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Former Otter Tail resort owner honored at PMHH for Army Nurse Corps service in World War II

Japanese combatants in hiding...tigers prowling the jungles...poisonous reptiles slithering about... ...In the outposts of Burma, 1943-45, a handful of nurses were hopelessly outnumbered by millions of disease-carrying insects and thousands of Am...

Japanese combatants in hiding...tigers prowling the jungles...poisonous reptiles slithering about...

...In the outposts of Burma, 1943-45, a handful of nurses were hopelessly outnumbered by millions of disease-carrying insects and thousands of American soldiers. Most of of these lads had but a few things on their mind: Avoiding Japanese bullets, having enough to eat, fluids to drink (water, if compelled, but preferably something stronger)--and romance.

For the U.S. Army nurses in the jungle surgical tents, one way to survive their tour of duty was to keep everything professional.

"Don't call me a woman, sir; I am a nurse."

Perham's Mary Evenson was the embodiment of the professional, war-era nurse. After three years in the Army Nurse Corps, First Lieutenant Mary (Fries) was discharged Jan. 11, 1946; with an Asiatic-Pacific ribbon and two Bronze Battalion stars. The pair of Bronze stars, which are awarded to those involved in combat or very close to it, are a somewhat unusual distinction, especially for a woman serving at that time, said East Otter Tail Veterans Service Officer Charlie Kampa.

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At the age of 87, Evenson was presented with another honor. In an informal ceremony at her residence in the Perham Memorial Home, Kampa presented Evenson with the Department of Veterans Affairs medallion which recognizes her service in World War II.

"I take great pride in being able to present awards of valor to these female heros of freedom...Naturally most of those we serve are male veterans, so to be able to honor the women of liberty is truly humbling," said Kampa.

"She has always been proud of her military service," said her son Kurt Evenson, "and us kids were always proud of her, too."

Mary Evenson's military service was a prelude to a full, busy life with family and career--and tragedy.

Mom Mary was in charge of the home and the family's 11-cabin Pleasure Park Resort on Otter Tail Lake, after her husband Don died in 1973.

Barely two months before Don's death, son Mark was severely inured in an auto accident caused by a drunk driver. He was laid up for a year. It was an excrutiatingly trying period for Mary and her surviving four children.

"She was strong when she needed to be strong--not only in the military but in her personal life," said Kurt.

Mary worked as a nurse at PMHH in the 1970's, and later as director of nursing at the Henning Nursing Home, where she completed her health care career and retired. She lived by herself in an apartment in Henning. She moved to assisted care at PMHH nearly two years ago.

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Mom "barking out orders" continued through her life, laughed Kurt Evenson. "Nothing changed after the Army."

"That's my son," responded Mary, to her son's smart alec remark--sternly, but with a very slight smile.

Sons Kurt, wife Susan, residents on Round Lake, and Don, a Perham resident employed at Dean's Country Market were on hand for the presentation. There were five Evenson kids: Kurt, Mary, Don, Rick and the late Mark.

Born in Montello, Wisconsin, in 1920, Mary Fries graduated from the Mercy Hospital nursing program, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. She entered the Army on Jan. 20, 1943.

"Everybody was going into the Service when I graduated," said Mary. Among them, her brother.

Assigned to the 44th Field Hospital, Mary was shipped off to a place she had never heard of: Burma. Some 12,000 miles away, Burma is literally on the opposite side of the globe as Wisconsin.

She embarked on her journey by ship from North Carolina; around Capetown, South Africa; through the Indian Ocean; and landed at the city of Mandolay by ship. Mary served in what is often described as the "forgotten theater" during World War II: India-Burma and Central Burma. The major campaigns in Europe and the Pacific theater have generated the highest profile, historically. But that certainly didn't mean the duty in India-Burma was any easier.

"We always turned the blankets back before we got into bed...We wanted no chances of going to bed with a snake," said Mary. Snakes at the foot of the bed and tiger tracks in the jungle are some of the recollections she has shared with her family--but like most veterans, she didn't discuss her military service at much length or in detail.

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"We look at her and see her as our kind, sweet mother," said Kurt. "But I don't think we can begin to imagine what she saw--and hasn't told us....There was much cruelty in that region."

The U.S. Army surgical units served not only our own boys, but Japanese soldiers as well, said Mary.

"We had to treat the Japanese...that was our medical creed," she said. "We took the oath."

"When veterans relate their war time experiences it takes me back to a time of unity when, whether serving overseas or supporting the war effort state-side, the ladies of the greatest generation also need the recognition," said Veterans Officer Kampa. "And thanks to all generations who enjoy what we have and hopefully never ever take for granted here in America."

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