navy Nursing Corps, Commander (Ret.)

Vicki Woldt – Colby, KS; US Army Nursing Corps, Vietnam, 7th Surgical Hospital, Lt. Col. (Ret.)

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