Atlanta Remembers… Red Cross WWI Nurse Camille O’Brien Honored in Centennial Memorial Service
By Sherry Nicholson, Communication Director, American Red Cross of Georgia
Georgia native Camille O’Brien was the only Red Cross nurse from Atlanta and the only nurse with the famed Emory Unit to serve and die in France during WWI. Following her death, in a letter sent to Camille’s sister from the Chief Nurse at the hospital where Camille had cared for sick and wounded soldiers, her superior wrote, “Possibly you, her people, may feel hurt more keenly that she must go among strangers, but the ravages of this war have brought about a bond which is unexplainable, and you can never realize what it meant to us to give her up.”
In 1921, Camille’s body was returned to Atlanta and buried in Greenwood Cemetery with honors but left in an unmarked grave, unknown until recently to her oldest living relative, a great nephew. Information on the heroic service of this Red Cross nurse and the location of her grave came to light for all of us over the past year through the research of Atlanta historian Michael Hitt.
Camille Louise O’Brien, one of 13 children, moved with her family from her birthplace in Warren County, Georgia to Atlanta and attended St. Joseph’s Infirmary School of Nursing from 1913-16. Soon after her graduation, the entrance of the U.S. into World War I brought about an unprecedented need for nurses. American Red Cross Nursing Services was the recognized reserve of the Army Nurse Corps. In 1918, Camille joined the Corps as a Red Cross nurse.
She was assigned to Emory Unit, Base Hospital 43 in Blois, France where she worked selflessly, even when ill, saying “I cannot rest while we are taking in more wounded than we can bandage.” Her dedication never waivered; when the Emory Unit returned home after the armistice in January 1919, Camille and 40 other nurses volunteered to stay back for the soldiers still in need of care. In April of that year, she contracted spinal meningitis and sadly, died at the young age of 35. Beloved by all, she received a full military funeral in France.
Though we never met Nurse O’Brien, as fellow humanitarians, we already knew her. Her story was so intriguing that we had to be there on April 18, 2019 – the 100th anniversary of her death – to help mark her final resting place and honor her sacrifice as a Red Cross volunteer.
A bird sang its approval loudly that Thursday as a gathering of modern-day admirers stood on a hilltop in old Greenwood Cemetery - people and organizations with ties to Camille’s past. The colors were presented, the homily given, the wreaths laid, the flag folded to the playing of taps and the new marker for her resting place unveiled. The service was befitting a WWI heroine, which she was, and a “soldier true,” according to her comrades.
Three Red Cross volunteer nurses from metro Atlanta were among the delegation that attended the Centennial Memorial Service. Like Camille, Jeanne Spears, Health Services Lead for the American Red Cross, Southeast and Caribbean Division is an Atlanta native, a graduate of St. Joseph’s Infirmary School of Nursing, and a passionate Red Cross nurse volunteer. She presented the family with a framed certificate and Red Cross nursing pin, along with a letter from American Red Cross Chief Nurse, Linda MacIntyre. Ebony Bradley, Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces Director for Georgia, placed an arrangement of flowers trailing an American Red Cross ribbon, on her grave.
The history of nursing in the Red Cross dates to the very beginning of our organization. As early as 1892, Clara Barton was building an enrollment file of reserve nurses for call in time of war or disaster. During National Nurses Week in May 2019, Red Cross nurses past and present will be well represented among the many women and men who have given so much in service to others. Here, at Atlanta’s Red Cross, none will strike a chord more deeply than Camille O’Brien.