Historian sheds light on unique exploits of World War I nurse


April 24, 2005

John Trowbridge is trying to win a woman's heart -- but not in the way such things are usually done.

Trowbridge, manager of the Kentucky Military History Museum in Frankfort, suspects that what may be the first Purple Heart ever awarded to a woman may be in the closet of some Henderson family. He is asking for help in finding it.

The medal was awarded to Henderson native Mary Willie Arvin, a nurse who served two years in a World War I military hospital in France, and who was cited for her bravery during a German air raid on the hospital June 30, 1918. She was also awarded a French Croix de Guerre and received an Associate Royal Red Cross from the hands of British Prince Edward, who later was briefly king before abdicating.

Arvin, Trowbridge said, is "Kentucky's most-decorated female veteran of World War I," but has been largely forgotten by history. He wants to remedy that.

"I've been working with families and individuals across the state to honor and remember our veterans, before and since I retired from the Army," he said. "I come across these forgotten Kentucky heroes quite a bit. I just see it as a way to right a wrong, and a small way to pay them honor for their service to our state and country.

"Many times these folks don't see themselves or their military service as historically significant since they are so close to the event and it happened to them. Sometime the significance of their service doesn't come to light until many years after they are gone."

Arvin died here in 1947 at her sister's home on Chestnut Street and is buried in Fernwood Cemetery. She had no children, but had five siblings and Trowbridge thinks that perhaps one of their families may have wound up with her medals.

The siblings were Owen M. Arvin, Hattie Funkhouser Kimsey, Bessie Anderson, Judith Arvin and William T. Arvin.

"If we can get any family member to step forward, I'm hoping they might be able to shed light on what happened to Mary's medals, if they are still with the family," he said. He is also seeking any letters or photos of Mary "to help fill in some the gaps in telling her story."

Arvin was a nurse for 12 years before she joined the American Red Cross in June 1917, and was later made a U.S. Army nurse. The next month she was in France, and on Sept. 4 she was under fire from German bombs.

"The force of the explosion threw me out of my chair to the ground," she recounted after returning home. "The first thing I did was to run to see if my patients were safe and to help them if I could. Four were killed in this raid, one man being blown to pieces entirely; no trace of him could ever be found."

But she didn't win her medals that night; that came after the 1918 bombing of her hospital. No news accounts exist of that event, and she was reticent in speaking of it, but this is the text of a congratulatory letter from Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force:

"Please accept my hearty congratulations and sincere appreciation of the fine work you did on the night of June 30, 1918, when your hospital was a target of aeroplane bombs. Your presence of mind and courage in quieting your patients was, under the circumstances, deserving of the highest praise. I am proud to have in the American Expeditionary Forces a nurse whose devotion to duty is of such a high standard as your own."

An official citation for "exceptional meritorious and conspicuous services" arrived the following spring.

That citation was later traded in for a Purple Heart when that medal was revived in 1932. The Purple Heart was originally created in 1782 by George Washington, and is usually awarded for being wounded in battle, those who had won meritorious service citations prior to 1932 were eligible to exchange them for a Purple Heart. There is no evidence that Arvin was ever wounded, Trowbridge said.

Trowbridge has been researching Arvin for some time, with help from Niki Stallings at the Henderson County Public Library and Frank Nally at the Henderson County Historical and Genealogical Society.

"Once I get all the information put together I want to submit her story to the Kentucky Commission on Women for their Kentucky Women Remembered program," said Trowbridge, who also wants a historical marker in Henderson "so that present and future generations will know who Mary Arvin was.

"Her story shows us that women were in harm's way during the First World War, they faced many of the same hardships and hazards of their male counterparts. Nurse Arvin should be an inspiration to all Kentuckians."

Trowbridge can be contacted by e-mail at john.trowbridge@ky.gov or by telephone at (502) 600-1606. His mailing address is Kentucky Military History Museum, 100 West Broadway, Frankfort, KY, 40601-1931.



Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS