For Memorial Day, remembering Col. Helen L. McCormick, who cared for soldiers from WWII to Vietnam war
During the pandemic, the Army Nurse Corps vet, who died at 100, told family, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’ They planted flags at her grave this Memorial Day weekend.
In the final days of World War II, an enemy plane flew over the field hospital Helen L. McCormick was setting up in Germany.
The Army nurse was known for keeping a cool head even when she had to tend to masses of soldiers wounded on Utah Beach in the D-Day invasion. But the plane was flying low.
“She thought they were going to be attacked,” said her nephew Mike Frost.
Instead, it landed.
“The Germans got out, and they surrendered — to a bunch of nurses,” said Jerry Frost, another nephew. “They didn’t want to surrender to the Russians. She said they were waving the white flag.”
The nurses “just took the guns and gave them a cup of coffee.”
Back home, Ms. McCormick — one of the few remaining Army nurses to have cared for soldiers from World War II through the Vietnam war and beyond — would visit St. Mary Cemetery in Evergreen Park every Memorial Day to spruce up her family’s plot and plant American flags.
For this Memorial Day weekend, her relatives gathered Saturday to tend to her headstone, which was laid at St. Mary’s last month after her death in December at 100 years old at St. Joseph Hospital.
During WWII, she helped set up field hospitals and cared for wounded soldiers in Germany, Luxembourg and France. She then worked for five years at the Hines VA Hospital before being called into the reserves. During the Korean war, she served stateside at Army bases and hospitals in Indiana, Michigan and Colorado.
In the late 1960s, she cared for wounded soldiers from Vietnam at a hospital in Yokohama, Japan.
“The nurses were often working seven days a week, 12 hours a day,” Mike Frost said.
Her relative Deb Frost Baker once asked her which conflict was the worst – World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War. Ms. McCormick didn’t hesitate: “Nam was the worst because, when the boys came home, their injuries were far more than what you could see.”
Amid antiwar sentiment in Japan, she was grateful for an anonymous gift sent each week to her hospital: flowers, always accompanied by a note thanking the Americans and signed “A Japanese.”
In 1970, Ms. McCormick was promoted to colonel. Stationed in Honolulu from 1972 to 1975, she became a chief nurse for the Pacific Rim, helping to oversee operations at Army health facilities in Japan, Guam, South Korea and Thailand.
After retiring in 1978, she moved to the Brookdale senior living community on Lake Shore Drive.
Ms. McCormick, who never married, always looked forward to visits from her four nieces and nephews and their kids and grandkids. But in the past year, the pandemic limited contact.
Her family wanted to take her out for a picnic for her 100th birthday.
Instead, “We had to stand on the top of the parking garage at St. Joseph’s and just wave,” according to her niece Kathleen Frost Roth. “It was such a sad end to such a great life.”
They were able to see her last summer, Roth said, “with masks and separated by a Plexiglas barrier.”
“I’ve been in three wars,” her aunt told her. “I’ve never been locked up before, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Her nieces and nephews remember vacations with her when they were kids.
“All of our summers were spent wherever she was stationed, and we did the funnest, coolest things,” Roth said. “When she was in Colorado, we went up to Pikes Peak. We went to a dude ranch, and we had a campfire dinner.”
Young Helen grew up a bricklayer’s daughter in Bridgeport. She went to Englewood High School, then South Shore Hospital’s nursing school.
She was a White Sox fan till the day she died. For her 99th birthday, her family threw her a Sox-themed party.
Ms. McCormick used to knit blankets and hats for preemies at St. Joseph Hospital. For her family, she made beautiful quilts. At Christmas, she gave them ornaments — each with a $100 bill hidden inside.
Nurses she supervised remember her fondly.
“She was the boss, but what a gracious and supportive leader she was,” said Tom Stenvig, 72, an associate professor at South Dakota State University’s College of Nursing who worked with her at Reynolds Army Hospital in Oklahoma and Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.
The colonel’s recommendations helped him get into graduate school.
Mary Ann Swenson, now 89, of Sioux Falls, S.D., recalls Ms. McCormick’s compassion when she was a nurse at Reynolds.
“When my mother died suddenly in South Dakota, she just came running up the stairs to the fourth floor to tell me, and she helped me as much as she could to help me get squared away and get home,” Swenson said.