Thursday, December 15, 2016

Battleship South Dakota launched before Pearl Harbor attack

1941 sound recording of the USS South Dakota christening is available on the South Dakota State Historical Society website

PIERRE, S.D. – Two lacquer radio transcription discs, held in the collections of the South Dakota State Historical Society-Archives at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre, broadcast the June 7, 1941, double christening and launching of the battleship USS South Dakota from the New York Shipbuilding Corporation ways at Camden, N.J.
The digital audio recording of the christening of the South Dakota can be heard on the South Dakota Digital Archives website. Visit and find the link on the right to “USS South Dakota.” A transcript of the recording is also available on the website. The audio recording run time is just over 21 minutes.
The two discs were recently sent to the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass. The conservation center used its touchless optical scanning technology, called IRENE, to retrieve the sound from the two discs. 
At 1:20 p.m., on June 7, 1941, First Lady Vera Bushfield, official sponsor of the battleship christening ceremonies and wife of South Dakota Governor Harlan J. Bushfield, christened the battleship with a “full-size” bottle of Cook’s Imperial American champagne across the waiting prow of the United States Navy’s newest battleship South Dakota. A second “half-sized” champagne bottle, donated by Pierre resident Genevieve Trask, was also used in the ceremony – a special double christening. 

The U.S. Navy’s newest battleship, the USS South Dakota, awaits its christening and launching at the New York Shipbuilding Corporation ways in Camden, New Jersey, on June 7, 1941. (Photo courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society-Archives)

After a brief delay, the South Dakota traveled down the ways into the Delaware River. As proclaimed by radio announcer Lewis Fischer, “There she goes … Mrs. Bushfield has just smashed the christening bottle and majestically the South Dakota is going down the ways. You can hear the crowd yelling, the flags are flying and the whistles blowing. It is a magnificent sight.”
The Sioux Falls Washington High School band performed at the event and played “Anchors Aweigh” as the ship drifted into the Delaware River. The band played the national anthem later in the ceremony. 
The main speaker for the event was U.S. Secretary of War Frank Knox. He said, “There are fewer stirring views, nor moving sites, than that which you just witnessed. To see a great battleship leave the spot on the land and take to her native element. And to know that great ship will make a tremendous contribution to the safety of our country and all the people in it is a moving thought.
Secretary Knox emphasized that day on June 7, 1941, exactly six months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the necessity of preparing the military for the future, saying “We must, if we are to play our part in the world of the future, establish and maintain the greatest sea power the world has ever seen and along with that predominant sea power, and auxiliary service, civil supplemented and make it all powerful everywhere.”
He continued, “Unhappily we seem to be living in a time, when affairs are moved by force, when destinies are controlled by force and since we know now that at this time in the world, which for some time in the future we must live. Then we Americans must have that force, which is first essential to protect us in our security and safety and finally to support those elements and those ideals in humanity and civilization that will bring finally peace to this war in the world.”
Knox concluded, “On your behalf I say, to the good ship South Dakota, God go with you, because after all, your mission, the mission for which we built you, is not war, but the prevention of war as God wills. Thank you.”
A recording of the ceremony was made by radio station WCAU of Philadelphia. The recording was sent via airmail to WNAX in Yankton, which broadcast the ceremonies. Arthur J. Smith, program director of WNAX, presented the transcription discs to Governor and Mrs. Bushfield, who then transferred them to the South Dakota State Historical Society. 
The 17th Virginia Class nuclear submarine, the USS SOUTH DAKOTA (SSN 790), will be christened in the summer of 2017. The submarine is scheduled to join the fleet in August 2018.The SSN 790 will be the third boat commissioned with the name “South Dakota.” The first was the Armored Cruiser USS South Dakota (ACR-9). The second was the Battleship South Dakota (BB-57), one of the most decorated battleships in World War Two.
- 30 -
 ~~~~ Story courtesy of the South Dakota State Historical Society
The South Dakota State Historical Society is a division of the Department of Education. The State Historical Society, an Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is headquartered at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. The center houses the society’s world-class museum, the archives, and the historic preservation, publishing and administrative/development offices. Call (605) 773-3458 or for more information. The society also has an archaeology office in Rapid City; call (605) 394-1936 for more information.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

George Blair, B-25 bomber pilot, remembers World War II

by Duke Doering

Writing in a long-ago declassified report, an officer from Sturgis rancher George Blair’s World War II Air Corps Squadron described enemy response as “…meager inaccurate to accurate fire…”

On March 28, 71 years ago, Japanese machine gunners were “accurate” enough to cripple Blair’s B-25J medium bomber, put the 10-ton airplane into ocean off Indo China (today’s Vietnam) and compel Blair to generate a vision of his girlfriend that prevented him from drowning.

As South Dakotans join others across the nation to celebrate Veterans Day, the re-telling of Blair’s Army Air Corps service in the Pacific Theater reminds everyone how the skill, bravery and sometimes luck of this veteran contributed to victory against Axis forces.  Part of the 16 million men and women who served in uniform during that war, Blair also is symbolic of the countless veterans who returned to civilian life to marry, raise a family, be successful in a career and continue to serve, in Blair’s case with four terms in the South Dakota House of Representatives.

Blair was born in 1921 in Pleasant Valley, six miles south and east of Sturgis.  Learning in a one-room school, graduation from Sturgis High School in 1939 and work on a busy family cattle ranch were predictable milestones in his life until the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.  From that point, Blair wanted to support the war effort as a pilot.  However, to be accepted as a flying cadet during the start of the war, at least two years of college had to be part of a volunteer’s academic resume, something Blair lacked.

So Blair traveled to Spearfish and talked with already legendary aviator Clyde Ice.  The largely self-taught barnstormer, air transporter and flight instructor advised Blair to ignore the two-year college requirement because the military would soon be unable to recruit enough pre-qualified potential pilots.  To enhance his eligibility for selection, Ice recommended immediate enrollment in classes at Black Hills Teachers College plus simultaneous evening courses in ground school.  Along with classroom instruction, Ice could provide flying lessons in his two-seat Aeronca.  By March 1942, Blair was in class with nine other College Training Program students and in the air over the Black Hills and surrounding prairie.  Blair also started a courtship with Viola Hays, a college algebra classmate.

Next came extensive physical, mental and psychological testing.  In May, Blair was sworn into the Army Air Corps.  Learning the rudiments of being a soldier-airman followed at Randolph Field, Texas, where Blair was accepted into flight training in October.  His military flight school began at the dual controls of the Stearman Kaydet bi-plane, followed by a second phase in the more powerful and complex BT-13A, the Vulcan Valiant, also nicknamed “The Vibrator” for its ability to shake aviators’ bones plus the nuts and bolts that held everything together.

Commissioned as a 2nd Lt., and wearing hard-earned flight wings in August 1943,  Blair wanted an assignment with the B-25 medium bomber in honor and respect for Lt. Col. “Jimmy” Doolittle, the leader of the nicknamed Raiders who completed a daring bombing mission over Japan in April of 1942, flying the versatile twin-engine plane from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.  Just 16 months after joining the military, one of the Air Corps’ newest pilots and former rancher got his wish.  McClellan Army Airfield in northern California was Blair’s next duty station where he learned the fundamentals of operating the B-25, the winged workhorse that the nation’s aircraft industry eventually duplicated in several variants more than 9,800 times.

During night training missions, Blair and fellow students sometimes flew over Los Angeles where intense spotlights constantly scanned the skies.  Blair still remembers getting “great advice” from instructors who cautioned the students to ignore the searing lights by looking down at the instrument panel and never outside.

Once qualified in the B-25, Blair was transferred across country to Columbia, S.C., for six months of additional flight training.  By April 1944, Blair was cleared to join an operational bomber unit.  He became part of three crews that flew shiny B-25s from a base in Savannah, Ga., back to his bomber starting point in California.  The crews remained there for a week preparing for an island-hopping journey to Hawaii, Christmas Island, Guadalcanal and, eventually, a maintenance facility at Townsville, Australia, where the aircraft were painted in combat colors and retrofitted with newer machine guns.  The first tactical duty station for the newly qualified aircrews became Biak, New Guinea, where Blair and his colleagues learned the fundamentals of in-theater operations and launched their first combat mission against a Japanese airfield.

All returned unscathed from their first taste of battle.  Blair still can recall, “While we were dropping the bombs, I noticed some black spots occasionally appearing in front of me.  It took a few seconds, and suddenly I realized they were shooting at me.”  For nearly a year, he flew 46 more combat missions with the 501st “Black Panthers” Squadron of the 345th Bombardment Group, moving operational bases closer and closer toward Japan.

On March 28, 1945, Blair was part of a large mission that involved aircraft from all four of the Bomb Group’s squadrons.  In his routine report,  1st Lt. Issac Baker, the squadron’s assistant intelligence officer, wrote the primary target for that day was to intercept a shipping convoy that had been sighted moving north in the Indo China Sea, with a secondary target of any land installation on the coast. By the time Group leaders got the formation over the anticipated ocean target area, no ships could be found.

They turned inland, with Black Panther aircraft assigned to sweep 60 miles of coastline from Phan Thiet to Phan Rang.  Three flights of B-25Js found the My Thanh rail yard, dropping 27 bombs at maximum speed from very low altitudes and strafing the area with .50-caliber machine gun fire.  Return fire from the defenders was not heavy, but it was enough to create a crippling oil leak in the starboard engine of Blair’s plane and pepper another Black Panther aircraft with holes.
Blair made a quick decision to shut down the 14-cylinder Wright Cyclone engine and “feather” its propeller to avoid further damage.  Flying 15 more miles back to the mainland became a swiftly discarded option.  If they landed safely, all would immediately become prisoners of war.  Ditching at sea or landing on an unoccupied island were alternatives, with the more realistic hope that a U.S. submarine would be in the area to provide rescue.

Writing a summary of the attack the next day, Baker tersely described the few known details: “Plane 175 (Blair’s plane), hit by ack ack was forced to go on a single engine and when last seen was flying on a single engine at 1,230/I [altitude] 15 miles off Cape Faux Varella on a 102 degree course.  Pilot radioed squadron leader that everything was under control and he was trying to make it to Two Island.”  He then goes on to identify Blair and five additional crewmen as “missing.”

What Baker did not know or did not report was the tense radio traffic drama in the sky in the minutes after Blair’s bomber received enemy fire.  The leader of a different Black Panther flight quickly learned that Blair’s aircraft was in trouble and radioed the surfaced submarine U.S.S. Guavina that was patrolling in the area.  Blair started transmitting a “Blue Fish, this is Blue Flyer,” message to contact the sub.  The Guavina’s signalman then provided its location to Blair on the radio frequency his crew was monitoring.  Ditching at sea, as close to the 311 ft. vessel as possible, became Blair’s best option.  “We never had any practice ditching an airplane,” the longtime rancher ironically recalls, a maneuver impossible to rehearse with a land-based aircraft.

As the bomber started skipping across the ocean waves, Blair hit his head on a gunsight and was knocked unconscious.  The plane settled into the water and temporarily remained afloat, an unconventional landing that Blair says was, “more luck than skill.”
Within minutes, Blair regained consciousness and joined the other crewmen who were able to escape from the soon-to-sink aircraft.  Blair was on the wing of the plane for a few moments before it went under, struggling to inflate both sides of his life jacket.  Just half of the jacket filled, a perilous circumstance that nearly killed Blair as he fought “to get in sync” with the 10-foot swells that covered the airplane as it went to the floor of the Pacific Ocean.  Tailgunner Staff Sgt. J.R. Richardson made it out of the fuselage but told a crewmate that he could not swim and was not seen again.

Wave after wave covered Blair’s half-supported body each time he tried to breathe.  Exhausted, Blair remembers thinking, “just quit.”  He laid in the water, ready to surrender, “when, I looked up in the sky and saw my girlfriend - in color - just her shoulder and her head.   I thought, if I am ever going to see her again, I better start fighting for my life.”

Still struggling, Blair estimates no more than two minutes later, a crewman from the Navy sub was in the water next to him with rope that pulled them both to the safety of the boat. Others who survived included the co-pilot, navigator, engineer and radio operator.  The sub buttoned up and headed east for San Marcelino, Philippines, the home base of the 345th Group where Blair continued to heal from the 13 stitches he received to close the gash on his head.

The attack on the rail yard became Blair’s last combat mission.  By then he had exceeded the 100 points necessary for departure from the front lines of the war in the Pacific.  Back home in Meade County, discharged from the Air Corps and married to his “vision” girlfriend Viola Marie.  

Members of the Blair family are shown in this 1995 family photo.  Left-to-right are:
Gayle, Mary Beth, Nancy, Jerry, George and Viola, Jeff, Kathleen, Janet, and Ann.

The couple soon was busy with post-war life, eventually raising nine children and managing the ranch.  Viola passed away in 2002, just a few months before Blair was honored to receive a belated Purple Heart medal during a surprise, family arranged ceremony.  Blair, now 95, continues to live on his ranch in Pleasant Valley.

(Editor's note:  Our thanks to Duke Doering 
[shown at right] for sharing this fine story
 and associated photographs.  You can take a look at
 all photos related to this story 

Friday, November 11, 2016

From Pine Ridge to the Pacific - and home to Beaver Valley

by Larry Miller

As we remember our military veterans -- both living and deceased -- this seems like a good time to share the story of Sergeant Fae V. Moore, USMC.

Sergeant Moore was killed on the tiny atoll of Tarawa in the central Pacific nearly 73 years ago this month.  While his story is similar to so many others who served and gave their lives in defense of our country, his is particularly meaningful to folks in western Nebraska and South Dakota where he grew up.

When I was asked by Sergeant Moore's nephew to research and write this story, it was an easy decision.   As a youngster, I lived next door to Fae Moore's mother, Mary Moore, but I was too young to comprehend the grief with which she was stricken when her youngest son was killed during World War II.

Mrs. Moore went to her own grave in 1958, never to see her son — or his remains — return home for burial. Although too late for her, the discovery, identification, and repatriation of her Marine son in 2016 offered a bit of closure to Moore family members who knew little about him, but who recently joined together in celebrating his life and service to our country.

When Fae Moore enlisted in the Marines, his home was listed as "Pine Ridge, South Dakota."  He spent much of his youth working on ranches in Nebraska and later in South Dakota.

We invite you to read the Fae Moore story and his Return to Beaver Valley.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

What's in a nickname? South Dakota has had many!

The Mount Rushmore State.
The Sunshine State.
The Swinged Cat State.
Of all the nicknames for South Dakota, perhaps none is more unusual than ”The Swinged Cat State.”
This nickname originated from remarks made by South Dakota’s first governor, Arthur C. Mellette, according to an article from the South Dakota State Historical Society – State Archives.
In 1890, South Dakota was in the midst of a drought. Mellette was doing everything in his power to help settlers and keep them from leaving the state. On a trip to Chicago for aid, Mellette was met by Moses P. Handy, a friend and newspaperman. Handy asked Mellette, “Well, governor, how is South Dakota?”
Mellette replied, “Oh, South Dakota is a swinged cat, better than she looks.”
By swinged, Mellette meant “burnt” or “singed,” according to the article.
The next day, the Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper had a story about Mellette, governor of the “swinged cat State.”
Coyote State” might have been its first nickname, and while most people probably assume the nickname was inspired by the state animal, it may actually have been inspired by a horse.
According to Volume IX of South Dakota Historical Collections Compiled by the State Department of History, a race took place in October 1863 at Fort Randall between horses owned by two soldiers from Company A Dakota Cavalry and a major from the 6th Iowa Cavalry.
The major’s horse was badly beaten.
A soldier from the Iowa infantry remarked “that the Dakota horse ran like a coyote.” The owners immediately gave their horse that name, which became applied to the entire Dakota Company and to all residents of the state.
With a nod to the number of artesian wells in the state, another South Dakota nickname is “The Artesian State.” 
With plains, hills, mountains, cities, towns, farmland, pasture, lakes, rivers, hot weather and freezing cold, South Dakota has also been called “The Land of Infinite Variety” and “The Land of Plenty.
Weather is a factor in two of South Dakota’s nicknames. As “The Blizzard State,” it shares a nickname with Texas because of both states being subject to frequent storms.
And while “The Sunshine State” is Florida’s official nickname, it was also South Dakota’s slogan for decades.
In 1992, the sun set on “The Sunshine State” as South Dakota’s official nickname. State Rep. Chuck Mateer, a Republican from Belle Fourche, introduced legislation that year to change the state’s nickname to “The Mount Rushmore State.”
Everybody’s got a lot of sunshine, but we’re the only ones who’ve got Mount Rushmore,” he was quoted as saying in an article in the Jan. 26, 1992, Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
Getting the bill passed wasn’t all sunshine for supporters. Opponents argued that dropping the nickname “The Sunshine State” would cause people to think the state was in a “frozen tundra,” according to Republican Rep. Mary Edelen of Vermillion in the Feb. 1, 1992, Argus Leader. Others in favor of keeping the sun shining on South Dakota said that the state’s American Indian population did not want South Dakota to be known as “The Mount Rushmore State.”
The legislation did pass and was signed into law by Gov. George S. Mickelson, who favored the new nickname.
Who knows what the future will hold for South Dakota’s nicknames? While “The Mount Rushmore State” might seem set in stone, clearly nicknames come and go.

(This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. Find us on the web at Contact us at to submit a story idea.)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Buffalo's Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum worth the trip

The Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum in Buffalo, Wyoming, is a first-class museum!

See more images in our Jim Gatchell Gallery

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Nursing soldiers and cultures -- the story of Marcella LeBeau

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 Ft. Meade 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 handful of them, like Marcella, continue to make meaningful contributions to their families and communities.

We are blessed to have them in our midst.