This story was compiled by member Ron Albers from scrapbooks clippings. This was published for Motts Military Museum and is reprinted here with permission. Regretfully, Jane has passed away. Be sure to click on the attachment for several very interesting pictures of Jane in action!
Elizabeth J. Thurness (known as Jane) was born in her parent’s home in Logan, Ohio, on December 24, 1915. Excelling in a variety of sports and extra-curricular activities during her school years, she graduated from Logan High School in 1933.
Jane graduated from the Ohio State University School of Nursing in 1936 and took a position as District Nurse for the City of Columbus. After a few years in that job, she enlisted in the U.S. Army, receiving a commission to Second Lieutenant in March of 1941. Lieutenant Colonel Thurness retired in 1965, after more than 24 years in the U.S. Army, her entire career spent as a nurse.
During WW II Jane served from August 1942 until August 1945 as a nurse in Iceland, England, Germany, France, and Austria. Some of her work was in evacuation hospitals; the remainder spent assisting victims rescued from concentration camps. During one of her final deployment destinations in Europe, she was among those who arrived when the Nazi prison camp at Ebensee, Austria, was liberated on May 6, 1945. Of 27,000 who were imprisoned there by the Germans, more than 8,500 died from the inhumane treatment. Those who survived were terribly malnourished and sickly from a variety of serious ailments. While attempting to nurse the liberated prisoners back to health, rations were so limited that the liberators were forced to prepare soup from weeds, grass, and whatever other materials could be foraged. There was a substantial delay in receiving any sort of sufficient medical supplies or nourishment for either those who had been interred or those who had liberated them and were now caring for them.
Following her service in Europe, Jane Thurness was returned to the United States only briefly before being transferred to Japan. There she assisted in caring for the victims of the nuclear blasts that ended that war, treating illnesses and wounds that had never before been seen. When finally returned to the U.S. following WW II, Jane received specialized Army training in three different states as a Nurse Anesthetist, the specialty she would keep throughout the remainder of her Army career.
In mid 1950, Captain Thurness was again deployed to Japan for several months before being redeployed to Korea as one of 13 nurses assigned to the 1st Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) It is during this period where people’s admiration for Jane and her peers, nicknamed “The Lucky 13,” begins. When one sees the acronym M.A.S.H., thoughts immediately go to the TV series or Hollywood movie featuring wise-cracking, martini-sipping doctors and nurses enjoying care-free, humorous/amorous adventures. While conditions on the screen were Spartan, they nonetheless had most of the comforts of home. Nothing could be further from the truth in the real Korea of 1950!
Jane would only tell friends and family in later years that Korea “was a terrible place.” That’s about all she would discuss about her time there; but newspaper accounts
and other records retained by her family provide more details about what these dedicated and courageous nurses endured.
Jane and her fellow nurses landed in Korea immediately after the X Corps invasion of Inchon-Seoul on 9/15/50. For the next seven months, the 1st M.A.S.H. was constantly on the move but never far from the battlefront. They supported troops in virtually every X Corps campaign on both halves of the bitterly cold Korean peninsula.
Enduring hardships seldom, if ever, equaled by U.S. Army nurses in any conflict, they have (in the better times) slept on the bare floors of windowless, doorless huts in bitter cold. Through this entire ordeal, their professionalism, sacrifice, and dedication not only provided immeasurably needed medical care - these nurses carried morale to the front lines of the Korean battlefields.
Immediately after landing, they took over a totally makeshift clinic; one that had been set up only days earlier after the North Korean Army Headquarters had vacated the site (which was originally a middle school.) Upon arrival, their first patients were 120 severely injured civilians and 22 wounded Reds. All these casualties were pathetic. Their long-neglected, infected bodies and wounds crawled with maggots. Gangrene was prevalent. The air was filled with flies, and the stench of dead bodies both within and outside the building permeated everything. The grounds were pockmarked with holes left from recent attacks (many of which still contained live and unexploded shells.) The front lines of combat were within earshot, and the danger of attack was always present.
Within five days the number of patients had risen to nearly 450. During this period they made due with only those medical supplies they had carried on their backs from the ship. Their equipment and necessities didn’t arrive for more than a week, since they had been sent on another ship. In spite of all this adversity, 1st M.A.S.H. made significant progress during their 12-hour shifts and saved numerous lives. Jane later received the Bronze Star Medal for her work at this site with the surgery team, which (according to one of the doctors) “…operated for days with little more than a dull knife and a sharp saw.” No sooner had they had gotten things somewhat stabilized than they were ordered to move, a mere ten days after their arrival.
On Oct 7th the unit (attached to the 7th Division) began to travel by convoy to Pusan, a 326-mile journey through enemy-infested territory over rugged mountain roadways. Twice they were attacked by North Korean troops that had been somehow overlooked by the American fighting forces ahead of the convoy. At 3 AM one morning their 1,000-yard-long convoy of vehicles was attacked in the pitch black while on a single-file mountain pass. Even though the convoy was composed of medics, signalmen, and other service troops they were able to hold off the enemy, while the nurses took cover in the roadside ditch. The convoy was able to continue the trek even after a second similar violent attack by North Korean troops days later.
Numerous moves kept the nurses near the front lines, never in one location for more than a month. While usually operating from a tent, they once had the luxury of converting a former bank into a makeshift hospital. The nurses dressed and lived exactly like the GIs, wearing muddy combat boots and fatigues, while surviving temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero in tents at locations with no running water - sleeping on cots in issued sleeping bags. They bathed and did laundry in their helmets. They carried the same aluminum messgear as the soldiers and waited in chowline with everyone else, eating wherever they could find room to sit or stand. Then they washed their messgear using three boiling cans of water, again taking their turn in line with the GI. They asked for no special privileges, nor did they receive any.
Living in the field like that in the midst of war, terrible weather, and austere conditions must have been an extremely difficult challenge to simply exist for man, woman, or beast. But these brave “Lucky 13” nurses worked long, hard hours saving innumerable lives. And, according to their commander, not a single one ever complained. In fact, their chief nurse (Maj. Eunice Coleman of Duke, Okla) was quoted as saying of her charges, “Their war in Korea was the greatest satisfaction any of us could ever get out of nursing. The primitive conditions which we have faced have been more than recompensed when we realize that a lot of soldiers would be dead today if we had not been there yesterday.”
Author’s note: I might add, at this point, that 1st Lt. Margaret Brosmer of Bexley, Ohio, was one of the “Lucky 13,” and she endured the same six or seven months on the Korean Peninsula battlefield as Captain Thurness. I am writing this article, however, from the notes, clippings, and records provided by the Thurness’ family. I understand, also, that there were three other similar M.A.S.H. units operating throughout Korea; but I do not know anything about them. My intent is to highlight the amazing career of one of Ohio’s own heroes; one who still has family here in Central Ohio.
After their brief stint at saving GI lives in Pusan, South Korea, the 1st M.A.S.H. went once again with X Corps; this time to Pukchong, high up into North Korea. In fact, these nurses served farther north in Korea than any other American women during the Korean War. Soon thereafter, Jane and her fellow medics were involved with treating wounded from the “Chosin Few,” our American troops who were surprised and surrounded near the Chosin reservoir by Red Chinese troops in some of the bloodiest battles in U.S. Army history. To make matters worse, the weather was bitterly cold and unforgiving. And, as usual, the “Lucky 13” of 1st M.A.S.H. were in the midst of the action, right near the front lines of battle; and they remained there until they were evacuated under fire from Hungnam on 13 December 1950. For a period, Jane served aboard a hospital ship just off the coast before returning to action on mainland Korea. Finally, in April of 1951, Jane was returned to Yokohama, Japan, where she served until August 1952.
Upon returning to the U.S., Captain Thurness worked for several years at a military hospital in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, that specialized in treating burn patients before she was deployed for a two-year stint at the Army hospital in Heidelberg, Germany. She returned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 1959, where she spent the remainder of her career. An experienced expert in the field of anesthesiology who received her BS degree in nursing education from the U of Pittsburgh in 1957, Jane actually taught many doctors at Walter Reed until her retirement in 1965.
Jane retired to Florida when she remained very active, playing golf and bridge almost daily. Family and friends remember her as a lady of great wit, with a wonderful sense of humor. Although she loved a good story, she rarely spoke of her own military experiences and was always optimistic and enthusiastic about life in general. Considering all she experienced and witnessed during her Army career, she was truly a unique individual.
Jane never married but was close to all of her extended family, being the matriarch to many members of her extended family. Nieces Kathryn Levering of Dublin, Ohio, and Marcia Weaver of Dunedin, Florida both recall fondly how they always went to Jane for mentoring and guidance throughout their lives. Jane’s nephew, Jack Thurness (a Vietnam veteran who lives here in Grandview) was also influenced by Aunt Jane. Her numerous great nieces and nephews were also positively inspired by Lt Col Thurness during her retirement years.
Elizabeth J. Thurness passed away at the age of 87 and was buried in Washington D.C. with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in August 2003. In May of 2004 she was inducted into the Logan High School Alumni Hall of Fame, a fitting tribute to one who dedicated her life to her country and to helping others.
Don't forget to clilck on the attachment to see pictures of Jane in action.
This article was originally published in “From the Trenches,” the quarterly newsletter of Motts Military Museum in Groveport, Ohio. http://mottsmilitarymuseum.org The museum has a large display of Jane Thurness photos and M.A.S.H. memorabilia from Korea.