Dorothy F. Olsen – First Lieutenant, United States Army

From a contemporary press report:

A nurse who treated Lou Gehrig and saw the results of Nazi barbarism at the Buchenwald concentration camp while serving in Europe with the Army during World War II, died June 15, 1996 Lorien Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Columbia. She was 76.

Mrs. Olsen, who lived at the Charlestown Retirement Community, spent 19 months as a combat nurse. The former Dorothy Ann Fearn was born in Pittsfield, Mass., and moved to Bronxville, NY, where she graduated from high school in 1937. She earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing in 1943.

As a 19-year-old nursing trainee at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York, one of her patients was New York Yankee Lou Gehrig, who was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neuromuscular ailment that came to be known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after his death in 1941. On the eve of Cal Ripken’s breaking Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games last year – she was invited by Orioles owner Peter Angelos to watch the event – she recalled in the New York Times that Gehrig was a “gentleman of the old school.” “Except for the speech on his day, when he said he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth, I don’t think you’ll find any quotes in which `I’ is the biggest pronoun,” she said.

She joined the Army in 1943, was commissioned a second lieutenant and was sent to England as a member of the 47th Field Hospital, which was attached to the 1st Army under the command of General Courtney Hodges. It was the first nursing unit to land in Normandy, 10 days after the Allies’ D-Day invasion.

“She said the days and nights were very long, and you did what you had to do,” said a son, Peter Olsen of Columbia. “We talked over Normandy many times,” said Frederick Griswold, who was a young Navy lieutenant at the time of the invasion and helped establish the Dr. Charles B. Frank Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 219 at Charlestown. “She was like a lot of veterans. She glossed over the really nasty things, but she did say that she was so busy she really didn’t have time to think about what was going on,” said Mr. Griswold, who will be at Mrs. Olsen’s funeral Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.

The horror of Buchenwald, a slave labor camp where 56,000 people perished at the hands of the Nazis, made a deep and lasting impression on her.

“She recalled the smell of the camp, which was in the air for miles, and the trees which had all been stripped of branches at least 12 feet up, so if a prisoner was successful in escaping they couldn’t hide in the trees,” Mr. Olsen said. “She seldom spoke about it, but it was obvious that the experience of Buchenwald had never left her,” the son said.

She was discharged in 1946 as a first lieutenant. Her decorations included the European Theater Campaign Ribbon and the Meritorious Service Unit Plaque.

In 1995, she donated her vast collection of wartime photographs, memorabilia and poetry to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “I want generations beyond me to learn what I know and see what I saw,” she said at the time.

After the war, Mrs. Olsen was an operating room nurse at several Veterans Administration hospitals in Connecticut and New York. She retired in 1984 and moved to Catonsville in 1986.

Her son said she was an idealistic woman who saw her ideals shattered by war and became an alcoholic and a manic-depressive, two challenges she triumphed over later in her life. Her 1947 marriage to Robert C. Olsen ended in divorce.

A memorial service will be held at 5:30 pm today at Charlestown Retirement Community, 715 Maiden Choice Lane, Catonsville. She is survived by two other sons, Jon C. Olsen of Denver and Eric C. Olsen of Houston; two sisters, Margaret Gilbert of Norwich, Conn., and Joanne LeCount of Ashford, Conn.; and six grandchildren.

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