MOORHEAD, Minn. - One hundred years ago, rules of combat said women serving as nurses in World War I were to be nowhere near the front lines.

The rules were broken by Clay County nurse Rose Clark and other women, who went to where they were most needed.

Some 10,000 trained nurses were sent with the Army Nurse Corps and the Red Cross to serve stateside or in Europe, as the U.S. joined the war effort in April 1917.

Clark, of Barnesville, Minn., worked at a field hospital in France that came under fire in 1918 during the war's turning point.

Signe Lee, of Glyndon, Minn., served stateside at an Army camp in Texas.

She treated soldiers who were sick or near death from a strain of influenza that would sweep the globe during the war.

Clark and Lee are among several local nurses highlighted as part of an exhibit at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County here titled 'War, Flu and Fear.'

Historian Markus Krueger will give a free presentation, 'World War I Nurses of Clay County,' this week about the women he describes as unsung heroes.

"There's not a lot written about them, and there's not a lot of recognition of them, but they saved so many lives," Krueger said.

Clark helps near turning-point battle

Krueger said Clark was stationed in France at a field hospital that was attacked in what's known as the Battle of Chateau-Thierry.

"It was the Gettysburg of World War I. It's where the Americans stopped the German offensive, and then we turned 'em back," he said.

The bombings killed 12 soldiers and paralyzed a nurse who was part of Clark's staff.

The traumatic events and Clark's experiences became the subject of a Broadway play in 1937 called "Red Harvest."

Even more deadly than the bloody combat of the war, however, was the influenza pandemic that coincided with it.

Conditions were perfect to allow the virus to spread rapidly.

"We had all these young men packed together in troop trains, in boats going across the ocean and in trenches," Krueger said.

There were no vaccines for the flu, and no medicines to fight the virus.

In all, he said, 64 men from Clay County died during WWI.

More than half of the deaths were from the flu and the rest from combat or accidents; a ratio seen on the national level as well.

Lee cares for Ward 27

The flu virus likely began in an American Army base. It became known as Spanish influenza because Spain, which wasn't at war, freely reported news of the flu's spread.

Other countries censored their newspapers, Krueger said, because they didn't want enemies to know the severity of the situation.

Signe Lee treated trainloads of soldiers, who arrived in camp sick or dying.

She kept a scrapbook of her experiences, with photos and handwritten notes about the patients she was able to nurse back to health in Ward 27.

A heart condition caused by an illness she contracted at camp eventually led to Lee's honorable discharge, and she returned home, where she became the first Clay County Public Health nurse.

Krueger actually lives in the same Moorhead house where Lee once lived.

"I've been following Signe Lee for eight years, ever since I moved in," he said.

War, flu take a toll

Families back home often learned long after the fact, by telegram, that their soldier had died.

A Barnesville family, whose son died of flu in an Army camp in Iowa, received a letter from a mortuary service there.

In it, the mortician apologized for a poor embalming job done on the soldier's body, due to the overwhelming number of deaths they were dealing with.

"They're saying, be careful if you open up this casket because this isn't our best work," Krueger said about the letter.

The pandemic finally subsided in the summer of 1919, after the war was over.

Krueger said Clay County nurses were there throughout, keeping the number of deaths from combat wounds and flu from going even higher, risking their lives to save others.

The stories reaffirm what he's always known.

"Whenever something interesting is happening in the world, there's probably a local link to it," he said.


If you go

What: 'World War I Nurses of Clay County'

Where: Moorhead Public Library

When: Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m.

Information: Admission is free