A CHRISTMAS NIGHTMARE
Born Muriel Phillips, to a Jewish family in Meriden, Connecticut, she grew up wanting to be a nurse.
After leaving school, Muriel went to Cambridge Hospital School of Nursing and graduated with an MA. Whilst she was studying there, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and the USA entered the war.
As a newly qualified nurse, Muriel enlisted into the Medical Corps and volunteered to be sent overseas.
Her initial training was undertaken at Fort Adams, Newport, Rhode Island, and then she was transferred to the newly created 16th General Hospital Unit at Fort Devens, Maryland.
The training was extremely tough. As well as learning medical techniques (and contagious diseases), Muriel had to undergo 15-mile treks, calisthenics, rope ladder techniques and was even forced to crawl on her hands and knees whilst live ammunition was fired at her.
In December 1943, her hospital unit (the 16th) were sent to Europe, as part of a 50-strong convoy of ships, heading for Liverpool.
Then, Muriel nearly caused a disaster. She realised her boyfriend was travelling on the ship behind hers. At a quiet time, she seized the ship’s communication system and sent him a message in Morse Code. Muriel was immediately arrested (as was her boyfriend).
She could have alerted German U-Boats to the position of the convoy. The Admiral of the Fleet was travelling on her boyfriend’s boat and he threatened them both with a court-martial. When it was realised no damage had been done, they were let off with a warning.
When the convoy arrived at Liverpool, many of the Americans contracted ‘English Hack’, a terrible cough caused by the damp weather, and needed treatment.
In addition, the 16th trained and prepared for moving into Europe.
They set sail for France on the 7th of June 1944, the day after D-Day. The journey of 21 miles was supposed to take 4 hours. Instead, it took 4 days. This was due to the amount of debris (downed planes, sunken ships etc) caused by the D-Day operation.
When they finally arrived in Normandy, they set up the mobile hospital in a cow pasture, where they spent the next 7 weeks.
Then they were posted to Liege in Belgium. They set up their tents next to an orchard just outside the city. The 16th was an experiment – a fully operational hospital entirely in tents.
At this point, the enemy seemed to be in retreat. But on the 16th of December, terrible weather set in –snow, mist and fog, and the German commander, General Von Runstedt, turned his army around and launched an unexpected counterattack. It is known as ‘The Battle of the Bulge’.
The hospital was right on the front line. Equipped with a thousand beds, it was filled up almost immediately as the 101st Airborne Division (US army) were completely surrounded. No support could be given as the weather conditions prohibited planes flying in, and quickly, the Americans began to run out of supplies.
All the other hospitals were evacuated, but not the 16th. They were put on standby and were told they would have 10 minutes’ warning to leave. The nurses were told to pack their musette bags in preparation. Muriel put warm clothing in hers, plus first aid supplies, a bottle of French perfume she had bought on leave in Paris (“it was expensive”) and a packet of cigarettes – “Because a pack of American cigarettes could go a long way for bartering in war-torn Europe.”
“We felt like sitting ducks, hoping and waiting for orders to evacuate, which never came.” She was particularly concerned because her dog tag had an ‘H’ on it, signifying Hebrew i.e. that she was Jewish. If she was captured by the Germans she faced “being killed or deported to the East.”
Whilst they were waiting, the nurses had to continue to tend to the wounded men. “It was very difficult for us not to show any signs of emotion because they were so young, so handsome – and yet you knew many of them would never have a normal life.”
Additionally, the Germans launched V-1 bombs. They were fired every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. Each bomb contained 2,000 pounds of explosives.
The hospital was hit three times and many patients and medical staff were killed. “You’d hear them coming in the distance, puff-puff-puffering along, and your heart would sink”.
The hospital was under constant bombardment from all sides, with no food or ammunition supplies coming in. Muriel called Christmas week, “the total nightmare.”
On Christmas Eve, the fog suddenly lifted, it was a full moon, and they were attacked repeatedly by a lone German plane – “It was a night of horror.”
On Boxing Day, the Allied air forces finally came to their rescue. The Battle of the Bulge was over.
The 16th was then sent to France to tend 600 wounded German Prisoners-of-War. Muriel said, “I had to take care of those Krauts who had been trying to kill me and millions of others. But we did it because this was our job.”
She remembered VE Day (8th May 1945) vividly. “Everyone was so happy. You were just singing and yelling and drinking and dancing. It was wonderful”.
At the end of hostilities, after two years’ service overseas, Muriel was sent home. She had been awarded 4 medals (including a Belgian honour).
She arrived back in Meriden on Thanksgiving Day, 1945. The taxi driver who had taken her the last part of the journey, dropped her backpack on the step. Two of the three bottles of champagne she had brought home from France were smashed. The family drank the third.
“On Thanksgiving Day my brother-in-law opened the champagne and the noise it made sent me flying under the table and I burst into tears”. Loud unexpected noises frightened her for the rest of her life.
Muriel immediately gave up nursing. “I could never go back to civilian nursing. There was no patient on earth as wonderful as GI Joe, the American soldier.”
Then she bumped into US Navy veteran Melvin Engleman, whom she had known when she was a little girl back in Connecticut. They had been childhood sweethearts.
They married in 1949 and moved to Wappinger’s Fall, New York. There, Melvin set up his own dental surgery.
They had two children, Curtis and Suzy.
When Melvin retired, they moved to Florida before relocating to Laguna Woods in California.
Muriel started giving lectures and talks about her wartime experiences. She could speak for hours without using notes or an autocue.
She published her autobiography in 2008, entitled ‘Mission Accomplished – Stop the Clock’.
She was awarded the Legion d’Honneur for, “France’s immense gratitude for, and appreciation of, her service.” It was delivered to her at a ceremony in Los Angeles by the French consul – 75 years after her contribution to the war.
Melvin died in 2021, just short of his 100th birthday.
Muriel was thrilled to have been included in a book called ’32 Women Heroes of World War 2’, alongside Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich and Virginia Hall.
She was one of the last surviving decorated US veterans of the Second World War.
RIP – Repeatedly In Peril