War and American Women: Heroism, Deeds, and Controversy

By William B. Breuer | Go to book overview

2 Female Trailblazers

Inside a nondescript bunker near London, a British wireless monitoring team intercepted and decoded a message from Berlin to Mexico on the morning of January 22, 1917. The communication indicated that the German government of Kaiser Wilhelm had approached Mexico for an alliance in case of war with the United States. As payment, Germany promised to help Mexico recover huge portions of land it had ceded to the United States after the Mexican War of 1846-1848. That territory included the regions of California, Nevada and Utah, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

War in Europe had been raging since 1914, with Germany and her allies on one side and Great Britain, France, and their allies on the other side. The alarming message intercepted by the British, along with the sinkings of many U.S. merchant vessels by German U-boats (submarines), persuaded President Woodrow Wilson, on April 2, 1917, to tell Congress, "The world must be made safe for democracy." Four days later the United States declared war on Germany.

America was totally unprepared for the brutal conflict. But tens of thousands of young men rushed to volunteer, and large numbers were drafted and headed for training camps. Soldiers, sailors, and civilians sang George M. Cohan's "Over There" to let Kaiser Wilhelm and the entire world know that the Yanks were coming.

Not all the Yanks were men. For the first time in the history of the United States, thousands of women also would march off to war. They would be pioneers, traveling unknown paths, for the same reason men answered the call to the colors--duty, honor, and love of country.

Soon after war was declared by Congress, one of the pioneers, young Mary Louise Bentley of Mauston, Wisconsin, joined up as an Army nurse and left for Fort Riley, Kansas. It had been a wrenching decision: She had never been far from her home and parents.

Devout and dedicated, Mary Bentley had volunteered out of a sense of patriotism. But her motive had no impact on the gossips back in Mauston, where her father Michael was the chief of police. She was painted as a "camp

-7-

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