A little black scrapbook, held together by fraying binding, sat for decades in a drawer where Mildred “Mickey” James and her husband, Herbert, raised their family in the South Indian Trail neighborhood.
Only when Mickey died in September at age 95 did her twin sons, Larry and Gary, begin to leaf through its pages of photographs chronicling the couple’s courtship. The romance occurred in the unlikeliest of places – in the ashes of Nazi Germany, as Herbert and Mickey followed Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army pushing toward Berlin.
“They just never talked about it,” said Larry James, himself an Army veteran from the Vietnam War. “We know just what the books say and what we figured out.”
Like so many of that generation, Herbert and Mickey didn’t talk about the war, their children said. Larry James couldn’t remember his mother watching movies or TV shows showing the Allied victory, and when the twin boys were drafted to serve in Vietnam, there were no cautionary tales from the front.
“They talked about, you know, you’ve got to do it,” Larry James said. “It’s your duty.”
Herbert, from Indianapolis, and Mickey, a native of Harlem, Montana, were assigned to the 120th Evacuation Hospital, tasked with caring for the sick and injured left behind during the Allied forces’ mad dash to Berlin in the spring of 1945. Mickey James joined to practice nursing, a profession she would hold upon returning to the United States, while Herbert was placed in charge of supplies and shipping.
The couple shared no stories with their children about their witness to some of the worst atrocities committed by the Nazis. In April 1945, Herbert and Mickey were assigned to supporting liberation efforts at Buchenwald, a concentration camp outside Weimar, Germany, where it is estimated more than 55,000 political prisoners and Jews were killed and cremated.
Though her children may not have heard the stories of caring for the sick at Buchenwald, Mickey James made sure her parents and siblings knew of the horrors that occurred inside the gates bearing the motto, “Jedem das Seine,” which loosely translates to “Everyone gets what he deserves.”
“Well, how about a little of the straight dope as told by some of those still living and able to talk,” Mickey James wrote to her family, in a letter dated April 18, 1945, that was published in her hometown Harlem, Montana, newspaper. “There are 25,000 still there; Russians, Poles, Czechs, etc., this isn’t propaganda. It’s such a horrible place they wouldn’t let us see it, although we begged to.”
Conditions in the camp and its liberation were immortalized by author and prisoner Elie Wiesel in “Night,” a book that was instrumental in Wiesel garnering a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
American servicewomen weren’t allowed inside the gates, according to historical accounts of the liberation. But Patton ordered the villagers in nearby Weimar to march through the camp and see what the Nazis had done there, according to a story that appeared in The Spokesman-Review just two days after Mickey James’ postmarked letter from the front.
“Germans forced to view horror,” the headline reads, with firsthand accounts indicating Patton’s officers ordered those villagers looking away to turn their heads with the command, “You must look at this; you are responsible for it.”
Larry James said he’s unsure if his father, Herbert, was let inside the gates.
Just 10 days after returning to the United States, the couple wed, one of many occasions in which a young Mickey James can be seen smiling and stealing a kiss in photos accentuated by witticisms penned in white chalk in the margins of her scrapbook. Beneath a wedding photo, with both man and wife clad in their Army uniforms, Mickey James scrawled WHO DAT? in all caps.
Many of the pictures show young American GIs and the nurses at play, whether on the beach in Tenby, Wales, where the hospital was first stationed after crossing the Atlantic Ocean, or enjoying a formal gathering in Weimar. Larry James’ wife, Michelle, said the images reminded her of the TV show “M.A.S.H.,” which focused on a similar coed medical team in the Korean War.
“They were probably told (joining the military) would further their career,” Michelle James said of nurses, like her mother-in-law, who joined the war effort in World War II. “Also, you would be taking this journey – wow, how could you turn that down? Especially if you were Mickey. She was not a shrinking violet.”
Michelle and Larry James recalled Mickey’s biting sense of humor, which shows through in the captions of her photos. She was also meticulous, counting out the 17 cigarettes she’d smoke each day – no more, and no less.
One scrapbook page lacks Mickey James’ sly captions, whether they be about the “pointy ears” of a particular soldier on a beach or her efforts to mimic the dance moves of Betty Hutton, an actress popular on wartime American screens. Photos show piles of the emaciated dead being trucked out of Buchenwald weeks before Adolf Hitler surrendered to the Allies.
Larry James suspects those images were one of the reasons his mother didn’t share her wartime mementos with her family, instead choosing to focus on volunteering, her career as a nurse and ensuring the family always hoisted the American flag on appropriate holidays.
Herbert and Mickey didn’t leave behind plans for the home near the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center they’ve lived in since 1962. Larry James moved back into the house with his mother in 2008 to care for her following Herbert’s death, and is now left with a house full of memories he hopes to put to use. Larry and Michelle James intend to start the daunting process of opening up the residence for in-home care for elderly veterans, as a place of transition so that families can spend more time with their grandparents before they’re gone.
Michelle James has the perfect name picked out for the house, she said. Her mother-in-law kept a lit cabinet of hummingbird statues that Larry James would turn on every night when dusk arrived.
“I would call it Hummingbird House, and we would have a plaque there that says, ‘Herb and Mickey James memorial home for retired veterans,’ ” Michelle James said. “Wouldn’t that be great?”
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