Texans at bloody Rapido, and an Angel

By: Thomas E. Turner

The first woman ever awarded the Silver Star, back in World War II, was also a Texan, a nurse from Dallas, Lt. Mary Roberts. Nurses were officers then.

The military's "pyramid of honor" consists of 28 awards for conspicuous courage. It is topped by the Medal of Honor, for which it is almost necessary to be killed. Next is the Distinguished Service Cross, and third is the Silver Star.

Roberts was 29 when she entered battle as a member of one of WWII's most famous outfits — the Baylor Hospital Unit. It was 29 doctors and 31 nurses who volunteered for the job. Designated the 56th Evacuation Hospital, they were probably the prototype for one of TV's most enduring shows, "MASH."

One of the unit's physicians was Capt. Lawrence D. Collins, who later became one of Waco's leading practitioners.

The Baylor unit's rendezvous with bloody fame came in January, 1944, at a small port near the Italian village of Anzio/Nettuno. For long dreary months, America and allied forces had been slogging up the Italian "book." They were being decimated by veteran Nazi troops who took full advantage of the Italian Alps and bitter cold and mud. Every mile was costing the allies dearly in human life.

The Italian Campaign is where Waco's' famed 36th Infantry Division "T-Patchers" endured some of its most devilish days. Trying to make a suicidal crossing of the Rapido River, the division suffered a bloodbath. Another division in the battles, the 3rd Infantry, had a baby-faced young East Texas farm-boy, Audie Murphy. He earned his first combat medal near Anzio in Italy and went on to receive every medal the U.S. presents, including the Medal of Honor.

Disheartened by the slow, costly fighting up the Italian mountains, the Allies tried a classical "end run" flanking tactic. They landed a force at the tiny resort village of Anzio, behind the German main line.

With the force was the Baylor Hospital crew. They erected a front-line surgical center in tents, with sand-bag walls for a little protection.

As in many best-laid battle plans, everything that could went terribly wrong. The Allies were pinned into an area on the coast not much larger than a couple of football fields. The Germans gleefully pounded them unceasingly with artillery of every size, tanks and airplanes. Within a month the Allies suffered 19,000 casualties.

There would have been hundreds of more dead had it not been for the Baylor hospital outfit. Through unbelievable shellfire and bombs they did operations and saved lives for four months.

During one of the worst shellings, with bullets, shrapnel and bombs everywhere, Nurse Roberts kept three operating tables going. Wounded soldiers awaiting surgery she would place on the floor, a bit more safer from the barrages.

Eleven days later Major General John P. Lucas stopped by to advise her she had been awarded the Silver Star. In a brief 20-minute meeting, still busy in the operating tent, the general pinned it on her nurse's blouse.

Roberts survived the Italian holocaust. Six nurses were among the 2003 killed and some 6,000 wounded at Anzio. They called it Hell's Half Acre — and Nurse Roberts became known as the Angel of Anzio.

Back home she worked for the Veterans Administration in Dallas, married a decorated Army observation plane pilot, and retired from the Army Reserves in 1972 as a lieutenant colonel.

While doing stories on extraordinary Baylor people I visited her in Dallas. She had to search in a bureau drawer to find the Silver Star medal in its box. She seldom displayed it or discussed it. She said it belonged to all those nurses at Anzio — especially the ones buried there.

An ancient geezer, I have never thought it right that women should face death in combat. The case for the other side certainly is demonstrated by the Angel of Anzio.

Thomas E. Turner, who died in 2008, was a veteran Texas journalist, Tribune-Herald columnist and Baylor University administrator.

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