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WWII combat nurse recounts ravages of war

By JOE MOYLAN | Greeley Tribune, Colo. | Published: November 24, 2018

(Tribune News Service) —By the time the Allies invaded Germany near the end of World War II, Windsor resident Lt. Leila Allen Morrison had been in Europe for almost a year, working as a combat nurse with the 188th Evacuation Infantry Hospital on the front lines in shock and pre-op. Despite witnessing how the war had ravaged the hearts, minds and bodies of countless American soldiers, Morrison and her fellow female nurses were blocked at the gate when they arrived at Buchenwald.

The largest of 20 concentration camps on German soil, Buchenwald housed an estimated 266,000 prisoners. More than 56,000 Jews, Poles and other Slavs, Roma and Sinti, Freemasons, Jehovah's Witnesses, criminals, homosexuals and prisoners of war died there.

The soldiers, who always worried about the nurses being so close to the front, were trying to shield the women from the "deplorable" conditions of the camp, Morrison said. But the lieutenant wasn't about to take no for an answer, especially since there were thousands of people who needed help.

"The people were so emaciated you couldn't believe it," Morrison said. "We use the expression 'skin and bones,' but these poor people, they weren't even that."

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Legion of Honor

Morrison has been nominated for the French Legion of Honor, the highest decoration bestowed by France. The country, through its embassy in Washington, D.C., regularly honors American veterans who fought for liberty in France during World War I and World War II. Morrison qualifies for her service during the Battle of the Bulge, also known in France as the Ardennes Campaign.

The ceremony is expected to take place some time next month. 

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Morrison met a prisoner who owned a jewelry store in Prague before he was "arrested" by the SS and taken to Buchenwald. The man spoke English and told Morrison he was able to survive by hiding in a "pyramid" of bodies at the camp.

Morrison later learned how the Nazis disposed of those bodies when she toured the crematorium, a large building with two, triple-muffle ovens in the center. In the basement, there were more than 1,000 urns with the remains of the prisoners cremated there.

"I thought about how I was going to describe what I saw to people when I got home," Morrison said. "All I could think was, 'this is a factory of murder.'"

Buchenwald marked a particularly low point in the war for the Blue Ridge, Ga., native who longed to become a nurse for about as long as she can remember. Maybe she was motivated by her mother, who died in 1925 from a ruptured appendix when Morrison was 2 or 3 years old. Or maybe it was because of her father.

The youngest of six children, Morrison was petite her whole life. Her father tried to discourage Morrison from joining the nursing profession by saying things like, "You're so thin you have to walk in the same place three times just to make a shadow."

But Morrison marched toward her dream anyway, enrolling at Baroness Erlanger Nursing School in nearby Chattanooga, about two hours from home. She loved it from the start.

In 1943, Morrison graduated. After passing the State Boards of Nursing, Morrison and a friend were approached by a U.S. Army recruiter.

"He said, 'We need nurses in the worst way. If you don't volunteer we're going to have to draft you and that would be an insult to the nursing profession,'" Morrison remembers of the conversation. "I fell for it at the time. I don't think I would now."

Morrison volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps at 22. She completed basic training at Lowry Field in Denver before being sent to Santa Ana Army Air Base for further training. She was later moved to the regular Army and transferred to the 10th Field Hospital at Camp Bowie in Brownwood, Texas. When she arrived, she found out she was one of 16 nurses who would definitely be deployed overseas.

By spring 1944, Morrison was on a ship destined for Scotland and then on to Normandy. They landed at the beachhead after D-Day, but evidence of the deadly invasion remained.

"That was a heartfelt walk up that beachhead," Morrison said. "You could still see so many of the fellas."

From Normandy, Morrison loaded a 2 1/2 ton truck and the nurses "caught up with the war." They went where the Army told them to go, but because they mostly traveled at night, they never really knew where they were other than they were always close to the fighting.

Despite spending an entire year close to the front, there's also a love story tucked into Morrison's experiences as a U.S. Army nurse.

The day she arrived at Camp Bowie, Morrison and the other 15 nurses who had been transferred from the Air Corps learned the officers of the 13th Armored Division were hosting a dance at the Brownwood Country Club; and they were short females. Morrison and the girls agreed to be their dates.

When the girls exited their barracks, two officers fought over Morrison. She went with the second, a man by the name of Walter Morrison Jr., because she liked the looks of him better. By the end of their first date, Walter professed his love and asked Morrison to marry him.

"I told him he was acting foolish," Morrison said. "I said I wasn't going to marry anyone while a war was on."

Morrison returned to America in the summer of 1945, about a month after Walter, but neither she nor Walter would again be deployed overseas. On Aug. 15, 1945, the Japanese surrendered, ending WWII.

As Morrison and Walter celebrated the first V-J Day, Walter again proposed. Before Morrison could shoot him down, Walter said, "You promised you'd marry me when the war was over."

They were married 65 years until Walter's death in 2011.

For her service, the Land Locked Navy Nurse Corps Association presented Morrison with a membership in The Women in Military Service for America Memorial at the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

"I feel very humble for receiving this honor," Morrison told a group of mostly U.S. Navy nurses who attended the luncheon to hear her story. "I accept it with a lot of memories of a lot of fellas. I can still see them and they deserve a lot more than what I have received."

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(c)2018 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.)
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