The first woman to be awarded the Bronze Star for bravery under enemy fire was Niagara County resident, Margaret Gill. A resident of North Tonawanda, Gill received her nursing degree from the Sisters of Mercy Hospital in Buffalo. She enlisted in the U.S. Army in May 1941 and after a short training, was sent immediately to England.
In the middle of the night on June 15, 1941, she was huddled together with others and taken to the shore where she set sail for France. Upon her arrival there, she was greeted by the sight of the dead bodies of soldiers floating in the water. The nurses were tied together with a rope and pushed overboard to swim to the shore where they set up a field hospital for General Patton’s Third Army. Margaret recalled that “(Patton) was the most vulgar man I ever met, but he always made sure the hospital was well supplied.”
At 2 AM Christmas morning, 1941, the hospital moved to Bastogne, France. In four feet of snow and under constant enemy fire, the nurses set up a hospital in a bombed out school. With only three walls and no roof, the school became the nurses’ home. Wounded soldiers came continuously, some whose bodies needed to be thawed out before the nurses and doctors could work on them. Many times, the soldiers clothes and shoes had become frozen to their bodies.
Near the end of the war, Margaret was stationed outside the Dachau concentration camp. The nurses waited for the Allied forces to take over the camp. She described the horrific scene. “The victims wept as the 60th (division) moved into the camp. They lay there with little strength, mass starvation having taken its toll. Bodies had been piled in stacks and set afire by the Nazi’s to cover-up the evidence of medical experimentation. They had also filled the gas chambers. The death rate was 300 a day, when we first started, With IV feedings, it fell off to 50. Sometimes there was nothing we could do.”
Margaret Gill was later promoted to First Lieutenant and awarded the Bronze Star for her work in Bastogne and five battle stars for being part of the storming of Normandy and her work in Dachau. Margaret died in January 1978. She is one of the few women honored on the Women in Military Service to America Memorial in Washington, DC.
Douglas Farley, Director
Ann Marie Linnabery
Erie Canal Discover Center
24 Church St.
Lockport NY 14094