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Glenwood City native remembers Ellen Ainsworth

By LeAnn R. Ralph

GLENWOOD CITY  —  Dorothy Magnuson remembers Ellen Ainsworth from when both she and Ellen were growing up in Glenwood City.

Dorothy, who lives on First Street in Glenwood City, spoke with the Tribune Press Reporter following the dedication ceremony for the Second Lt. Ellen Ainsworth United States Post Office August 31.

Ellen Ainsworth entered the United States Army Nurse Corps in 1942 and then deployed to Tunisia and later on to Anzio, Italy.

Ainsworth died several days after she was wounded in Anzio on February 10, 1944.

Ellen Ainsworth and three other nurses were the first women in the United States Army to receive the Silver Star for their bravery. Ainsworth also was awarded the Purple Heart and the Red Cross Bronze medals.

Ellen, Dorothy said, was about six years older and a very good friend of Dorothy’s sister.

Ellen Ainsworth was born March 9, 1919, and graduated from Glenwood City High School. She attended the Eitel Hospital School of Nursing in Minneapolis and graduated in 1941.

Dorothy’s husband was closer in age to Ellen Ainsworth, so whenever Dorothy and her husband would attend class reunions, Ellen’s name would come up.

The Glenwood City High School classes of 1936, 1937 and 1938 held their reunions together.

“It was nice because you knew ones from ahead of you and behind you that you were friends with,” Dorothy said.

“At the class reunions there was quite a lot about Ellen. They had good memories. They spoke highly of her, and in a fun-loving way,” she said.

“They remembered things she did in high school and that was repeated at each class reunion. I knew her in town. The neighborhood kids would get together. I knew her family too,” Dorothy said.

“She was a wonderful person, and I can’t express how great this is, being done in her memory. If her family could be here, they would be so proud. It is quite an honor (to have a post office named after Ellen). They were humble people,” she said.

Pine Street

Dorothy said she was surprised and pleased at the number of people who came for the ceremony to rename the Glenwood City post office to the Second Lt. Ellen Ainsworth Post Office.

The Ainsworth family lived in Glenwood City on Pine Street “between the 400 and 500 block. That’s where I’ve always associated with them. The house is still there yet although it has been remodeled,” Dorothy said.

“It was through my sister, mainly, that I got to know Ellen, who was a good friend of hers. I always was tagging along with my sister. I wasn’t left at home. So I got to know a lot of her friends. They’d put on plays or musical programs, and I was there,” she said.

Dorothy smiled. “I’m pretty proud of Glenwood City. This puts our little town on the map.”

More than 40 young men survived because of “Ellen’s actions. But that was her. She always thought about somebody else and not herself. It was her nature. It was how she grew up. So I’m glad she was finally honored,” Dorothy said.

Enemy fire

Ellen Ainsworth made sure that when the shelling started in Anzio on February 10, 1944, the wounded young soldiers at the 56th Evacuation Hospital were moved to safety underneath their cots.

When Ellen thought the shelling seemed to be over, she went back to her tent.

One last incoming shell landed near her tent, and pieces of shrapnel pierced the tent. Ellen was hit with shrapnel in her chest and her abdomen. She died several days later.

Ellen’s family learned of her death on March 9, 1944, Ellen Ainsworth’s 25th birthday.

At the time of Ellen’s death, her family did not want a memorial in Glenwood City for Ellen, Dorothy Magnuson said.

Dorothy noted that she did not know Ellen’s mother very well but did know her father. Like many women of the time, and like Dorothy’s mother, the mothers of that era stayed home and took care of the house, she said.

“It was really a lovely day for this kind of a ceremony,” Dorothy said.

August 31 was a warm day, but not too hot, with bright sunshine and a clear blue sky.

Sweetheart

After Dorothy, whose maiden name was Busch, graduated from Glenwood City High School, she went to Milwaukee for awhile.

“But then I came back here and married my sweetheart. I’ve been a farm woman. And now I’ve been in town without a husband for 30 years. I’m still in my home. A lot of the town has changed, and a lot of people have come and gone,” Dorothy said, noting that her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren do not live in the area.

Ellen Ainsworth is buried in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial in Nettuno, Italy.

She also is remembered with a portrait at the Pentagon and in a hall at a veterans home in King. The American Legion post in her hometown, Curry Ainsworth American Legion Post 168, is named after her as well.

At the post office dedication ceremony, pictures of the 56th Evacuation Hospital showed very rough and primitive conditions, with knee-deep ruts in the mud.

The 56th cared for 73,052 patients all together.

“Just think of the conditions they worked in. They suffered too,” Dorothy remarked as she looked at the photographs.

Other pictures in the display were of Ellen Ainsworth.

“She was thin. She always was thin,” Dorothy said.

Dorothy has read “A Half Acre of Hell” by Avis D. Schorer, one of the nurses who served with Ellen Ainsworth during World War II.

“I couldn’t put it down,” she said.

Pictures of the cemetery in Italy where Ellen is buried were included in the display.

“It must be a beautiful place,” Dorothy said.

Second cousin

Linda Hafdahl, a second cousin to Ellen Ainsworth, took a few minutes to speak with the Tribune Press Reporter too.

“They were really a close family. My Aunt Pat, who was one of the ‘Terrible Trio,’ just died last September. She didn’t know about the post office,” Linda Hafdahl said.

Hafdahl’s Aunt Pat was interviewed in a St. Paul Pioneer Press article published a year ago on Memorial Day.

“It was a pretty incredible story,” Hafdahl said.

Avis D. Schorer, the author of “A Half Acre of Hell,” is still alive, she said.

“That was pretty incredible. Her grandchildren had her write down her memories. She was such a great storyteller. And she actually was the one with Ellen when she was dying. They thought at first she would be okay, but there was too much internal damage from the shrapnel,” Hafdahl said.

“It was pretty exciting. My husband and I went over to Anzio, and we were walking on the beach over there. We stayed in a hotel right by the water. And it was at sunset, and I was trying to imagine a war going on there. It was so scenic and beautiful. And there were all the little caves back by the cliffs where they would take some of the soldiers to get them away from enemy fire,” she said.

“It was an emotional and wonderful visit,” Hafdahl said.

“When we went in and asked where her grave was, they asked, ‘Are you related to her?’ I said yes, I was a second cousin. They treated us like dignitaries. There happened to be a tour bus of people from Wisconsin there who had just gone to her grave. It was like Wisconsin Day at the cemetery. They said, ‘She’s our rock star.’ The new memorial center, she was one of the heroes it was dedicated to. They take all of their tours over to her grave,” she said.

When Ellen was in the Army serving in Italy, “they built a bomb shelter because the nurses said the Germans were not respecting the crosses on the tents. They were worried about not having anywhere to take shelter. But Ellen said, ‘I’m not going to go there. If it hits our foxhole, we’ll all be killed. I’m going to keep on doing what I need to do. I’m not going to go there.’ She probably would have been alive if she had gone there. But there probably would have been a lot of young men who would not have survived if she’d gone to the bomb shelter,” Hafdahl said.

“She was supposed to be there. It’s what her role was supposed to be. My granddaughter is named Ellen after her,” she said.