World War II nurse May Alm served on the front lines of history
Very few World War II veterans alive today can say they followed Gen. George Patton onto the beaches of Normandy before joining his soldiers for the fierce fight against Nazis through France and Germany.
Even fewer can say they saved lives of U.S. soldiers, French freedom fighters and even German SS troops in the days after the bloody and deadly D-Day Invasion of June 6, 1944.
May Alm, a 92-year-old U.S. Army Nurse Corps captain, modestly tells those stories from her small apartment in north Spokane.
On the wall, there’s a shadow box her daughter made to display Alm’s dog tags, medals and service bars awarded for her time as a U.S. Army nurse in World War II.
Age hasn’t diminished her pride in being part of the largest war in world history.
Remembering the famous general who wore ivory-handled Colt .45 revolvers and was called “Old Blood and Guts” makes her smile.
“I saw Gen. Patton a dozen or so times when I was in France and Germany, and heard him speak at least once,” Alm said. Frequently, the general’s bull terrier Willie was with him.
The Army nurse also remembers treating German soldiers near the end of the war – seeing them get the same level of care as that given U.S. troops.
Canadian by birth
She volunteered to join the U.S. Army in August 1942, even though she wasn’t a U.S. citizen. A Canadian by birth, she became a U.S. citizen while serving with Patton’s Third Army.
Alm was born in 1916 on her parents’ farm near Mirror, Alberta, halfway between Edmonton and Calgary. Her mother died when she was 2, and she mostly was raised by a grandmother and aunt – the family suffering the hardships of the Depression.
Determined to get an education, she got her nursing degree in 1937 from the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton.
In 1939, she came to the United States to visit a friend in Colville and ended up working there as a nurse at Mt. Carmel Hospital after passing the Washington state nursing examination and applying for U.S. citizenship. Later, she went to work for Dr. M.B. Snyder in Chewelah.
She was visiting Tacoma for a football game when Pearl Harbor was attacked and vividly remembers that time.
“All the boys were going off to war,” including Dr. Snyder, she said. “I was footloose, adventurous, so I figured, ‘Why not join the service?’ ”
She applied for induction into the Army Nurse Corps and was sworn in as a second lieutenant on Oct. 30, 1942, at Fort George Wright – then an Army base at the site of what is now Spokane Falls Community College. She was sent to Camp White, a U.S. Army base near Medford, Ore., where she “immediately began working on the wards” as part of the 104th Evacuation Hospital SM – which stood for semi-mobile. By early 1944, the unit was sent to New Jersey by train for a weeklong trip across the Atlantic to Liverpool, England, arriving on March 10.
“We heard rumors that D-Day was coming,” Alm said in describing her arrival in England.
Caught in the crossfire
After that historic invasion, her medical unit packed into landing crafts and followed Patton’s troops across the English Channel, landing at Omaha Beach on July 12.
“We could see a lot of debris from the invasion, including sunken landing craft,” she said. Shortly after arriving in Normandy, she spotted Patton for the first time, riding in a Jeep.
Her hospital unit, composed of 40 nurses, 20 doctors and 40 enlisted men, quickly set up in a field near St. Sauveur and began treating injured soldiers. The countryside was littered with bodies – many decomposed beyond recognition – and unexploded land mines.
Alm mostly spent time in surgery and supply in the makeshift tent hospitals, providing sterilized equipment and bandages to doctors treating battle wounds and doing amputations. Patients were in the field hospitals only two or three days before being transported to military base hospitals.
Her unit moved to St. James, where she and others hugged the ground to avoid enemy flak during “blitz night” – caught in the crossfire between the Germans and Free French. Sometimes she and other nurses would spend their nights in sleeping bags in the forests, away from their tent hospital for safety, but still worrying about stray fire.
As U.S. forces quickly advanced under Patton, with heavy casualties, Alm’s medical unit made an estimated dozen moves through France into Luxembourg, where she was stationed during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Eventually, her unit ended up near Munich, taking over a German hospital.
During the moves, she and other nurses would ride in Army ambulances, which had only front and back windows. “Every once in a while, Patton and his driver would drive by,” Alm said.
“I used to see him a lot,” including during visits she made to the 3rd Army’s headquarters in Bad Tolz, Germany, where she was an invited guest of Patton’s chief mess officer, Lt. Frank “Tommy” Thomas.
Near the end of the war, Alm recalls seeing a high-ranking German SS officer who needed his leg amputated, but refused treatment because he didn’t trust U.S. medical teams to give him an anesthetic. “I often wonder what happened to him,” she said.
Two days after the Nazis surrendered, Alm received her citizenship paperwork and immediately raised her hand to become a U.S. citizen at an Army field headquarters near Paris.
She thought her unit might be sent to join the battle in the Pacific, but the war in that theater ended three months later. Her military unit left Germany and was in Marseilles, France, for a couple of months before a Liberty ship returned her and other soldiers to New York in early November 1945.
Back in Washington in June 1946, she married Maurice Alm, a Chewelah man she had dated briefly before he went to fight with U.S. forces in the South Pacific. The couple had three children, Eric, Edward and Marie, before Maurice died in May 1956 of complications from the rheumatic fever he contracted during the war.
May Alm never remarried, raising her three children by herself. She became a public health nurse in Stevens County before taking a nursing job at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Spokane.
She retired in 1981, but didn’t slow down. She pursued her interest in ballroom dancing and traveled the country for competitions. She pursued a love of downhill skiing and spent her 88th and 90th birthdays on the slopes at 49 Degrees North near Chewelah.
In 1984, she and her daughter, Marie, returned to France for the 40th anniversary of D-Day, where President Reagan and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher stood within feet of the former Army nurse.
Alm and her daughter returned for the 50th anniversary and then the 60th anniversary in 2004, when President Bush “gave me a hug and a kiss.”
Raising three children who are now successful adults is the highlight of her life, Alm says, but she also fondly remembers her time as an Army nurse. During her lifetime, she has related her “war stories” very few times “because most people don’t want to hear about it.”
“I have no regrets,” she said. “In fact, I’m feeling very well honored for what I did. Not everyone gets this opportunity in life.”
About this series
Voices of War is a monthly series featuring veterans and their experiences. Catch up on previous stories at spokesmanreview.com, where you can view an audio slideshow of May Alm’s war experiences, listen to audio clips of the interview and read about other veterans.
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