Margaret Powell Pray
Army Nurse Corps, United States Army
Burial Honors Wartime Nurse
By Sean Patrick Murphy
Courtesy of Maple Shade (New Jersey) Progress
A local woman who was a nurse in World War I will be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Margaret Pray (maiden name Powell), a member of the Army Nurse Corps, who served in World War I with the British Expeditionary Force, and who saw action in France, will be interred with Army honors including a firing party and a bugler on September 9, 2008. She died in 1941 and was buried in the Methodist Church Cemetery in Turnersville, New Jersey.
Born in Turnersville in 1891, Pray attended the Helene Fuld School of Nursing. In 1918 she was placed on active duty with the Army Nurse Corps.
In July of 1918, she was transferred to France where she served as a battlefield and field hospital nurse, where she was injured by mustard gas.
In 1919 she returned to the U.S. and married Robert Pray. She died in 1941 and was buried in the Methodist Church Cemetery in Turnersville.
AdvertisementHelen Husa, Pray's daughter, said her mother died "a horrible death" at the age of 49 of complications from the gas.
Husa, who lives in Maple Shade, said she found out her mother could be buried at Arlington National Cemetery's nurses' section after taking a tour of it.
Because the nurses' section is full, Husa had her mother disinterred and cremated.
On September 9, 2008, 14 friends will go to Arlington in a limo and Pray's ashes will follow in a hearse. Husa's son and daughter-in-law will meet them because they live near the cemetery.
Husa said she found out from Maple Shade funeral director Mark Tilghman that her mother could be cremated. He also got in touch with the cemetery and a grave digger.
"Without him I don't know what I would have done," she said, adding he helped her pick out an urn.
Husa said those attending the ceremony in Arlington will have a champagne toast because Pray took a liking to champagne when she was in France.
Husa was in the Army during World War II and
was then in the Air Force stationed in upstate New York.
Eighty-four-year-old Helen Husa and son Carl got the idea at the same time in December while touring Arlington National Cemetery. A guide pointed out a section devoted to the burials of military nurses, and they knew what had to be done.
"I looked at him, and he looked at me - and we nudged one another," said the Maple Shade woman. "The guide asked what was wrong, and I told him my mother was an Army nurse in World War I. She died years later from the effects of mustard gas."
But Husa didn't tell him what she and her son were already thinking: They wanted to move Margaret Powell Pray from her grave at a Turnersville cemetery to Arlington, America's Valhalla.
Over the next few months, they persistently waded through red tape and paperwork, tracked down military records, and made countless calls.
And tomorrow, Husa, a World War II Army veteran, and about a dozen friends will travel in a stretch limousine to Arlington for a funeral with full military honors, including a gun salute.
"She deserves this," she said. "To me, she was a hero. I was 16 when my mother died. She was just 49. I was close to her; I lost a buddy."
Pray's remains have been disinterred, cremated and placed in a bronze chest, which the Tilghman Funeral Home in Maple Shade will take to Arlington. The chest will be placed in a niche in the cemetery's columbarium.
"When my mother was serving in France, she got a taste for champagne," Husa said and laughed, "so we will toast her with champagne after the funeral."
Pray was 25 when she enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps in 1917. She left Fort Dix and sailed to Le Havre, France, aboard the British troopship Justicia in May 1918. The vessel - built as an ocean liner - was repainted in a dazzle pattern to help hide it from U-boats.The Germans "came near getting us coming over," Pray wrote in a letter that year. "We had some battle but we were the victors. We got the sub.
"We had 5,000 troops, 300 officers, 140 nurses and 500 crew but Uncle Sam takes good care of us. He had us well protected."
Pray arrived at Le Havre on June 16 and was soon exposed to war. In a June 27 diary entry, she wrote, "First alarm of an air raid, got up and dressed." More air raids were to come.
On July 19, she wrote another brief entry: "Read of sinking of Justicia." The ship that had brought her to France left Belfast for New York, but was torpedoed 23 miles south of Skerryvore, Scotland. The ship was hit six times before it sank.
The loss of lives and long hours of caring for wounded during the war began to take its toll on Pray.
In a letter, she wrote in 1918 that "mail seems almost hopeless, it being three weeks since we have had American mail and we are so homesick for news from home."
Attached to the British Expeditionary Force, she saw many British troops but not as many Americans.
"The other night we had a large convoy in and only one 'Yank' among them," she wrote in a letter. "I said, 'Where are you from?' He said, 'Camp Dix.' I could have hugged him; he knew so many boys I knew from there and told me where they all were.
"I said, 'I am going to teach you how to make a bed.' He said, 'Say, I haven't seen a bed for a month, all I have known is to crawl into a shell hole and any place to keep out of the way of Jerry's shells."
As the war neared an end, Pray seemed more upbeat. "The way we are advancing, it will soon be over but I guess we will be the last to get home," she wrote, noting that she'd be needed to care for the wounded.
Pray had little to write in her diary on the day the war ended. An entry on November 11, 1918, simply stated: "Signing of the armistice."
She continued nursing the soldiers into 1919 at Le Treport, France, and wrote in her diary on January 19: "On duty. Lonesome and homesick. Boys played poker all day."
Husa said her mother returned home and married Robert Pray - but bore the emotional and physical scars of the war. Complications related to gas exposure helped lead to her death in 1941.
At Pray's funeral in Turnersville, Husa remembers the military ceremonies - the uniformed honor guard, gun salute and neatly folded flag given to the family.
"After the tour of Arlington, I knew I wanted to have her buried there," said Husa. "My friends would hear me groan about it. I didn't know if we could do it, and they said, 'Be patient.' "
Much of the work fell on her 56-year-old son, Carl, of Arlington, Virginia. He had taken an interest in the grandmother he never met - and turned the effort to move her into a personal crusade.
"As I was growing up, there would be a conversation about Mom's mom or I'd see a trunk filled with memorabilia during a spring cleaning," he said. "I remember seeing a medallion she received from the British Expeditionary Force and the gold medal on a chain that she received when she graduated from nursing school."
By June, Carl Husa had all the service records required by Arlington and called his mother with the good news.
"This had become an important issue for my mother," he said. "She wanted to memorialize her mom."
Helen Husa remembered the call and told Carl, "You never met your grandmother, but she's looking down on you and saying, 'How did I ever deserve a grandson like you?' "
Husa said she has arranged a dinner at a "fancy restaurant" after the funeral service. "I know what my mother would say: 'I'll kick your butt for spending that kind of money.' We were poor back in those days. But she's worth it."
Posted: 29 August 2008 Updated 8 August 2008