Wilson, Mary Louise Roberts (1914–2001)


By: Peter Worger

Type: Biography

Published: May 24, 2022

Updated: May 24, 2022


Mary Louise Roberts Wilson, U. S. Army nurse and first woman to receive the Silver Star, was born on September 18, 1914, in Hollyridge, Louisiana. The daughter of Charles Maury Roberts and Mary Lee (McCommon) Roberts, she was the eldest of six children and grew up mostly in East Texas after her family moved there when she was very young. She attended Lufkin High School in Lufkin, Texas, and graduated in 1930, the same year her father died. Her mother moved their family to Mississippi to be closer to relatives, and, in order to support them, Mary went to work in a local laundry. The owners dismissed her when they discovered that she was only sixteen years old, but fortunately her mother was able to take the job in her place.

In 1932 she decided to go to nursing school. She attributed her choice to the fact that nursing was one of the few job choices for women at that time, and she needed money to help her family. The Hillman Hospital School of Nursing in Birmingham, Alabama, was a three-year nursing program she was able to pay for with a Kiwanis Club loan. After she graduated in 1935, she worked in several hospitals across the South. The 1940 census recorded her as a nurse working at Valley View Hospital in Chickasaw, Oklahoma. She soon went to work for Dallas’s Methodist Hospital and was eventually named operating room supervisor. She sent money back to her family and ultimately invited them to move to Dallas, where all members lived with her in a small apartment.

With the U.S. entry into World War II, Mary Louise Roberts volunteered for service and was assigned to the U.S. Army Fifty-sixth Evacuation Hospital, which had been activated on March 29, 1942. She later commented, “I thought it was my patriotic duty to do it.” Commissioned a second lieutenant on May 19, 1942, she trained at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and was named operating room supervisor. She served overseas from April 15, 1943, to October 4, 1945. The Fifty-sixth Evacuation Hospital initially landed at Casablanca, Morocco, and followed the Thirty-sixth, Eighty-eighth, and Ninetieth Infantry divisions, Fifth Army, through North Africa and then Italy. She was promoted to first lieutenant on November 5, 1943.

Roberts landed in Anzio after the Allied invasion there began on January 22, 1944. She later recalled that patients were brought in “straight from the battlefield,” and medical teams worked in twelve-hour shifts. Chief nurse and operating room supervisor, Roberts became known as the “Angel of Anzio.” When asked if she and her fifty nurses wanted to be evacuated, she declined. On February 10, 1944, German shrapnel tore into the operating tent where she was in charge. Through approximately thirty minutes of constant shelling, Roberts calmly continued their surgeries and encouraged other medical staff.  For her bravery under fire, along with two other nurses, Second Lt. Rita Virginia Rourke and Second Lt. Elaine Arletta Roe, First Lt. Mary Roberts received the Silver Star in a brief field ceremony on February 22, 1944.  Because she had seniority rank, she was designated first and thus became the first woman to receive the Silver Star, but in her humility, she later stated, “Everybody in our group deserved the medal.” Another Fifty-sixth Evacuation Hospital nurse, Second Lt. Ellen Ainsworth, who was killed in the shelling, was posthumously given the Silver Star.  

After combat at Anzio was over, her unit followed the Fifth Army north through Italy and provided medical support. She was in Bologna when the announcement came that the war in Europe had been won by the Allies. During the course of her twenty-nine months stationed with the Fifty-sixth Army Evacuation Hospital, Roberts nursed more than 73,000 wounded soldiers. She also received an EAME (European-African-Middle Eastern) Campaign Ribbon with Four Bronze Service Stars for her work in North Africa. She was promoted to captain on December 29, 1945, and was honorably discharged from active duty on January 18, 1946. While overseas she met both the King of England and entertainer Bob Hope.  

In 1945 she returned to Dallas and by January 1946 started working as operating room supervisor at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Oak Cliff, where she stayed until the late 1970s. She returned to school and earned a degree in nursing service administration from the University of Texas medical school. On March 25, 1961, Mary L. Roberts married fellow army veteran Willie Ray Wilson and became stepmother to his three children. He had been a pilot with the Ninth Artillery Corps during the war and helped ferry high-ranking officials to the battlefield and back to headquarters. After the war, he became a computer programmer. Mary Roberts Wilson, who had also joined the U. S. Army Reserve after the war, retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel from the Reserve in 1964. She retired from nursing at the VA hospital in 1972.

In retirement she spent time studying the Bible, taking art classes, and tutoring children from Spanish-speaking families. She was a member of First United Methodist Church in Duncanville, Texas. Her story was featured in Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation (1998), making her nationally recognized. She was even united with one of her former patients through being featured in his book. She died of a heart attack on November 19, 2001, at her home in Duncanville and was buried with full military honors in Laurel Land Memorial Park in Dallas, Texas.  Her husband preceded her in death in 1993. A conference room at the Veterans Affairs hospital is named in her honor, and the Methodist Medical Center established an award in her honor—the Silver Star Award for Excellence in Nursing.

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Paula Bosse, “Lt. Mary L. Roberts, The ‘Angel of Anzio’—The First Woman Awarded the Silver Star,” Flashback: Dallas (https://flashbackdallas.com/2016/03/08/mary-l-roberts-the-angel-of-anzio/), accessed May 19, 2022. Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 1998). “CPT Mary Louise Roberts Wilson,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/175505457/mary-louise-wilson), accessed May 19, 2022. Dallas Morning News, February 23, 1944; July 26, 1964; May 16, 1972; November 6, 24, 2001. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 20, 1944. Los Angeles Times, November 25, 2001.

Categories:
  • Health and Medicine
  • Nurses and Nurse Administrators
  • Military
  • World War II
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Peter Worger, “Wilson, Mary Louise Roberts,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/wilson-mary-louise-roberts.

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May 24, 2022
May 24, 2022

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