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Only hours after Lt. Ellen Ainsworth succumbed to shrapnel wounds, a few dozen mourners gathered on the beachhead of Anzio, Italy, to honor the Army nurse who would be the only woman from Wisconsin to die from enemy fire in World War II.
A German bomb had exploded outside her tent four days earlier, gravely wounding the Glenwood City native. Though she had watched Ainsworth’s condition deteriorate day after day, it was a shock to know the fun-loving 24-year-old was now gone, recalled fellow Army nurse Avis Schorer.
“It was surreal,” Schorer said recently of her friend’s death. “I couldn’t believe it. Not Ellen, who had always been so strong and sure of herself.”
Schorer recalled standing on the beachhead and listening as a Protestant minister said a few words and a bugler played taps.
The bugler played wonderfully, she said, and the mourners then watched as a fleet of American bombers flew overhead and dropped their payloads on the surrounding German positions that were holding back Allied advancement.
“In my mind, I can picture that with exceptional clarity,” said Schorer, now 95 and living in Lilydale. “Some things are hard to forget.”
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Ainsworth’s death and the Allied invasion of the Anzio beachhead. Ainsworth is buried at the nearby Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno and is featured as one of eight Armed Forces members in the cemetery’s Sacrifice Gallery — part of a new visitors center that is being celebrated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Memorial Day.
“We’re trying to tell the story of the American Armed Forces and their sacrifices and achievements … and put a face to all of those headstones,” said Timothy Nosal, acting director of public affairs at the American Battle Monuments Commission, which operates the cemetery and 24 more on foreign soil.
Ainsworth — one of nearly 7,900 Americans buried at the cemetery, which also memorializes about 3,100 more Americans missing — became one of the first women ever to receive the Silver Star — given posthumously for actions she took two days before she was mortally wounded.
She was on duty that day in the 56th Evacuation Hospital, which was housed in a collection of canvas tents on the Anzio beachhead, as the area was being hit by heavy artillery shelling, according to a plaque honoring Ainsworth at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, in King, Wis.
A shell dropped outside of her ward, sending fragments tearing though the canvas. But despite the damage and danger, Ainsworth calmly directed patients to the ground, preventing further injury.
“By her disregard for her own safety and her calm assurance,” the plaque quotes an Army report as saying, “she instilled confidence in her assistants and her patients, thereby preventing serious panic and injury. Her courage under fire and her selfless devotion to duty were an inspiration to all who witnessed her actions.”
Following her death, U.S. Army Nurse Corps Superintendent Col. Florence Blanchfield wrote to Ainsworth’s mother, telling the grieving woman that Ainsworth “typifies the very finest in American womanhood,” according to a passage in “And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II,” by Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee.
“Had she known that it was to be thus, she would still have said, ‘I must go. It is my duty,’ ” Blanchfield wrote. “The nurses are like that in this war. They fear nothing. They beg to go forward as far as possible because they feel they are needed so urgently.”
A BRIGHT SPIRIT
Ainsworth, born in 1919, the youngest of three siblings, attended nursing school at Eitel Hospital School of Nursing in Minneapolis.
She graduated in 1941, and Pearl Harbor was bombed that December, launching the nation into war.
When Ainsworth signed up for the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in March 1942, nurses were under tremendous pressure to join the military, but another likely factor in her decision to volunteer was a longing to see and experience the world, said Schorer, author of “A Half Acre of Hell,” a book published in 2000 that details her experiences as a WWII nurse.
Schorer met Ainsworth at Camp Chaffee in western Arkansas, where both women did their training, and they became good friends.
“She was a very outgoing, fun-loving person,” Schorer said. “Ellen was a unique personality. Everything to her was exciting, challenging.”
Ainsworth’s cousin Pat Testor grew up with her in Glenwood City and agreed that Ainsworth usually was the life of the party.
“She was one of my favorite people,” said Testor, of Maplewood. “She was so funny. She had a tremendous sense of humor.”
And she wasn’t afraid to have a drink or get into a bit of mischief, either, Testor said.
Ainsworth’s bright spirit didn’t fade when she was shipped oversees — first to Morocco, then Tunisia before she and the rest of the 56th Evacuation Hospital landed in Italy south of Salerno in September 1943.
That November, the hospital moved up the Italian peninsula to Dragoni, and the weather there made for dismal conditions — cold, rain and knee-deep mud that together eroded morale, Schorer said.
As Christmas approached, Ainsworth wanted to bring some cheer to the troops, so she organized a group to sing Christmas carols over the public-address system.
“I think she really strived to make every situation better, if possible,” Schorer said.
TENDING TO THE WOUNDED
The fighting in Italy was not going as well as the Allies had hoped in late 1943.
They had believed the Germans would not hold onto the southern Italian peninsula for long, but the Allies discovered advancement more difficult than anticipated. Weather, terrain and German forces all helped hinder their progress to Rome, said Tim Brady, a St. Paul author of two WWII history books.
The decision was made to try to flank the German forces by invading the Anzio beachhead, which was between the German frontlines and Rome.
The maneuver did not go as well as planned.
While the initial invasion of Anzio was successful, the Allies did not follow up with advances quickly enough, giving the Germans time to move troops into positions surrounding the beachhead and locking the two sides in a quagmire.
Schorer and Ainsworth arrived in Anzio in late January, and the fighting was fierce along the frontlines, which were so close to their hospital that wounded troops could walk there if they were able, Schorer said.
“We had an enormous amount of casualties,” she said. “Some of them were so gravely wounded, you knew they weren’t going to make it.”
The nurses were responsible for observing patients, looking for changes and administering the necessary medical care. They were commissioned officers in charge of their wards, but there wasn’t a large division of labor; everyone did what needed to be done, Schorer said, adding that along with the Allied forces, they tended to German prisoners and the occasional Italian civilian.
Over a four-month period, the hospitals at Anzio cared for more than 33,000 patients, of which about 10,800 had suffered battle wounds.
Schorer said Ainsworth loved doing nursing work and felt protective of those she cared for. But it was difficult for the nurses to watch the ravages of war firsthand.
“These were men our age,” Schorer said. “Some of them seemed like little boys, even.”
Ainsworth’s sister, Lyda Ainsworth, who died last year, wrote a speech in the 1970s for the dedication of a health clinic to Ainsworth. In it, she spoke of a letter she received from her sister:
“I got a letter one time all spotted with tears. She was all torn up over the suffering of ‘her boys’ — and the fact that there was so little she could do to protect them, and to ease and comfort their pain — or halt their deaths.”
HELL’S HALF ACRE’
Despite the red crosses painted on the hospital’s tents, the 56th Evacuation Hospital was not a safe place for either the patients or medical personnel.
The hospital was close to ammunition and weapons, legitimate targets for the Germans, and sometimes would be hit with artillery shells and bombs. The hospital’s canvas tents would do nothing to protect those inside, and many were wounded and killed. In just a few weeks following the invasion, several nurses and patients had been killed by enemy fire at the beachhead’s hospitals.
All told, the fighting at Anzio killed 92 medical personnel with the U.S. Army Medical Department, wounded 387 and left 60 classified as missing in action.
The entire war saw 16 women of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps killed directly from enemy fire, six of those at Anzio.
The frequent bombing and shelling of the beachhead made for a constant sense of vulnerability, Schorer said, adding that some wounded troops felt safer in their foxholes on the frontlines than they did in a hospital bed situated in what the troops had nicknamed “Hell’s Half Acre.”
The air raids were numerous at Anzio and when one sounded, the hospital’s staff would shelter in what was little more than a large foxhole covered by timbers. Ainsworth, however, chose not to seek refuge there, saying she did not want all the hospital staff to be killed by a direct hit, and so she took her chances elsewhere, Schorer said.
“She wasn’t afraid of anything,” Schorer said.
On Feb. 12, 1944, Ainsworth had just gotten off duty and was in her tent when a German bomb exploded outside, striking her with bomb fragments.
“I was still in the shelter and someone said Ellen had been hit,” Schorer said.
Ainsworth was immediately rushed into surgery, and everyone was optimistic about her survival at first. But each day that passed, Schorer said, she began to lose ground.
“These fragments would make a small entry in the skin, but internally the injuries were often very severe,” said Schorer, who was assigned to be her nurse. “You didn’t want to think she was as bad off as she was.”
Ainsworth told Schorer not to worry.
“She said, ‘I’m stronger than anything the Germans can throw at us,’ ” Schorer said. “That was the attitude she had to begin with. She really put a brave face on for everybody.”
But toward the end, she was barely conscious, and Schorer was tending to her the morning of Feb. 16 when Ainsworth reached for her oxygen mask and then gasped her last breath.
On March 9, Ainsworth’s family received a telegram informing them she had been killed. It would have been her 25th birthday.
“It was hard on everybody,” said Testor, who was living in Montana at the time.
The family chose not to bring Ainsworth’s body back to the U.S., thinking in part that her mother, who was dying of cancer, could not handle all that would come with that, Testor said.
Ainsworth’s father also was devastated, and it’s the family’s understanding that he was so overcome with grief that he destroyed most of the letters she had sent home from overseas, said Testor’s niece, Linda Hafdahl.
NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN
In the years following her death, a residence hall at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, a health clinic at Fort Hamilton in New York, a conference room at the Pentagon and the American Legion Post in Glenwood City were dedicated to Ainsworth.
Yet her story was relatively unknown among the younger generations in Glenwood City, said Sally Berkholder, a Glenwood City native who knew the Ainsworth family.
Berkholder knew little about the circumstances of Ainsworth’s death when she posted Ainsworth’s photo and a short message about her on a Facebook page last Memorial Day, prompting a number of responses.
“The switchboard just lit up,” said Berkholder, who now lives in Glenwood City. “The comments from people my age and younger were, ‘Who is Ellen?’”
Berkholder, the secretary for the Glenwood City Historical Society, started doing research on Ainsworth, including reading Schorer’s book, and she even visited Ainsworth’s grave during a trip to Italy in February.
Ainsworth and Schorer, she said, belong to an “amazing generation of women” who endured incredibly harsh conditions during the war but kept their humanity.
“Ellen and the people of that generation suffered hardships and turned self-sacrifice into an art form as children,” Berkholder said, referring to the Great Depression. “That kind of experience, I think, steeled them to withstand the onslaught of this war.”
And their story, she added, is not one people should forget.
“These women saved lives, and they never got the credit I think they deserve,” Berkholder said. “She could have sat home and had a great career just being a nurse at a private hospital in the Twin Cities. People like that, giving up the comforts of home and putting their lives on the line — I just think that’s extraordinary.”
2 LT Ellen Ainsworth (third from left)
2 LT Ellen Ainsworth
2 Lt. Ellen Ainsworth
2 Lt. Ellen Ainsworth received the Purple Heart
2 Lt. Ellen Ainsworth received the Silver Star for her courageous service.