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This Day in History: Cordelia Cook Fillmore, WWII Heroine

On this day in 1996, a heroine passes away. Cordelia “Betty” Cook Fillmore is best known for her service in the U.S. Army: She was the first American woman to be awarded both the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.

The Kentucky native had served in World War II as a combat nurse, leaving behind her new husband to do it. She’d married Army officer Capt. Harold E. Fillmore just one short month before being deployed.

The two would not see each other for 21 months! They were finally reunited in December 1944. By then, Betty was a heroine. Harold was recuperating from an injury at an Army hospital in France.

“We were so excited we could hardly eat,” Betty wrote her family back home. “We talked ourselves hoarse, winning the war and going over all the things that have happened since I left the states to go to Africa.”

They must have had a lot to talk about. Betty had been serving in Italy with nine other surgical nurses. She was in the Presenzano sector, where the nurses were serving close to the battlefront. They’d even been stationed ahead of the heavy American guns at one point. Their proximity to battle allowed them to save some of the more severely wounded soldiers.

“We were right behind the front lines,” Betty later explained, “and we got the worst cases, the ones that couldn’t be moved back. Of course it was hard work, but we were doing what we wanted to be doing—nursing—and every case was an important one.”

Her Bronze Star Medal was awarded for her service between November 1943 and January 1944. According to newspaper reports, Betty took charge of 340 cases during that time. She saved nearly 250 men.

Nevertheless, one episode stands out during that time period. The field hospital that Betty was working in had been bombed, leaving the young nurse wounded. Newspapers would later report that Betty “persuaded a medical aid to patch up her arm and side” so she could keep working. In the end, she stayed on duty for 24 straight hours, attending to the wounded in the face of her own pain and exhaustion. When the immediate crisis was over, she collapsed and reportedly slept for days.

Betty’s service earned her both the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart, making her the first American woman to get two awards for her service in World War II.

A journalist later spoke with her parents, reporting that Mr. and Mrs. Cook are “especially proud of their heroine daughter, who they say ‘doesn’t like to talk much about those medals she received.’”

For her part, perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Betty didn’t think she’d done anything special. “I didn’t do anything that anyone else wouldn’t have done,” she shrugged.

Yet another story of bravery and sacrifice from the Greatest Generation.

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