Honoring those who have served: Veterans Day 2023

Captain Mary Plein ...
Captain Mary Plein ... Waukon native Mary Plein served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps for 16 years. She spent time serving her country during World War II and again during the Korean War. Submitted photo.

Waukon native Mary Plein served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during World War II and Korean War, continued her service in her community

by David M. Johnson

Veterans Days is designated as a time to remember those who have served their country through military experience. They have sacrificed part of their lives to fulfill what they believe is a responsibility to their community and their nation.

Those who have not had the experience of military service, who have gone on to live their day-to-day lives, can be appreciative of those who put that day-to-day living on hold and joined the military services in order to make that freedom a possibility. Whether serving on the front line in combat, on the decks or holds of naval ships or flying sorties, or serving more behind the scenes as cooks, truck drivers or mechanics, all have done their part during their service to their country.

One segment of military service that has been given little public attention includes those who provided medical assistance to those serving right there with them; the doctors, nurses, medics, and orderlies who have kept the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces alive and healthy so they may continue to serve their country.

One such individual was Mary Plein of Waukon.  Born to Peter and Katherine (Byrnes) Plein in 1910, the sister to Ed, William, Francis and Helen, Mary passed in 1981 at the age of 71, but only after she had served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps for 16 years. A 1929 Waukon High School graduate, she moved on to teach school from 1930 to 1938, attending four years of Normal Training for her teaching certificate.

Mary then attended St. Francis School of Nursing in La Crosse, WI, starting in 1939 and graduating in 1941. She had worked at Milwaukee County Hospital in Milwaukee, WI before enlisting in the Army as World War II heated up, spending part of her service time in Germany. She was discharged in November of 1945 but was called back up in 1949.

Mary served 16 months during the Korean War and again tended to the wounded during that war, as she had done during World War II. Her niece, Connie Schneden of Waukon, remembered that her aunt would not talk much about her wartime experiences but did share the story where, when administering pain medications on one occasion, one of the wounded would not take it and had Mary promise to administer the medication to an adjoining comrade in the next bunk, as he appeared more in need than him.

Mary shared with the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 1954 her observations from being deployed to the city of Pusan, South Korea. When the Korean War broke out, the Communists had swarmed over the 38th Parallel in 1951 and drove both American and South Korean military to the tip of the Korean Peninsula and the city of Pusan. In 1954, Mary saw a city still devastated by the war where other sectors were recovering. The Army nurse was stationed at a research center for hemorrhagic fever in Pusan.

While in Korea, Mary was named as an “Honorary Member of the 38th Parallel Medical Society of Korea.” The organization was formed in 1951 by a group of medical officers serving with the 3rd Infantry Division in Korea to provide a forum to discuss current medical advances and medical-military issues unique to the Korean Peninsula. The organization has transitioned to its modern day existence known as the 38th Parallel Healthcare Training Symposium, which is holding its 73rd meeting during this current week, November 6-8, in Korea.

Connie also remembered her sisters and herself receiving dolls from Korea, sent by her aunt stationed there. Mary returned from Korea in 1956 and was discharged from the Army in 1960. During her time in the United States, Mary continued her service at a number of military hospitals and Army bases until she left the military.

When she was in the United States she began serving at Battery General Hospital in Rome, GA, then followed assignments at Irwin Hospital at Fort Riley, KS, Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, Percy Jones General Hospital in Battle Creek, MI, Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Mayo General Hospital in Galena, IL, and her last assignment was at Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Denver, CO.

One of her assignments, when not in Korea, was at the U.S. Army Hospital at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. Mary, during a routine medical examination, discovered that her blood type was the rare O blood type with Rh factor negative. Camp McCoy was alerted to the need for that rare blood type, so Mary immediately donated some blood to answer that call to duty as well.

Mary attained the rank of Captain and received the National Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Army Occupation Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. After leaving the ranks of the military, Mary continued to pitch in and became an active member of the Waukon community.

As a retired Army nurse, Mary worked at St. Francis Hospital in La Crosse, WI for five years, in the Waukon hospital for eight years, and she was employed at the Good Samaritan Home for six years. She was also active in church as a member of St. Patrick’s Church in Waukon and the Rosary Society at St. Mary’s, Lycurgus.

What was unique about Mary Plein was that she made the uniqueness of her service come across as very common. She served her country, and before and after her service, she was also a contributing member of her community, doing it all quietly but with the same professionalism in private that she displayed in her service in the military.

Following her passing in December of 1981, Mary’s family received a Presidential Memorial Certificate signed by then President Ronald Reagan. The certificate reads, “The United States of America honors the memory of Mary K. Plein. This certificate is awarded by a grateful nation in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country in the Armed Forces of the United States.”

On Veterans Day - above all other days, service to country should be remembered and honored. Many of those veterans who put on the uniform in service to their country would return to civilian life and continue their service, but down a different productive avenue. Mary Plein provided an outstanding example of that, while not really trying to stand out at all.