- Written by Robert D. Wilcox Robert D. Wilcox
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Salute to a Veteran: Her Hospital Train Leaped the Tracks and Turned Over in the Middle of the Night
March 2008 issue
NAMPA Award: First Place, Feature Writing
By Robert D. Wilcox
From the time she was the smallest tot growing, Marge Himelwright dreamed of being a nurse.
She says, “I guess, in a way, it was natural, because in my family I had a pediatrician, a cardiologist, a general practitioner, a lab technician, an X-ray technician, a physical therapist, and three registered nurses.”
So, when she graduated from high school in 1940, she went right into nursing school, graduating as a registered nurse in 1943.
World War II was raging at that time, so she enlisted and became a second lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps. She remembers that, because she was so tiny, the Army had to have uniforms especially made for her.
After training in how to use gas masks, how to detect gases, and the myriad other things a military nurse needs to know, she found herself on a troop ship with 4,000 men, on her way to Marseilles, France.
On arrival, she was assigned for duty at the 236th General Hospital in Épinal, France — except that she never saw the hospital.
While en route by train, all the nurses were asked if they would volunteer to serve aboard hospital trains, tending to wounded soldiers who were being brought from the fighting front to hospitals where they could get treatment for more serious wounds. She and five other nurses volunteered, and they were promptly assigned to hospital trains.
How close did the trains come to the front?
“That depends,” she explains. “The front kept moving, of course, and we went as far as the rails would take us. Many times, they went right to a field and evacuation hospital to which the men had been taken. Where the rails didn’t extend that far, they’d bring the wounded to us by ambulance, and we’d take them from there.”
Marge made many trips bringing the wounded from the Battle of the Bulge to Paris, where they could be properly treated.
On one such trip, they had transferred their wounded in Paris and were headed back to the Bulge. On their way, they had to pass through a mile-long tunnel. But the train was alerted that the Germans had blown up the tracks at the tunnel’s end, so they had to be diverted to another track.
Unlike the first-grade track they had been on, this was a second-grade track, and no one knew for sure that it would be safe for them. But a previous train had passed over it successfully, so they assumed it would work for them.
Not the way it worked out. In the middle of the night, when Marge was sound asleep, her heavily laden kitchen car toppled off the rails, with her car and several others overturning and being pitched on their side with a great crash.
“It was terrible,” she says. “Everything pitched over on us, and we didn’t know which way was up. Fortunately, we had no wounded aboard, and no one was killed. But that was it for the train. I volunteered to stay and help clean up the mess. The other nurses were put on another train, and I got a citation for staying behind and helping.”
During her duty as hospital train nurse, she saw wounds of all kinds. She also recalls that somehow a German captain had once boarded the train, and when she discovered him while making her rounds, he was about to put a clip in the gun he held in his hands.
She swallowed hard, held out her hand, and told him firmly, “You’re going to have to give that gun to me.”
After a moment that seemed like an hour, he did.
She says, “They all had a suicide pill, which they could take if they had to. I don’t know if he had his or not, but I wasn’t about to ask for it.”
Did the hospital trains get shelled?
“Quite often,” she says. “I remember one time when an explosion picked me up and threw me against the litters.”
When her tour in Europe ended, Marge shipped out from Marseilles on way to the Panama Canal, which the nurses and soldiers would pass through on their way to the Pacific to join the battle against Japan.
She says, “Our ship was just passing Gibraltar when a British fighter plane circled us several times. Getting lower each time, its wing suddenly clipped the water, and the plane plunged right below the waves, disappearing from sight without a trace of it left.
“One day, on the way to the Panama Canal,” she continues, “the captain announced that the Japanese had surrendered. I’ll never forget the wonderful words he then said: ‘This ship will dock at Newport News, Virginia.’ I believe they might have been able to hear the cheering in Newport News.”
Marge soon mustered out of the Army as a first lieutenant and returned to central Pennsylvania, where she became a nurse at a local hospital, serving as an IV therapist, giving chemotherapy.
In 1968 she suffered a ruptured appendix. After recovering from that, she joined the staff at another hospital, where for nine years she was in charge of the delivery and labor room. She then became director of nurses and assistant administrator at a convalescent home for 10 years. That was followed by four years as admissions director at a nursing home, where she retired in 1984.
In retirement, Marge loves to cook, to read, and to think back to those exciting days in World War II.
Col. Wilcox was first pilot of a B-17 bomber in Europe in World War II.