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Nurse who landed at Normandy after D-Day celebrates 100th birthday

Army nurses board a ship prior to the Normandy invasion in 1944.

U.S. ARMY

By ELON GLUCKLICH | The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore. | Published: October 25, 2018

EUGENE, Ore. (Tribune News Service) — Sallylou Bonzer has seen enough for several lifetimes.

She saw the coast of Normandy as a captain of one of the first nursing units to come ashore following the D-Day invasion.

She slept in foxholes, embedded with allied forces advancing into Nazi Germany.

She was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honor by the French government for her service in World War II.

But on Wednesday, Bonzer saw another amazing sight: her 100th birthday.

Children, grandchildren and even a great-granddaughter surprised Bonzer Wednesday afternoon with a birthday celebration at Cascade Manor retirement community in south Eugene.

Wheeled into a meeting area from her room, Bonzer glanced around at three generations of Bonzer descendants, a display of family photos, newspaper and magazine clippings describing her nursing service during the war, and balloons, flowers and a chocolate cake.

"Oh, for goodness sake!" Bonzer exclaimed. "I'm completely amazed. How could you do all this?"

"It's easy," her daughter, Lex Schmidt, replied. "There's been a lot of stuff written about you."

Born in 1918, just weeks before the signing of the armistice agreement that ended World War I, Bonzer wound up playing a role in World War II she never would have expected as a child growing up in Wisconsin.

Having recently completed nursing school, Bonzer joined the Army after Pearl Harbor was bombed. On June 10, 1944, a few days after the D-Day invasion on the French coast, she and 17 other nurses were among the first to wade ashore in Normandy.

There she treated countless wounded soldiers. Some would survive, while others would not.

More than 70 years later, Bonzer's leap into the frigid English Channel and her first steps on the beaches of Normandy are among the lasting memories from her life.

"That water was cold, and the waves were high," she recalled Wednesday. Having climbed to the rank of captain, Bonzer was responsible for ensuring nurses shorter than her made it from the landing crafts to the beach. She described those moments as chaos.

"Nobody told me beforehand" what to do, she said. "It was all, 'Go do it.'"

She would lose a fellow nurse, Francis Slager, who was killed when their hospital was shelled by German forces, making her the first American nurse to die in Europe after D-Day. But as a nurse at the 45th Field Hospital Unit, she would also meet John Bonzer, a doctor who would become her husband for more than a half-century.

They moved to Eugene in 1949 and raised four children. John would go on to work as a doctor and Sallylou as a nurse in Eugene for decades before eventually retiring. John died in 2007.

As Bonzer's 100th birthday approached, Schmidt knew the occasion would be the perfect opportunity to bring members of her mother's large family together. The couple had nine grandchildren and multiple great-grandchildren.

"We just wanted to bring everyone together to celebrate mom," said Schmidt, 66.

The guests included another of Bonzer's children, Laura Howard, who drove down from Salem.

Howard, 67, vividly recalled childhood memories of her mother putting on her nurse's uniform before heading out for the day.

"It's just amazing that my mother turned 100. She's just been blessed with a good life. She's had a lot of adventures. And she took good care of herself — she was extremely disciplined," Howard said, noting her mother's lifelong exercise habits. "She's still in relatively good shape. She has good bones."

One of Bonzer's granddaughters, McKenzie Ma'aseia, brought her daughter, Luisa — Bonzer's great-granddaughter — to say hello.

Ma'aseia, 30, is a nurse at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend. Though Bonzer didn't directly inspire her to go into nursing, her grandparents' medical backgrounds left big impressions on the family, she said.

"Her and my grandfather have always been very heroic in our family," Ma'aseia said, "Just how strong and brave, but also humble about her experiences she was. She never really spoke about her experiences in World War II."

She was profiled in a 1948 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, a wide-reaching publication in the early and mid-20th century. But it wasn't until more recently that younger descendants learned about many of her achievements.

In 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, the French government awarded Bonzer and other surviving nurses of the 45th Field Hospital Unit with the National Order of the Legion of Honor, recognizing her exceptional service for the country.

As her family mingled and Schmidt prepared to cut into a chocolate cake, Bonzer perused birthday cards and pondered how much has happened to her in a century.

"It is kind of amazing. I've done a lot. I haven't just sat around doing nothing," she said. "I've had an exciting life. I've loved every minute of it."

elon.glucklich@registerguard.com.

©2018 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.)
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