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Women among Montana’s World War I heroes

via the Laurel Outlook (Montana) newspaper web site  

It’s easy to find evidence of women’s contributions on the home front to the war effort in The Laurel Outlook archives from 100 years ago. Every week, even before the U.S officially entered WWI on April 6, 1917, stories of the work of local Red Cross women filled the news columns. Some Montana women even went overseas serving in uniform as nurses, as Laurel author and veteran Ed Saunders is detailing in his forthcoming book, “Knapsacks and Roses, Montana’s Women Veterans of World War I.”

While the historical narrative is not yet ready for publication, Saunders has found details of heroism in many of the women’s stories, including that of Harriet O’Day Nielsen, who is buried in Laurel’s cemetery.

Elizabeth Sandy Sandelius“Almost all the women who volunteered for service were nurses, like Harriet O’Day,” Saunders said. “America had estimated a need for at least 25,000 nurses, most of them for the western front. Despite not getting the same respect or pay as men, many volunteered.”

According to Saunders’ research, of the 206 Montana women who entered military service in WWI, 86 voluntarily went overseas.

“It wasn’t until many years later that the U.S. government even recognized the women as veterans, although they made great contributions,” Saunders said. The 23 women WWI veterans with ties to Yellowstone County were memorialized on the courthouse lawn, however belatedly. The plaque in their honor was installed less than a year ago on the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into the war.

Although there were doubtless many instances of women performing their duties under fire, Saunders found evidence that two Montana nurses were officially cited for heroism in France. They were Elizabeth “Sandy” Sandelius from Cokedale and O’Day. Sandelius refused to evacuate and continued tending the injured while under aerial and artillery bombardment at Field Hospital 112 in Cohan, France. O’Day helped evacuate wounded American soldiers while under artillery fire at Evacuation Hospital 4 near Verdun, France, where she was stationed.

Verdun is primarily known for the horrific 303-day battle the year before O’Day’s arrival. The battle is considered one of the deadliest in human history, having claimed the lives of about one million men, both French and German. A highly prized strategic enclave, warring continued in the Verdun area despite the battle’s end. O’Day would have seen the gory aftermath and had to live with the sights and smells of death, all while doing a what had to be a dangerous and disheartening job.

After five months working at the Evacuation hospital treating battle injuries ranging from amputations to gas burns, German forces opened fire on the Americans on Nov. 3, 1918. The hospital was bombarded with artillery for four hours, according to Saunders research.

Read the entire article on the Laurel Outlook web site here.

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