Fargo VA Health Care System
The Ann Walker Story
Born in Wadena, Minn., in 1921, Ann Walker was one of 11 children. Her family farmed and moved quite a bit. Over the course of her youth, she lived in Dell Rapids, S.D., Remsen, Iowa, and moved back to Wadena just six weeks before her high school graduation.
Always caring and compassionate, she had a desire to care for the sick, even watching over her sister who suffered with rheumatic fever. After her high school graduation, Ann attended St. John’s School of Nursing in Minnesota and graduated in 1943. Then the call to service came knocking.
"The Red Cross came to St. John’s and talked to all of us seniors about the wonderful opportunities that awaited us in the military," Ann said. "They showed us beautiful pictures of beaches, palm trees, and clean white nursing uniforms. How could we turn down such a great opportunity?"
And with that, the entire senior class enlisted in the military.
While waiting for her Army assignment, Ann went to work at the hospital in Bemidji, Minn. On June 23, 1943, she received the call. She was told to report to Fort Snelling, Minn.
During her one month at Fort Snelling, all her shifts were night shifts, not quite what she was expecting. But she was happy to do whatever she could. After Fort Snelling, she transferred to a camp in Nebraska for a month. Her next transfer was to Camp Kilmer, N.J. Camp Kilmer was activated about a year earlier as a staging area and processing center for service members going overseas and returning from World War II.
According to Ann, on September 12, 1943, she departed from Peer 92 headed to Liverpool, England, to help set up a new military hospital in the area.
She has several fond memories of her time there. One memory is when she and her unit of nurses were only given one pair of shoes. With the heavy rains in England and the amount of walking they did, the shoes quickly wore out. They were so worn that for two weeks straight her shoes and feet were wet, cold, and uncomfortable. So a small group of nurses decided they were going to walk to London to buy another pair of shoes. However, London was 20 miles away and they were only allowed to go 10 miles from their camp. But they were going to walk there anyway.
Then something happened during the walk that Ann will never forget. A vehicle with several people in it stopped and asked the ladies if they would like a ride. Surprisingly, one of the passengers in the vehicle was none other than General Omar Bradley.
"He was so nice to us," Ann said. "He asked about us, where we were going, and offered us a ride. But it would not be appropriate if we accepted a ride from a General. Plus, we were breaking the rules walking past our 10-mile mark!"
She stayed in southern England until the middle of World War II, then she was transferred to another camp in Scotland. The Battle of the Bulge broke out during this time. Life was about to dramatically change.
"Have you ever heard a plane flying over your house?" she asked. "Now, think about what it was like to have hundreds of planes flying overhead all the time for several days."
Ann says everyone’s emotions ranged from astounded, to frightened, to nervous, and apprehensive at the thought of what they were going to see come in to the hospitals during the battle.
Ann saw soldiers in intense pain from frostbite and other wounds over the next six months. Toes, noses, ears, and large portions of the body, black due to frostbite, were extremely common. Ann says there was very little the medical staff could do for them. Most of the injured were sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Ann and the other nurses saw many soldiers and prisoners of war. She cared not only for Americans, but also liberated prisoners from Germany. She says they were glad to be in the American hospitals because they were given good care and weren’t abused.
"One German prisoner thought I knew how to speak German and anxiously tried to tell me something that was evidently extremely important to him," Ann said. "He kept talking, but I couldn’t understand or speak German. I went to many others to help me. However, not until I brought in the priest did I understand what the prisoner wanted. The German soldier showed the sign of a cross with his hands. He wanted to confess his sins to the priest. I can’t imagine what was going through his mind. But the priest heard the confession even though he didn’t totally understand it."
Next, Ann and the other nurses assembled to go to another hospital in Burma (Myanmar), where an insurgency was still active, but the Japanese surrendered, so Ann’s entire unit was disbanded.
"We arrived home by train to the nearest large town close to our home towns," she said. "There was no fanfare or welcome home excitement. I was lucky that my mom, brother-in-law, and sister met me at the train station. I was really lucky because I had a ride home with them."
Ann says many of the soldiers were dropped off at the train station without anyone to meet them or a way to get back to their towns, having then to hitch-hike home.
Ann took a couple weeks off and then wanted to go right back to work. She really wanted to work for the VA in Fargo, so she applied and immediately found a position. During her time at the VA, she met another Veteran whom she took a liking to, her future husband, Jerry Walker. Jerry came home from the war and got a job back at the railroad. Jerry and Ann moved to Grand Forks from Fargo in 1953 where they raised their sons. During her time in Grand Forks, she continued in nursing at St. Michael’s Hospital for another 10 years.
Ann’s husband, Jerry, passed away five years ago. She likes living with her son, Tom, and relishes her time with family.
When asked if she had advice from the lessons she learned in her almost 100 years of living, she said, “Be honest, always apologize for mistakes, and always be considerate of others.”
Ann currently receives care at the Grand Forks VA Clinic and encourages others in the area, especially women Veterans, to do the same.
[Photo: Ann Walker (left) is presented with a Women Veterans Recognition Coin from Paula Lundgren, Fargo VA Health Care System Social Worker, during a Women’s Health event at the Grand Forks VA Clinic, May 3, 2018.]