Marie Kemper, an Army nurse who lived through the horrors of war in the South Pacific during World War II, was proud of her service and committed to equal rights for women.
“She made it clear that women were as strong and powerful and as capable as men,” recalled her son Dr. Craig Kemper of Austin, Texas. “All of us kids had that attitude. She passed it on to her children.”
Marie Kemper of Anoka, and formerly St. Anthony, died Jan. 26 at the age of 97. Born near Wessington, S.D., she grew up in the Depression era and graduated from St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Pierre, S.D.
“We were all poor,” recalled Marcella LeBeau, 99, of Eagle Butte, S.D., who became a good friend of Marie’s. “We were recovering from the Depression. We wore the same pair of white leather shoes through the three years of nursing training.”
As WWII accelerated, Kemper and LeBeau volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps, Kemper wrote in a self-published autobiography, “The Springtime of Life.”
Kemper became a second lieutenant and was stationed in New Guinea and the Philippines where the Army set up field hospitals near the front lines. When the field hospital in the Philippines was shelled by the Japanese, the nurses, including Kemper, would climb on top of the patients to shield them from the artillery, Craig Kemper said. For her bravery, Marie Kemper was awarded the Bronze Star. She later told family and friends that because they were short on medical supplies, the nurses would walk down a row of beds, using the same needle to inject 10 patients with penicillin, cleaning the needle each time with alcohol.
Rosemarie Donlin, a daughter who is also a nurse, said her mother told her that the nurses also rewashed gauze and surgical masks, sterilized them and used them the next day. “One of her jobs was to patch the surgical gloves, which I cannot fathom,” Donlin said.
At the end of the war, Kemper was sent to Japan and saw the effects of the nuclear bombs that the United States dropped on the country in August 1945. “An unforgettable experience was taking a train ride through Hiroshima and Nagasaki where the atomic bomb fell, to see all the carnage,” she wrote in her book. “It was total devastation for miles and miles and that scene is stamped indelibly on my mind forever.”
Despite all she witnessed, she declined to discuss it in detail, family members said. “She needed to put it out of her mind; it upset her too much,” Donlin said.
After the war, she married Alfred Kemper and continued to work as a nurse in South Dakota. Alfred, who served in Europe in World War II, retired as an Army lieutenant colonel.
Donlin said her parents went for a drink or a meal at the VFW in Rapid City and were told that Marie was not allowed in because she was not a veteran — unless she wanted to come back on a Tuesday for the women’s auxiliary.
“She told the VFW staff, ‘I have seen more battles than everyone in here. I deserve to be here. I did my time,’ ” Donlin said. Within a year, the prohibitions barring women were dropped at the VFW.
The family moved to St. Anthony in 1969 when Alfred Kemper was hired as an engineer in the construction of the University of Minnesota Medical School. Marie Kemper worked as a private nurse with homebound people. The couple raised three children. Marie had an infectious smile and pleasant laugh, her family said, but she believed in tough love. “My dad was the cuddly one,” Craig Kemper recalled. “My mother didn’t put up with any nonsense.”
She was preceded in death by her husband. She is survived by her children Rosemarie Donlin; Mark, of Lino Lakes; Craig; and a sister, Mildene Turpin of Bakersfield, Calif. Services have been held. A private burial will be held at the Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis, S.D.