'I thought it was my duty' to serve

87-year-old recalls her days as an Army nurse in 1940s

09/08/2008 12:01 AM

09/08/2008 6:13 AM

Anna Bell “Wendy” Wendelburg Zeigler began work at 6:30 that December morning in 1944, in a sprawling Gothic hospital in Paris, to pandemonium, blood and screams.

Ambulances crowded the large, snow-covered plaza of Hospital Lariboisiere on Rue Ambriose Pare. Stretchers with bloody men jammed the corridors. Every bed was filled with wounded soldiers from the Battle of the Bulge.

“There were so many litters, you could barely walk down the hall,” says Zeigler of Northeast Richland, now 87. “We probably worked until midnight. I really can’t remember. There were lots of days like that.”

The young nurse, part of the buildup of U.S. forces in England in spring of 1944, landed among the wreckage on Utah Beach that August, two months after the D-Day invasion. She spent “forever” in a pup tent in an apple orchard near St. Lo before arriving in liberated Paris.

Paris was a long way from her home in Stafford, Kan. Friends and co-workers never called her by her first name of Anna Bell. They called her “Wendy,” for her maiden name Wendelburg.

No one in Paris knew her new last name was Zeigler. They didn’t know she had been secretly married.

“I didn’t tell anyone,” she said. “The only person who knew was my husband.”

At that moment Wilbur Zeigler, of tiny Cameron in Calhoun County, was 3,000 miles away in Burma, working in a first aid station, dispensing medicine to bomber crews and posing for pictures with elephants.

“This is a love story,” daughter Barbara Powell says in Zeigler’s home, off Clemson Road. “Even we (she and sister Jane Aldridge) have only heard bits and pieces.”

Zeigler is one of 100 veterans who will be on the inaugural Honor Flight to the nation’s capital Nov. 15 to visit the National World War II Memorial.

Local organizers hope to raise $300,000 to charter six flights to take 600 veterans to Washington for free. Priority will be given to veterans in ill health or those who have not seen the memorial.

Wilbur Zeigler died in March, having never been there. Wendy — as her friends and family call her to this day — never has seen the memorial, either. “We decided we were too old to try,” she said.

A self-proclaimed 21-year-old “Kansas farm girl,” Anna Bell Wendelburg was attending Grace Hospital School of Nursing in Hutchinson, Kan., on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She and a girlfriend had just left a movie and stopped to have hot chocolate. The radio was on in the cafe and she heard the reports.

“I will remember it until the day I die,” she said.

Seven months later, in October 1942, Zeigler joined the Army.

“One brother was too old and the other brother was too young, so we had no one serving in our family,” she said. “I thought it was my duty.”

After training at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Zeigler was sent to a clinic at a glider training base near Warrensburg, Mo. There, in January 1943, she met Wilbur. Like everyone else on the base, he started calling her Wendy.

“He was a very handsome fellow,” she said. “He had beautiful eyes. He was a very, very friendly man, and he was up until the day he died. He always had a smile.”

The two embarked on a whirlwind love affair with Wilbur asking Wendy to marry him several times. “I always said no.”

By November 1943, Wilbur was visiting his parents in Calhoun County before going overseas to war. He asked Wendy to come, too.

When he asked her to marry him this time, she said yes.

“I hadn’t planned to do it,” she said. “I don’t know. I guess I was ready.”

The couple went to the Orangeburg County Courthouse to get a marriage license, but it was closed for Armistice Day, now Veterans Day.

So they married the next day. By Christmas, Wendy was on the Queen Mary, a former luxury liner converted into a troop ship, heading for Scotland. Wilbur was on a voyage to Asia.

The two did not see each other for two years. By that time, the war had ended in Europe and Wendy had volunteered for the Pacific Theater. But during her 60-day voyage from Marseilles, France, to Manila Bay in the Philippines, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the war ended.

Wilbur and Wendy were reunited and — despite their short courtship and long absence — spent the next 63 years together.

Wilbur Zeigler found a job at the Old Fort Packing Co. in Walterboro, and she went to work for the state health department there.

They moved to Columbia two years ago to be closer to their daughters.

So why did Wendy and Wilbur keep their marriage a secret throughout the war?

“My husband was an enlisted man, and I was an officer,” she says. “That was forbidden. But I never regretted it. I didn’t earn any medals, but I got a wonderful husband.”

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495

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