A patriotic clan from Eastern Kentucky in the War to End All Wars, part two

By Kentucky National Guard Command Historian John Trowbridge

With March being Women’s History month kentuckyguard.com is publishing a series of stories celebrating Kentucky women and the roles they played in our military history.  Following is one such story ….

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Elizabeth Eleanor and Margaret Gretchen Minnich,
while serving in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps at Sarisbury
Court, England.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Part one of this story provided a brief history on women in the United States during World War I and how Elizabeth and Margaret Minnich came to uniformed service.  Part two continues with their mobilization and deployment to Europe.

On 23 February 1918, the Minnich sisters’ unit was mobilized into active duty service and on 1 March was ordered to Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville for additional instruction and training until 18 June 1918. In early April, the nurses were ordered to active duty for training, some reported to Camp Taylor, others were sent to hospitals at Camp Dix, Camp Sherman, Camp Devens, Camp Greene, Camp Lee, and Camp Upton. The Minnich sisters were sent to Camp Meade, Maryland, for their training.

By June 1918, Gorgas had certified Base Hospital No. 40 was prepared to take charge of a hospital in France, or anywhere else, and to conduct it to the best interest of the soldiers, and to the satisfaction of the Medical Department.

On 28 May 1918, Elizabeth and Margaret Minnich were ordered to the Holley Hotel in New York City, to await the arrival of the remainder of personnel of Base Hospital No. 40 at Camp Mills, prior to deployment overseas. After staying at the hotel, the nurses were assigned to comfortable quarters at various locations around the city until ordered overseas. In the interim, the nurses’ uniforms were being made and fitted by the Red Cross. In the afternoons, at the Armory in New York City, the nurses were drilled and given military instruction. During their stay in New York they were cared for by the Red Cross Association.

By 12 July 1918, the Minnich sisters were aboard the famous White Star Line’s RMS Olympic, which arrived at Southampton, England, on 19 July. The Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic and Britannic, had been converted into a troop transport in support of the war effort. The trip across the ocean was uneventful, the ocean quiet. Although the Olympic was crowded, everyone seemed happy and anxious to get to work. Upon arrival at the Southampton docks the nurses were sent to Sarisbury Court, arriving there the following morning by truck. When the personnel of Base Hospital No. 40 arrived at Sarisbury Court, the construction of the hospital buildings was not complete.

The majority of the personnel were detached and assigned to English and American hospitals in England and France. Quarters for the nurses had not been completed, so they had to be quartered on the third floor of the mansion house. Sarisbury Court was scheduled to be the largest American hospital in England. It was situated along a bend of the Hamble River, about six miles from Southampton; the estate covered 186 acres of rolling farmland, meadows, and woods. The manor house stood on high ground and on a clear day its tower could be seen twenty miles away. The manor house and surrounding property had been purchased by the American Red Cross for conversion to an American hospital.

The Red Cross personnel assigned to Sarisbury Court tried to relieve the Kentuckians’ homesickness and the boredom of waiting for patients by organizing entertainment and recreational activities for them. Captain Thomas C. Campbell, the Red Cross chaplain, organized a glee club and string band with Bruce Reynolds and Sidney Freeman, former members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who were serving with Base Hospital No. 40. Captain Campbell introduced croquet and lawn tennis to the nurses. Additionally, he observed that English women rode bicycles, and he procured a number of bicycles for the use of the nurses. To his surprise he discovered that only a few of the American nurses knew how to ride.

The nurses’ time in service was not all fun and games; they still had their duty to perform. When Base Hospital No. 40 arrived in England their hospital was not completely built, so personnel were assigned to various hospitals across England and France. Some of these teams were stationed close to the front and came under the guns of the enemy near the Metz Front and the Argonne Forest. In a letter written to The Lexington Leader, Corporal John R. Marsh, who had been a reporter for the paper before the war, made the following commentary on his returning fellow members of Base Hospital No. 40 that had been serving in France: Our “overseas contingent” got back from France the other day loaded down with souvenirs and stories, not to mention a few of those interesting creatures the A. E. F. has lovingly named “cooties.

Base Hospital 47On 17 August, Margaret was part of a ten-nurse detachment attached to American Red Cross Medical Hospital No. 21, Paignton, Devonshire, England, and served with that organization until re-assignment to Base Hospital No. 40 on 2 January 1919.

Elizabeth remained with Base Hospital No. 40 in her sister’s absence. The Sarisbury Court hospital was opened for admission of patients on 27 September 1918, 125 cases being admitted on that date. During its operation, the majority of the hospital cases seen by the doctors and nurses were influenza and pneumonia and their complications.

The reunion of the sisters at Sarisbury Court in January 1919, was short lived, for, on 15 February, Margaret reported to Base Hospital No. 113, at Savenay, France.

The following day Elizabeth reported to Evacuation Hospital No. 20, located at Beau Desert, in the vicinity of Bordeaux, France, serving with that organization until 14 May 1919. On 15 May, Elizabeth was assigned to Base Hospital No. 111, also part of the Hospital Center, Beau Desert.

In June 1919, the sisters were reunited, this time in Savenay when Elizabeth was assigned to Base Hospital No. 113. During this time Base Hospital No. 113 was designated as a hospital from which all disabled nurses were to be evacuated to the United States. Records do not indicate if either of the sisters was ill during their time with this unit. However, unlike the other nurses of Base Hospital No. 40, they did not return to the United States with their original unit.

On 15 July 1919, the Minnich sisters sailed from St. Nazaire, France, aboard the Santa Teresa, arriving in New York on 27 July 1919. On 22 August, Elizabeth was placed on the Reserve Nurse List at Camp Dix, New Jersey. On 31 August, Margaret was also relieved from active duty. So ended the military careers of the Minnich sisters.

The war made a lasting impression on the Minnich sisters. They had survived their overseas military service; and although they had not come under direct fire of the enemy, they still shared with their male counterparts the suffering, death, and hazards of war. These women saw, first hand, the horror of war and its aftermath on the human body and spirit. They had to contend with, on a daily basis, the uncertainty of war. There was always the possibility of an attack by the enemy on their hospital, or the possibility of reassignment to a location closer to the front. They not only had to care for their patients, they had to take care of themselves to insure they did not become a casualty of an infectious disease.

Following their military service, the Minnich women returned to Kentucky and their nursing careers. The 1920 Federal Census listed Margaret as living in Paducah and Elizabeth as living in Frankfort.18 In August 1921, Margaret married Dr. Cary Randolph Blain, a Presbyterian minister of Christiansburg, Virginia. Margaret and Cary never had any children of their own; however, they adopted and raised three children.

In the early 1920s Elizabeth was working at Kings Daughters Hospital on East Main Street in Frankfort. She later moved to Breathitt County, taking a nursing position at Bach Memorial Hospital. By the 1930s she had moved to Ashland, where she worked as a nurse at Kings Daughters Hospital.20 In 1936, she became extremely ill, and, due to her veteran status, was sent to the Veterans Home in Dayton, Ohio, for treatment. Elizabeth Eleanor “Lizzy” Minnich died at the Veterans Home on 16 June 1939, following a three year illness.  Her body was brought back to Kentucky where she was buried with military honors near the grave of her father, and sister, Rose, in the Ashland Cemetery.

During his military service, Private First Class John Bayles Minnich served at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland.23 According to his service record, he served with the newly organized Chemical Warfare Service. He was discharged on 8 December 1918. After the war, John returned to the hotel business, once again managing the Continental Hotel in Pineville. On 27 May 1927, he married Edith Nuckols, a schoolteacher in Pineville. The couple had one child, Elizabeth Gretchen Minnich, named in honor of her two aunts.

John Minnich served as president of the Kentucky Hotel Association in the 1920s. He moved his family to Middletown, Ohio, in 1930 when he took the manager position at the Manchester Hotel for Armco Steel Corporation. He served as the head of the Gas Rationing Board in Middletown during World War II. In 1965, the family moved to Ormond Beach, Florida, where John retired. He became a member of the Ormond Beach American Legion Post 267, the Oceanside Country Club, and the First United Methodist Church. John Minnich died on 21 April 1977, at the Ormond Beach Hospital. His remains were cremated.

A year after the death of her brother, on 1 April 1978, Margaret Gretchen Minnich Blain died at the Regency Nursing Home, Forstville, Maryland. She is buried in the historic Stonewall Jackson MemorialCemetery in Lexington, Virginia.

The story of this Kentucky family serves to illustrate the sacrifice not only of this family, but is typical of many American families who served in the armed forces of the United States during World War I. Although these Kentucky veterans were not in battle or on the battlefront, when called upon, they volunteered to serve. They honorably and faithfully performed their duty to their country. They put their lives on hold, willing to sacrifice their lives for a belief in democracy and freedom in the “War to End All Wars.”

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