As Allies held off the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, there was a call for a medic from the 128th Evacuation Hospital in Germany to come directly to the battle lines — but initially there were no volunteers. So a young nurse from Ohio grabbed her bag and went to attend the wounded soldiers, moving through the frozen bodies to help those still in need.
Sixty-eight years later, that nurse, Army 1st Lt. Hazel McNett, now 92 and a resident of San Luis Obispo, was honored Sunday with a standing ovation by other veterans and hundreds of attendees at the Veterans Day ceremony at the “Faces of Freedom” memorial in Atascadero.
McNett is the first female recipient of the event’s highest honor: Distinguished Veteran of the Year. Under clear, crisp skies, below waving flags and falling leaves, she had only one thing to say: “Thank you everybody for this honor. I’ll be the one who represents all the women. It wasn’t me; it was everyone.”
Inspired by Amelia Earhart, as a young woman McNett dreamed of becoming an airplane stewardess, and she pursued the nursing education that was required for the position at that time. But when she graduated from nursing school in Cincinnati in 1941, the early fighting of World War II had already begun — and she felt the call to serve.
In an interview with The Tribune after the ceremony, she said her most important memories of service also happen to be the most difficult: “When I was so close to the front lines and able to take care of those boys, I would try to get them out of shock and ready for the surgeon.”
She cried herself to sleep many a night after seeing men who were critically wounded. “Sometimes I was glad they did die,” she said, so they would be relieved of their suffering. “All I wanted was a rocking chair so I could rock the patients.”
McNett said some nurses and soldiers became mentally disturbed, but she remembered family and upbringing and stayed focused.
“I’m strong,” she said.
The front lines weren’t the only place she encountered violence.
She was a patient herself in Liege, Belgium, where she was recovering from measles amid the bombardments of the German army. Because the sickness made her eyes extremely sensitive to light, she switched cots to avoid the sunshine, and moments later a bomb struck the cot she had moved from.
After the fighting stopped, she met her future husband in Belgium, and was married in Rouen, France. But her life of service to others did not stop.
McNett went on to work as a nurse for 44 more years. She became the assistant director of nursing at General Hospital in San Luis Obispo, as well as education director for the American Heart Association and an American Legion commander.
After all these years, she hopes others will follow her lead.
“I think people should become interested in medical occupations, because it’s very rewarding. It’s hard, but it has to be done,” she said.
Others honored at the ceremony Sunday included 22 veterans, from a variety of conflicts, who were presented with handmade “Quilts of Valor” by members of the Gold Coast Quilt Guild.
“Not all wounds bleed, but they do leave scars,” said the guild’s Mary Ann Carnegie. “These are quilts to heal.”