By Todd G. Dickson
Las Cruces Bulletin
When Renee Zimmerman returned to the United States after the end of World War II, she wore a service pin in recognition of her time as an Army nurse in the Pacific Theater.
Not everyone appreciated that she had served in a war zone that saw some of the fiercest fighting of WWII, but soldiers who had thankfully made it home did show her respect.
“They would stand up and give you the snappiest salutes,” Zimmerman recalled.
Zimmerman’s service inSaipan was hardly comfortable. The surgical nurse slept in a tent and worked in operating rooms lacking air conditioning on the hot tropical island. While she had arrived after the former Japanese island had been secured by U.S. forces, troops were still clearing out the last resisting Japanese soldiers from nearby caves.
Zimmerman was part of the surgical teams to repair the bodies of airmen injured in bombing raids, along with the injuries that come with the staging of 90,000 troops in preparation for the invasion of Japan.
The enormity of the coming invasion could be felt every day, she said, just by looking out to the harbor that was filled with more ships than a person could count and the beach a training area for the assault.
A fellow nurse stationed on the island of Tinian told Zimmerman something very secret was being done on the island, which she would later learn was where B29 bombers took off to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war and nullifying the need for a massive invasion.
Marines started spreading the news of the war’s imminent end after the first bomb, and there were celebrations into the night, Zimmerman recalled.
Lillie Fitzhugh would learn of the war’s end through an announcement by Gen. Douglas MacArthur from a balcony on Manila in the Philippine Islands. It would be the only time Fitzhugh could recall ever seeing the general, even though she had been a file clerk at his headquarters since Australia.
Fitzhugh, who had a business degree from New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts – now known as New Mexico State University – was assigned clerical duty by the Women Army Corps (WAC), which required the women to go through basic training even though they would not be on the front lines of the fighting.
Still, when MacArthur’s headquarters moved to New Guinea, that island was still in a war zone.
“But my only weapon was a typewriter,” Fitzhugh said with a laugh.
Today, at 94 years of age, Fitzhugh recalled she had volunteered at the urging of a friend,Eda Anderson, a physical education teacher who Fitzhugh said withstood the rigors of basic training better because of her fitness. Zimmerman, 92, joined the Army Nurse Corps because of fellow new nursing graduate in Chicago, Janie Burns, was going to volunteer.
“I couldn’t let Janie go over there by herself,” Zimmerman said.
The two ended up encouraging two other top nurses in the Chicago hospital to enlist with them and served together for most of the war – including a short period in post-war Tokyo, she said.
Marion Nygard, 94, joined the Navy Medical Corps after her fiancée, Charles Tobin, was drafted, to join him in the war effort. Nygard said she spent her WWII service in Virginia, first as a nursing assistant and later in its dental clinic. Tobin would be captured by the Germans and died as a prisoner of war, Nygard said, something she would not learn about until after the war was over.
Nygard also was reactivated during the Korean War, during which she again served as a dental assistant.
While women in the service may seem like a more current development, that’s only because women can now be closer to combat situations, but the reality is that women have served in the military during times of war and in war zones since the Civil War, said Carol Gaines, a retired U.S. Marine who is president of the United Military Women of the Southwest.
During WWII, women even served as pilots – Women Airforce Service Pilots, also known as WASPs, whose mission support contributions to the war effort weren’t officially recognized in terms of being given full military status until 1977.
Las Cruces memorial effort
More than five years of effort to have a memorial recognizing women veterans will soon become a reality, but the effort stills needs donations to make it complete In 2009, a 1,530-square-foot site and design were made for the memorial at VeteransMemorial Park, but donations were scant as the city was feeling the recession, Gaines said.
In the 2014 Legislature, however, the memorial received $400,000 in funding. Gaines said the state funding will be enough to build the shaded structure near the garrison flagpole, but more money is needed for the memorial’s centerpiece – six, life-sized bronze statues of women representing the Army, Marine, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and National Guard. Their uniforms will represent World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War and more recent Middle East conflicts.
Gaines said the memorial is important to recognize that women have served in all recent wars. The six statues are estimated to cost $30,000 each, Gaines said.
Tax-deductable donations can be made by mailing a check to UNWSW, P.O. Box 2534, Las Cruces, NM 88004.
For more information, call Gaines at 524-4203.
This architectural rendition shows the future Women Veterans Memorial to be sited next to the garrison flagpole at Veterans Memorial Park. Funds are needed to commission the bronze statues at the memorial’s center.
Renee Zimmerman, who was an Army nurse during World War II, visits with Carol Gaines of the United Military Women of the Southwest about a future memorial to honor women veterans.
Las Cruces Bulletin photos by Todd Dickson
WWII veterans Marion Nygard and Lillie Fitzhugh