After graduating from Ohio State School of Nursing in 1936, Elizabeth Jane Thurness worked as a district nurse for the city of Columbus, Ohio. In March 1941, she enlisted in the Army and commissioned as a second lieutenant.
During World War II, Thurness served as a nurse in Iceland, England, Germany, France and Austria. She worked in both evacuation hospitals and assisted victims rescued from concentration camps. One of Thurness’s final deployment destinations in Europe was in Austria, where she nursed prisoners from the Nazi concentration camp in Ebensee. After World War II, Thurness transferred to Japan to care for those injured in the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Upon her return to the United States, Thurness received specialized Army training to be a nurse anesthetist. In 1950, that training led her to the Korean War, where she deployed as one of 13 Army nurses assigned to the First Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. During the war, Thurness helped care for 120 severely wounded civilians in a makeshift clinic. As a specialized Army nurse, Thurness followed the mobile hospitals along the front lines that treated wounded soldiers.
In October 1950, she was with the 1st Mobile Army Surgical Hospital when it came under attack following its removal from Incheon to Busan, South Korea. Thurness was not injured during the attack and helped other uninjured nurses with treating the newly wounded. After the attack, in November, Thurness moved north to the Chinese border to treat wounded soldiers from the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. She remained there until the evacuation of Hungnam in December. For her work during the attack and throughout the war, Thurness later received a Bronze Star Medal.
After the Korean War, Thurness worked in a military hospital at Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, that specialized in treating burn victims. She also served for two years at a military hospital in Heidelberg, Germany. In 1957, she received her bachelor’s degree in nursing education from the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1959, Thurness became a nurse at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. She spent the remainder of her career there teaching doctors and working in anesthesiology. Thurness retired from the military in 1965 as a lieutenant colonel.
In popular culture, Thurness is considered to be one of three nurses who inspired the character Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan on the television series M*A*S*H.
Thurness died in 2003. She was 87.
We honor her service.
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Veterans History Project
This #VeteranOfTheDay profile was created with interviews submitted to the Veterans History Project. The project collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war Veterans so that future generations may hear directly from Veterans and better understand the realities of war. Find out more at http://www.loc.gov/vets/.
Graphic artist: Robert McPherson