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Knapsacks and Roses book cover

Guns of war fell silent Nov. 11, 1918, ending the Great War, or World War I. But American soldiers kept dying: Dying in crowded frontline field hospitals where desperately short-handed and exhausted doctors and nurses tended terribly wounded doughboys. The armistice came too late for the wounded; their blood still flowed.

The first Americans at war in May 1917 weren’t soldiers, but doctors and nurses sent to help the British. In 1917 Montana had more registered nurses (697) than the U.S. Army (about 425). The Army in time needed 37,000 nurses in France; it would get less than half that.

The Red Cross provided America’s war nurses. Montana’s women answered the call and 187 Red Cross nurses statewide volunteered for war. Eighteen daughters of Missoula became nurses in America’s World War I military: 17 in the Army Nurse Corps, one in the Navy Nurse Corps. Ten of the 18 volunteered for war in France. Missoula’s Eula Butzerin, an honor student and daughter of Montana state Sen. A. J. Butzerin, was one of two Montana nurses to go to France with a complete Army hospital; the others went as replacements. Eight Missoula nurses in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps stayed in America in crowded hospitals where soldiers and sailors were dying from influenza.

A true daughter of Missoula, Gertrude Sloan was born in 1878 at Fort Missoula to the honorable judge John and “Lizzie” Sloan. An Army Nurse Corps nurse, Gertrude, along with Mary Hall also from Missoula, was on the front battle lines in France with evacuation hospitals during the Second Battle of the Marne.

Missoula’s frontline nurses paid another terrible price. Eula Butzerin’s brother, Roy, was killed in action. Three of Mary Hall’s cousins were also killed in action. After the war Eula crossed war-torn France in a lonely, relentless search for her brother’s grave. She found his grave marked with a stick holding his dog tags. (Roy Butzerin is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.)

Montana’s indomitable women of war a century ago remain largely unknown. None were killed in action. Two Army nurses, Harriett M. O’Day from Billings and Elizabeth “Sandy” Sandelius from Cokedale, were cited for heroism under fire in France. At her death in 1996, at age 103, it is thought Susie Welborn-McCrumb from Billings was the last surviving member of the Army Nurse Corps of World War I.

When war came, America’s Navy sailed. To help the war effort the Navy looked to a valuable resource: America’s women. The Navy needed women on shore to help with the paperwork of war. A Navy yeoman manages paperwork. Seventeen Montana women entered the World War I U.S. Navy as yeomen (female): America’s “yeomanettes.” None went overseas. Missoula’s Artie Cullop achieved rank of yeoman (f) first class and served at naval headquarters Seattle, Washington.

Five Montana women (none from Missoula) served in France as telephone operators with the Women’s Telephone Unit of the American Signal Corps — the fabled “Hello Girls.” After the war, Merle Egan-Anderson from Helena led the 60-year effort to get veteran status for the “Hello Girls,” successful in 1977. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Dean Heller, R-Nevada, have introduced legislation in Congress to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the "Hello Girls."

America’s military has a credo not to leave a serviceman or -woman behind in body, in memory or in spirit. My eight-year quest to find these (now 217) unconquerable Montana women and tell their stories ended with my recent book, “Knapsacks and Roses, Montana’s Women Veterans of World War One” (available at Missoula's women served tall and proud in the Great War. Remember and honor them well.

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Edward E. Saunders served in the U.S. Army and is a veteran of the Persian Gulf War. He retired as a lieutenant colonel and lives in Laurel.

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