A young woman from New York joined the American Red Cross during World War II to help with the effort to support the country’s military. Little did she know this decision would lead her to the soldier she would marry three years later.
Adele Werthessen was working as an occupational therapist at Bellevue Hospital in New York City when she joined the Red Cross as a hospital recreation worker. James Murton was in the United States Army and tasked with making sure everything - people and supplies - made it onto a ship headed for Europe and the war. Both were part of the same military medical company assigned to England. Their unit, the 1st General Hospital, was in England until after D-Day (June 6, 1944), then moved to Paris.
WHIRLWIND ROMANCE In 1945 Werthessen wrote a long letter to her friends, reporting how the holidays were during war, what it felt like to be shelled by German planes, and how she had fallen in love. The young Red Crosser wrote, “Believe it or not, I have actually fallen in love and the bells may toll for me when this war is over and we are all at home. Without the fact that I know he is here, things would be rather tough.” They became engaged four months after meeting. They married after the war in April of 1946 at the Werthessen home in Westbury, N.Y., settling in Johnstown, PA, Murton’s home town, where they lived until James passed away in 1972.
BRIGHTENING PATIENTS’ DAYS The young woman described the Christmas holidays during war time in Europe. “What a time we put in working for the first holiday,” Werthessen told her friends. “Sorry to say the spirit was lacking and it hardly seemed like Christmas except for the decorations around. We wrapped enough presents to last me a lifetime. However it did add a little sunshine to the lives of the patients, and to our enlisted men and officers it showed that the American Red Cross is on the ball, two things most important for us over here.”
DANGEROUS JOURNEY In the same letter, the young Red Crosser describes a trip she took to Vianden, Luxembourg to visit her aunt. Vianden had been evacuated, but the older woman refused to leave. Werthessen traveled with a group of soldiers and found a man from Vianden in a nearby town. She hitched a ride on his horse-drawn cart to Vianden, which had not yet been liberated and was between Allied and enemy lines. As she was returning to Paris, she stopped in Luxembourg City, which was shelled while Werthessen was there.
“One never realizes the danger that exists until it is over with,” she wrote. “I spent the next night in the city (Luxembourg) and at two in the morning gunfire took place. They told me it was probably warming up the guns as an enemy plane had been sighted and if within two seconds they went off again, the enemy was overhead. Two seconds came and so did the firing but it lasted for three hours. The house shook, windows rattled, furniture moved and they couldn’t imagine what was going on. This poor little civilian was much more befuddled. We decided it was time to go to bed, that the Americans must know what they were doing and our staying up wouldn’t help matters. At seven we dragged ourselves out of bed as I had to be on my way. Outside there were a bunch of MPs so a major prevailed upon his rank and yelled out the window to know what the scare was. Much to our amazement, houses are down and crowds have gathered. The biggest surprise was yet to come. The three-hour shelling was not our boys, but the Germans firing on us. Ah me, how true it is that ignorance is bliss.”
RED CROSS SERVICE After her return to the United States and marriage, Adele continued her work with the Red Cross. She rejoined the organization and worked for the chapter in Johnstown, helping members of the military and those affected by disaster. She passed away in 1998.
The couple’s daughter, Jaclyn Walters, continues her family tradition of supporting the nation’s military as part of the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces staff in Washington, D.C. And like her mother, Walters met her husband, James at Colgate University in New York while he was in the U.S. Navy and attending classes at the school. Always taught to support the soldiers and sailors, Jackie saw Jim in uniform eating by himself in the cafeteria and went over to talk to him so he wouldn’t be alone. They were engaged within the year and he spent 26 years in the Navy.
“At 25, my dad was among the youngest Sergeant Majors in the U.S. Army,” she said. “He was the adjutant for the 1st General Hospital, and he was meticulous about everything he did. My mother was one intrepid lady and this letter about her trip to Vianden is so important to our family.”
The American Red Cross service to members of the military dates back to the time of the Spanish-American War when founder Clara Barton supported the troops during that conflict. Today, thousands of Red Cross volunteers and employees are continuing this legacy of service on military installations throughout the world, in military and veteran health care facilities and across a network of hundreds of Red Cross offices around the United States and its Territories. Dedicated Red Cross personnel are also deployed alongside troops to provide support to deployed service members.