Editor's note: This is the third in a series of stories detailing valor awards for service members whose heroism was overlooked at the outset; whose awards were lost, or never received by family members; or whose actions otherwise fell victim to some type of oversight. For more stories of heroism, past and present, visit our searchable Hall of Valor database; the hall's curator, Doug Sterner, assisted in story selection and research.


The women: Reserve Nurses Beatrice Mary MacDonald and Helen Grace McClelland.

The moment: Both nurses were stationed at a British-run casualty clearing station just miles from the front line on Aug. 17, 1917, working with surgical teams to provide triage services and medical care to troops. Both continued their duties despite a nighttime German air raid, treating the wounded as bombs fell.

MacDonald would lose her eye as a result of her injuries. The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor recognizes her as the first female recipient of the Purple Heart Medal, though retroactively — the order that created the modern award was signed by Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1932.


Beatrice Mary MacDonald returned to service after a 1917 bombing cost her an eye.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of National Purple Heart Hall of Honor

The medals: The nurses received the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions. The awards marked the first ground combat actions to merit such recognition in World War I, according to Sterner; the American Expeditionary Forces had barely arrived in France at the time, and U.S. troops didn't join the trenches in large numbers until the fall of 1917, with most major battles occurring the following year.


MacDonald would remain in service despite her injury: "I've only started doing my bit," she said, according to a Harvard University piece outlining material from her scrapbook. McClelland would serve as the director of the Pennsylvania Hospital School of Nursing for 23 years until her retirement in 1956.


Despite the surge of World War I remembrances surrounding the centennial of America's involvement, the nurses' actions rarely received mention.


Helen Grace McClelland worked in nursing for nearly four decades after receiving the Distinguished Service Cross.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections, Philadelphia

Key quote: "It is interesting to note that this cross is to be conferred upon a woman and a nurse," said War Secretary Newton Baker, during the presentation of MacDonald's award in 1919.


"This war has, of course, taken the nurses, who are the ministers of mercy, up to the very front lines of battle," Baker added, "and because of the carrying of the war into the third dimension, the airplane has, of course, made their task more perilous."