By Lindsey Sullivan | [email protected]
Marian Rebecca Sebring Elcano, a decorated WWII U.S. Army nurse, died in her sleep on Oct. 4 from congenital heart failure. She had celebrated her 99th birthday in June.
Elcano spent more than 40 years as a resident of Alexandria, settling in the city with her husband, Michael P. Elcano, and their five children after moving all over the world in military service.
Kathy Wilds, Elcano’s youngest daughter, described her mother as kind, fun-loving, smart and great with children — she had helped Wilds and her siblings raise their own children, as well. She said her mother had the gift of giving each child the attention they deserved.
“She made all of us feel like we were only-children when we talked to her, even though there were five of us,” Wilds said.
Originally from Brookville, Pennsylvania, Elcano graduated from the Oil City Hospital School of Nursing in 1943. Wilds said she fondly remembers her mother recounting stories from her time as an army nurse, including the fear Elcano felt at the time mixed with a passion to help people.
Elcano’s daughter Mary Elcano said she realized she had been living with an American hero when she began to research and write about her mother’s legacy in the 90s.
“I was really in awe of [my mother], and always impressed with her calmness in a crisis,” Mary Elcano said. “I think her activity in WWII was a real linchpin of her personality; it made a big impression on her and affected how she handled life.”
Struck by her ability to focus on each child with her “laser blue eyes,” Mary Elcano said her mother had the gift of presence. She added that part of this gift was her mother’s love of laughter, and the power she had to make their family laugh to the point of tears.
Elcano enlisted in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps at 20 years old, and in 1944, landed on the beaches of Normandy with the 45th Evacuation Hospital, just 10 days after D-Day.
It was on that desolate shore – still in ruins from the German bombings – that Elcano earned many honors for her nursing service. After arriving by boat from England where she trained, Elcano waded to the shore as many of her colleagues were carried out of the water by marines.
While combat was still going on, Elcano and her nursing unit set up a hospital on the bluffs of Omaha Beach, an area that would later be turned into the Normandy American Cemetery. For the next year and a half, Elcano followed the front lines through France, Belgium and Germany.
Specializing in orthopedics, Elcano tended to soldiers who had lost their limbs. She later worked with patients who suffered brain injuries.
As the Battle of the Bulge raged on later that year, Elcano’s nursing unit set up a hospital in a nearby abandoned school building. There, Elcano had to crawl to deliver medication to wounded soldiers, so their unit would not be discovered by the Germans.
In the final days of WWII, Elcano’s Evacuation Hospital was the first to cross into Rhineland, Germany. She and her unit cared for victims of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp after the American Third Army liberated it in April of 1945.
Elcano’s service in WWII earned her the Meritorious Service Unit Plaque; the World War II Victory Medal; the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal; and the American Campaign Medal with Bronze Star. In March this year, the French government sent Elcano a letter, awarding her the French Legion of Honor Medal for her heroism.
The letter reads: “We are forever grateful to the men and women, who fought for our freedom, and to whom we owe it today.”
In September, the Daughters of the American Revolution awarded Elcano the Distinguished Citizen Medal for her exceptional contributions in army nursing service.
Elcano met her husband, Michael, an artillery officer, during their time in the war. They married in 1946 after returning to the states, where Marian was honorably discharged as a captain.
After marrying, the two had five children while moving across and out of the country, from Nevada to California, Tokyo, Kansas, Texas, Germany and finally settling in Virginia.
While raising their children, Elcano worked part time as a nurse in a local clinic in Alexandria. A devout Catholic, Elcano was a member of the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Alexandria since 1960.
Elcano is survived by her five children: Michele Gleitsmann of Nevada, Mary Elcano of Bethesda, David Elcano of Florida, Kathleen Wilds of Lexington and John Elcano of Centerville. She also has nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
The family held a funeral mass on Oct. 13 at Blessed Sacrament Church. They request in lieu of flowers that donations be made to the Fisher House Foundation.