By Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
An Army veteran from Laurel has been working for years to prepare for an event that will take place on April 6—the dedication of a memorial to women with ties to Yellowstone County who served in the military during World War I.
But Ed Saunders’ work is far from done. He continues to search for the records of female veterans of the war from all over the state—and just this week he made one of his most exciting discoveries yet.
On Monday, Saunders confirmed that Regina McIntyre Early, an Army nurse who served in four hospitals in France during World War I, was an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in northwestern Montana.
Saunders said McIntyre Early could quite possibly be the first female veteran of WWI who was an enrolled member of an American Indian tribe in Montana.
Thanks to Saunders’ research, the confederated tribes told Saunders on Thursday that they will be sending three female members of the Mission Valley Honor Guard, all of them tribal members, to the dedication of the World War I memorial on the lawn of the Yellowstone County Courthouse on April 6. That day will mark the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I.
And in July, McIntyre Early’s name will be added to the Eagle Circle Veterans Wall of Remembrance, near tribal headquarters in Pablo.
The dedication ceremony in Billings, which will be conducted by Chapter 10 of Disabled American Veterans, will start at 10 a.m. on the courthouse lawn, 217 N. 27th St.
It will include an invocation, remarks by Saunders, the unveiling of the plaque, the laying of roses (see story below for details), a closing prayer, a color guard and rifle salute, and “Taps,” performed by bugler Randy Grow. Saunders promised a short ceremony.
“I’m the emcee,” he said. “I don’t like long ceremonies. My knees won’t tolerate it.”
Saunders, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel and was instrumental in creating the Yellowstone National Cemetery in Laurel, got involved in chronicling female veterans of World War I because of a chance encounter in Mountview Cemetery.
He was decorating veterans’ graves for Memorial Day seven or eight years ago when he came across a headstone for Florence Ames, who served in the Army Nurse Corps in World War I. The lyrics to “Taps” were engraved on her headstone.
“I was just captivated,” Saunders said. As someone with a keen interest in veterans affairs and a genealogist for 40 years, Saunders soon concluded that finding out more about Montana’s female veterans of World War I would be the perfect project for him.
After years of research in archives, museums and libraries, he was able to document that 23 women who served in World War I had either been born in Yellowstone County, died here or entered federal military service here. Twenty-one of them served in the Army Nurse Corps and two as Navy yeomen, basically administrative assistants or clerks.As with the recent discovery of one nurse’s Indian heritage, Saunders is constantly revising the statewide database he has created. Another fairly recent discovery was an Army nurse named Grace Gibson Sullivan. The records he found on her said she was from “Morden,” and he figured it was one of the many little towns on the Hi-Line that existed only briefly.
But a little more research showed that there was no Morden—that somebody had misprinted the first letter as an “M” rather than a “W.” So Sullivan was actually from Worden—one more Yellowstone County veteran to be honored.
“I was a week away from ordering the bronze plaque and I said, ‘Stop the presses. I’ve found another one,’” Saunders said.
He has many such stories about the women who will be honored on April 6. One of his favorites is Susie Welborn McCrumb, an Army nurse whose two brothers served in the Army. She cared for the wounded at a base hospital in Langres, France, and stayed in France after the war to care for those too sick to travel.
After the war she worked as a nurse all over Montana, and she died in Billings in 1996, at the age of 103. Before her death, she was thought to have been the oldest surviving World War I Army nurse.
“I’d have given anything to have met her,” Saunders said.
As for Regina McIntyre Early, her World War I records listed her by her maiden name, and Saunders had no reason to suspect that someone named McIntyre was Native American. But she had served in base hospitals in Savenay and Caen, France, among others, and Saunders made a point of looking into the backgrounds of any Montana nurses who had served overseas.
As part of his research, he found McIntyre listed on a 1905 Indian census. He followed that trail and found out she was also listed in the Confederate Salish and Kootenai census of 1905. A search of tribal records showed that she was almost a quarter-blood member of the tribe, on her mother’s side. Her father was a Scotsman.
“I said, ‘I’ll be damned,’” Saunders said. He wrote to Salish-Kootenai tribal members on Monday and they wrote back on Wednesday to thank him, and then on Thursday to let him know about the tribal honor guard coming to Billings.
All in a satisfying day’s work for Saunders, who has much more research ahead of him.
Details: Saunders gives much of the credit for the World War I women’s memorial to the DAV Chapter 10, which has provided all the funding except for a few unsolicited donations.
“They gave up some things to pay for this,” he said of the DAV.
Saunders also credited the metal fabrication students in Montana State University Billings’ City College, who designed and made the memorial’s decorative base.
Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.