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Near the front lines

May MacGregor (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)1 / 3
May MacGregor's uniform, which will be on display at the Beltrami County History Center. (Jillian Gandsey | Forum News Service)2 / 3
A gas mask used in WWI. (Jillian Gandsey | Forum News Service)3 / 3

Editor's note: This is the third in a three-part series on World War I.

"We were all experienced nurses," May MacGregor wrote in her diary in 1917.

"Still, we knew what lay ahead of us was very different from what we had ever seen before... we were the first American nurses in the history of our country to leave for active duty on foreign soil."

May MacGregor's time as an U.S. Army nurse in France during World War I was about to begin.

In the previous weeks, the nurses had marched and drilled and had been fitted with sturdy shoes as part of their overseas uniform.

The journey across the ocean was itself dangerous with German U-boats ready to destroy any ship that might be carrying American troops. Their convoy included two troop ships and four destroyers, led by an enormous battleship. Above, four airplanes and two dirigibles served as eyes in the sky. On board the Baltic, MacGregor was one of 300 nurses making the 10-day journey across the Atlantic. More than 300 infantry troops were also on board. As she left New York harbor, MacGregor gazed at the Statue of Liberty and wondered, "When will we see you again?"

MacGregor's story is one that will be told as part of a World War I centennial exhibit that will be unveiled June 2 at the Beltrami County History Center. The exhibit will look at the events that led up to the Great War, or the War to End All Wars, which WWI has been referred to, and also how Beltrami County responded 100 years ago.

A need for nurses

Born and educated near Grafton, N.D., MacGregor had moved to Bemidji in 1908 and taught at Solway, Island Lake, Nebish, Ferris and Rosby schools; but teaching was not her passion.

Her family doctor, Dr. E. A. Shannon, told her about the desperate need for nurses. In Bemidji, then a community of about 5,000, there were no registered nurses. MacGregor took his words to heart and found her calling. She attended St. Mary's School of Nursing in Rochester, graduating in 1916 as a registered nurse. After gaining some nursing experience, she became one of the first American nurses to serve in a foreign war.

Their ship arrived without incident, with additional protection from a British convoy, and docked at Liverpool, England. After journeys by boat and train, MacGregor arrived in France, where she and nine other nurses from St. Mary's with surgical experience were assigned to Mobile Hospital No. 1, which she described as "a group of tents in the grounds of an old chateau on a bluff, a mile above the village (of Coulonmiers)" between Paris and the German lines.

"We were ahead of the heavy artillery. The long-range guns fired over us all night. German planes passed over us, on their way to bomb Paris. We had anti-aircraft guns to protect the hospital. When they boomed out, the ground shook. The noise was deafening," she recorded in her diary.

The nurses had little time to think about the noise. "We were always ahead of the heavy artillery, and as close as possible to the front lines. Usually this was about three miles. There was a desperate need for our hastily established medical units which could follow closely on the heels of a big drive, changing position rapidly with only a few hours' notice."

Heavy equipment such as X-ray machines and sterilizing equipment was securely mounted on trucks. The trucks themselves formed walls with the operating room tent in between.

A typical day had hundreds of wounded brought to Mobile No. 1 by corpsmen. Triage was performed and the seriously wounded were kept at the hospital. Those less seriously wounded were sent back to evacuation or base hospitals. Injured men were quickly prepared for surgery. The majority who survived abdominal injuries later died from infections from debris embedded in their wounds when a shell exploded. (This was before antibiotics.) The nurses did all they could to prevent such infections.

Sometimes all a nurse could do was to offer comfort by providing a cigarette to a dying boy. "Often," MacGregor journaled, "he did not live to finish it."

Poison gas creeps in

The nurses worked days and nights with little rest. In August of 1918, they started seeing patients with different, even more horrific damage: poison gas. "When they were brought in shortly after an attack, it was impossible to see the effects of the mustard gas ... (but) within an hour the deadly gas would start to show its evil effects. Water blisters appeared all over the body. Eyes closed. Ears became one big water blister. There were times when we could not even find a clear space on the body in which to inject an anesthetic to relieve the pain."

In addition to wounds inflicted by the enemy, diseases created challenges. Late in the summer of 1918, flu hit the camp and spread rapidly, putting 11 out of 20 nurses out of commission at one time. In November, MacGregor worked in the contagion ward, tending to soldiers with mumps and measles. She cared for one nurse who developed pneumonia and died. "It was our darkest day of the war," she wrote. "We lined her pine box in white gauze and dressed her in her uniform. We picked a cluster of red poppies and put them in her hand."

By the time the war ended, MacGregor had developed back problems and other health issues. She spent a month in a hospital near Luxembourg and didn't return the U.S. until March of 1919.

In a box of mementos, she kept her dog tags, a piece of shrapnel that had come through the nurses' tent when the hospital was bombed in July 1918, a German medal from a prisoner she nursed, pressed poppies from the fields of Flanders, and a rosary, blessed by the Pope, that had been held in the hands of many dying boys.

MacGregor returned to Bemidji, married James Keatley Given in 1920, raised four children, and continued nursing in various capacities through much of her life.

She died in 1980.

A memoir of May's life as a nurse during WWI was printed in a booklet called "Please, Nurse!" Copies are available at the Beltrami County History Center.

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