To Find Their Brothers: The Trek of Two Montana Nurses in WWI
By Edward E. (Ed) Saunders LTC, U.S. Army (retired) Billings, MT
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
Note: May 6, 2021 was National Nurses Day.
In France the guns of war stopped, 11:00 a.m., November 11, 1918. The Great War ended. Its carnage unimaginable. Millions died, including eight million horses. The stench of rotting flesh the only smell. Explosions scarred the earth; rain and tears filled the craters. Birds flew endlessly looking in the emptiness for a tree, any tree, that remained upright with branches. It was as if God himself had collapsed in exhaustion pleading for His creation to stop.
Into this wretched desolation, two weary women from Montana labored through mud and blood-soaked fields to find their brothers. The two were nurses, still in their twenties, but aged beyond measure. Battle weary from tending thousands of men torn by lethal lead and razor-edged shards of steel. Their hands worn from service; their souls scarred from death.
Eula Bernice Butzerin was born in Wisconsin, 1891, and moved to Missoula, Montana, as a girl. Her father, Albert, was a railroad engineer and Montana state senator. Eula, an honor student, graduated from Missoula High School, and Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing, Chicago. She taught at present Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.
In 1918 the Kansas City Red Cross Nurses Association selected Eula as chief nurse. She joined Base Hospital 28 in Kansas City. In 1918 BH28 sailed for war in France, and began operations in Limoges.
Eula’s brother, Leroy “Roy”, a student at the University of Montana in Missoula, enlisted in the Army, May 1917. Roy was a sergeant in the 4th Engineers on the front lines. Lethal war gas killed him, 26 Sep 1918. History does not record when Eula got the news.
After the war and still in France, Eula began nearly a 300-mile trek to find her brother: Roads destroyed, railroads wrecked, destruction everywhere. She hired a French guide and together they labored northeast through battlefield after terrible battlefield.
Eula found a supply sergeant in Roy’s unit. The sergeant apparently told Eula the general location of Roy’s grave. Eula and the guide pressed on, mile after mile; asking directions from anyone in the area. In time they found Roy’s grave, marked with a stick and his dog tags hanging from it.
Eula’s thoughts are not known when she found her brother’s grave. But they were united once more. Eula never gave up on her brother. Roy is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, France. A white cross shows his home state of Montana.
Eula returned to America and received degrees from Columbia University, New York City. She was director of public health at the University of Minnesota, and professor of nursing education at the University of Chicago. Eula was later the national director of American Red Cross nursing projects, and international nursing liaison with the American Red Cross.
She never married or had children. Eula died 27 July 1978 in a retirement home near Seattle, Washington. Eula was cremated; her ashes scattered in the redwood forests of northern California. Apparently Eula does not have a memorial marker or veterans headstone anywhere.
Susie Lee Welborn was born in Somerset, Kentucky, 6 May 1894, or 16 May 1893; records vary. As a girl she moved west with her parents to Belgrade, Montana. Her father, Ulysses, was a farmer and rancher. Susie was the eldest of nine children. Her brother, Harvey Franklin “Frank” Welborn, was the next oldest.
In 1917 Susie graduated from Scott-White Memorial Hospital School of Nursing, Temple, Texas. Susie returned to Montana and began a decades-long nursing career.
In May 1918 she entered the Army Nurse Corps from the rough-and-tumble, bronco busting cowtown of Miles City, in eastern Montana. She served at Base Hospital 53 at Langres, France, south of the human caldron of Verdun.
BH53 saw most of the war casualties from northeast France. Unrelenting rain fell. Mud everywhere, the kind of mud holding with devilish grip, never letting go. The wounded kept coming. In unheated tents using oil lamps at night, the nurses soldiered on. Medicines and bandages were in short supply. In October hundreds of war gas casualties came. No letup. Homesickness and exhaustion were unseen enemies.
Susie’s father then moved to the vast remote prairies of eastern Montana, near the Smokey Buttes in Garfield County, west of the small settlement of Jordon.
Frank lived in Trouble, Montana, and enlisted in the Army in Glendive, Montana, May 1918. He served with the 47th Infantry Division in France. On 10 August 1918, Frank was killed-in-action during the Second Battle of the Marne. The Army notified Ulysses of his son’s death.
In time Susie learned of her brother’s death. She, too, began a journey of body, soul, and resolve, to find Frank. She toiled northwest to the center-of-hell at Chateau-Thierry, the site of unimaginable and desperate combat a few months before. Welborn family archives have Susie’s photographs of war destruction along the path of her unyielding journey.
Susie’s soulful trek ended at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery northeast of Chateau- Thierry. Welborn family archives show a photograph of the temporary white crosses in perfect alignment. She found Frank buried there; his headstone would soon read “Montana.”
Susie returned to America, and in Miles City she was honorably discharged from the Army Nurse Corps, August 1919. She continued her nursing career throughout Montana well into her eighties. Susie married once for four years, but she said, “It didn’t take.” She had no children.
Susie retired in Billings, Montana, where she died 17 August 1996. At her death she was thought the last surviving member of the Army Nurse Corps of World War I. Susie is buried in Sunset Gardens, Billings, with a veteran’s headstone.
- American Battle Monuments Commission
- Saunders, Edward E. Knapsacks and Roses, Montana’s Women Veterans of World War I. Saunders: Laurel, MT, 2018.
- The Butzerin Family
- The Welborn Family