2018-01-10 03:30:03 UTC
Allentonian Anna Mae Hays, first female general in U.S. armed forces, dies at 97
Special to The Morning Call
January 7, 2018, 7:35 PM
As a small child, Anna Mae V. McCabe Hays bandaged legs of tables and chairs. Later, in seventh grade, she wrote that she was going to be the best nurse.
“I was always talking about smiling a great deal, of being happy and doing the very best that I could,” she said many years later.
With that drive and sense of purpose, the Allentown High School graduate worked as an Army nurse overseas during World War II, led the Army Nurse Corps at the height of the Vietnam War and in 1970 became the first woman in the U.S. armed forces to wear the star of a general.
“If I had it to do over again,” the retired brigadier general said of her three decades in the Army, “I would do it longer.”
Hays, who came to Allentown as a youngster with her Salvation Army parents and always identified with the city, died Sunday at Knollwood Nursing Home in Washington, D.C., according to her niece, Doris Kressly of Danielsville. Hays was 97.
Prior to moving to Knollwood, Hays had lived in Arlington, Va., for more than 50 years.
“She was an amazing woman who accomplished some great things and lived life on her terms,” Kressly said Sunday. “In the sense of feeling a loss, I don’t. She lived a magnificent life and I’m glad she got to live it the way she did.”
Because of her military rank and accolades, Hays could have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but Kressly said Hays chose instead to be buried with her father, Daniel Joseph McCabe, in Grandview Cemetery in South Whitehall Township. The funeral is scheduled for Friday, Kressly said.
“Here is a woman who was gone for years. She left during World War II, yet when she was 90 years old she would still drive up to Allentown,” said Joseph Garrera, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum and a friend of Hays’.
“She loved Allentown, and even though she was gone for many years and so famous, she always said Allentown was her home,” he said.
Hays was very generous to the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, donating a uniform from when she was head of the United States Army Nurse Corps, as well as her boots from Vietnam, Korea and a pair of white nurse shoes, Garrera said.
“One thing I noticed about her was she never talked about herself. She would always ask, ‘How are you?’ ‘How is your family?’ ‘How is everything up in Allentown?’ This was her hallmark, always asking about the other person and how they were doing,” Garrera said.
Over the years, Hays received dozens of honors, including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Pentagon’s highest noncombat award. Tributes came from the Lehigh Valley as well. In 2015, Lehigh and Northampton counties named the Coplay-Northampton Bridge after her. In 2012, she was in the first group named to Lehigh County’s Hall of Fame and came to Allentown for the ceremony marking the county’s 200th anniversary.
She was most recently honored during a Veterans Day ceremony in November at Knollwood, Kressly said. During the ceremony, Hays was presented with a Flag of Valor quilt.
When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Hays told The Morning Call in 2013: “First of all, as the first woman general, but as a very honest person, as a kind individual who did her best — and succeeded.”
Hays tended to the sick and wounded in the China-Burma-India Theater for more than two years during World War II and in a field hospital for seven months during the Korean War.
Her work brought her in contact with celebrities and top military and government leaders. She danced with comedian Jack Benny in Tokyo, counted Vietnam War commander William C. Westmoreland among her friends, and endeared herself to President Dwight D. Eisenhower while he was hospitalized for surgery.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1920, Hays moved to Allentown with her family, the McCabes, in 1932 after nearly four years in Easton.
“I had two goals in life: nursing and music. I played the piano and organ, and the French horn,” she said. “I wanted to go to Juilliard for music, but of course we couldn’t afford it. Nursing won out.”
She graduated from Allentown High School in 1937 and four years later received her cap, with honors, from Allentown General Hospital’s School of Nursing. Then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Everybody wanted to serve their country at that time,” she said, “and I was a nurse.”
She walked from her home in the 600 block of Walnut Street to the police station, then at Church and Linden streets, to sign up for the Army. Riding to Philadelphia on the Liberty Bell trolley, she joined a reserve unit affiliated with the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. From there she was off to Louisiana for training.
“I was truly scared to death,” she said.
In 1943 she shipped out to Asia on a troop transport with 7,000 men, facing the danger of attack from Japanese submarines and planes.
“It was a strange mix of fear and excitement,” she said. “For someone who had never really been away from home, it was like an adventure.”
At the 20th Field Hospital, she tended to soldiers building the Ledo Road from India to China through Burma, and to those wounded in battle against the Japanese. She had to burn leeches off her skin and fend off large snakes — one wrapped itself around the mosquito netting in her hut, and a cobra once got under her bed. She endured bouts of severe illness.
“We were living under quite primitive conditions,” Hays said. “Disease was rampant. ... Everybody was sick. I had dysentery.”
She met such luminaries as Gen. Joseph Stilwell, China’s Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, and Britain’s Adm. Louis Mountbatten, the supreme Allied commander in Southeast Asia. Trudging down a rain-soaked road one day and occasionally falling, she and another nurse got a lift in a jeep from Gen. Frank Merrill, commander of Merrill’s Marauders. He laughed when he saw Hays’ backside caked in mud.
At war’s end, Hays considered what to do with the rest of her life.
“I thought for a bit about becoming an airline stewardess, but then decided to stay in the Army,” she said.
She had stints at several Army hospitals in the States, including Valley Forge General Hospital, where the badly wounded underwent plastic surgery. She went to Korea after war broke out there in 1950, serving with the 4th Field Hospital, one of the first medical units to arrive at Inchon after the U.N. invasion of the Korean peninsula’s west coast.
“I think of Korea as even worse than the jungle in World War II because of the lack of supplies, lack of warmth in the operating room,” Hays told an interviewer at the Army Military History Institute in 1983. In particular, she remembered the intensely cold weather and “the many, many patients who were severely wounded and those patients who were so acutely ill from hemorrhagic fever.”
After working at hospitals in Tokyo and Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, she took a 1½-year nursing administration course at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. That was followed by assignment to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where one of her patients was Gen. George C. Marshall.
“He kept a stack of books on his bedside table at least 2 feet in height,” she told her Army interviewer.
When Eisenhower was admitted for intestinal surgery in 1956, Hays became one of his three personal nurses, staying at his bedside at night and holding his hand. She found him an ideal patient, never demanding.
Vice President Richard Nixon came to visit, and Eisenhower asked Hays, “Do you think I ought to see him?” She said, “No,” and left the room, shook Nixon’s hand and said, “I’m sorry, but the president doesn’t feel he is able to see you.”
She and the Eisenhowers became lifelong friends, with the president never forgetting to send her a letter or flowers as she climbed the Army’s hierarchy.
“I was privileged to know him and Mrs. Eisenhower quite well,” Hays said. “They invited me to their Gettysburg farm several times.”
In 2013, she donated four letters from the Eisenhowers to the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, with which she had a decadeslong association as a member of the Lehigh County Historical Society.
While working at Walter Reed, she met William A. Hays, who directed the Sheltered Workshops in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that provided jobs for the disabled. They were married in July 1956. He died six years later.
In the 1960s, Hays worked at building up the Army Nurse Corps to aid the military effort in Vietnam. She was named assistant chief of the corps in 1963, became chief four years later and went to Vietnam several times to inspect medical installations. After one trip, Lt. Col. Hays met with the Washington press corps at the Pentagon, an experience she called “traumatic” and “excruciating.”
“One newsman kept asking me questions about venereal disease. I very politely kept reminding him that I didn’t know very much about the rate of venereal disease in Vietnam,” she told her Army interviewer. “But he insisted that I should know.”
On June 11, 1970, Hays was promoted to brigadier general after being nominated by President Nixon. Mamie Eisenhower, Dwight’s widow, was there to congratulate her as Westmoreland pinned the stars of a general on Hays’ uniform and kissed her. Later that day, Col. Elizabeth Hoisington, chief of the Women’s Army Corps, received the same promotion.
The next year, Hays retired from the Army and received the Distinguished Service Medal in a ceremony held in the office of the Army chief of staff, Westmoreland. In her speech that day, Aug. 31, 1971, she said in part:
“In reflecting over my almost 30 years as an Army Nurse Corps officer, I am pleased that I did not wait until the evening of my career to see how pleasant the day had been. For I sensed from the moment I traveled a distance of some 60 miles by trolley car in 1942 from Allentown, Pa., to Philadelphia, Pa., at which time I joined the very best medical unit of World War II, … that there was something special about being an Army nurse.”
David Venditta is a retired Morning Call editor who reported extensively on military issues.
Morning Call reporter Christina Tatu contributed to this story.