Her Stories: Mary Wetherell, a true story about a corageous woman

black and white portrait of Mary Wetherell
portrait of Mary Wetherell. Photo courtesy of Teri Holme

by Teri Holme (ROM)

I have been asked these same questions many times over my career.

How do you pick yourself up when you have failed? How do you keep going when you run into a wall?

The answer is always the same and it always makes me smile: My grandma.

 Here’s why:

In 1942, at age 19, my grandma joined the US military and served as a first lieutenant in the New Guinea-Pacific War.  She joined so she could provide money for her family and to build a better life for herself.

In 1945, she was being escorted back to her quarters in a military jeep by an Army Captain friend on a jungle road after a 12-hour work shift.  Suddenly, a loud noise rang in her ears.  She turned to the captain who was slumped in his seat.  He had been shot in the back.

My grandma bravely pulled him from the jeep to the bushes to gain cover from more gunfire.  She looked up just in time to see the sparks from the next bullet. It struck her in the elbow, then burrowed in through her stomach.  Even then, she administered aid to the captain. While she worked, she was struck by another bullet, this time in the hip.

Several more bullets ricocheted around them, motivating my grandma to make an important decision. She needed to get the captain out of the area quickly.

She loaded him into the jeep, turned and drove to medical care.  Both of received medical attention. Each of them survived and eventually transported back to the US. However, they didn’t receive the same awards.  The captain received a purple heart.  My grandma did not.

My grandma never complained, never begrudged the captain for receiving the prestigious award, nor the army for not awarding the same to her.  In fact, she was apprehensive when she heard that her family was sending letters to Washington to request a review of the incident.

When I asked her, Grandma, why do you think you didn’t receive a purple heart? she replied, That’s the way it is with women in the military. We were second class citizens, so I focus on all the soldiers’ lives I saved.’

When I feel like I don’t know if or how to move forward, I think of my grandma.  If she could join the military at 19, care for wounded soldiers, save so many lives, experience war away from her family, I can easily pick myself up, dust off and keep going.

Recently, our family found written documents from her telling her story in her own words. It has been such a gift to my family and I to read her story.  As most of you know those who serve, especially in a war, don’t typically talk about their experiences.

The captain became a major general in the army reserve and served as executive vice president of the Association of the United States Army. He also was press spokesman for the secretary of the Army and the Pentagon in 1976. The Army association’s Virginia headquarters is named after him and he also received a Distinguished Service Medal and a Bronze Star.

To think, if not for my grandma, the captain’s distinguished career likely would not have happened.  He may have the purple heart, but my grandma is all heart!

Teri Holme is the Central Sound Regional Operations Manager for the Washington State Employment Security Department.