Martha Pegram was born on November 1, 1917 in the rural community of Steel Creek in southern Mecklenberg County. She was the youngest of seven children born to Wirt and Amanda Pegram. After high school graduation, Martha entered the nearby Charlotte Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in 1937, determined to become a Registered Nurse. During her senior year she took care of a young man, Ramon Mitchell, who would later become her husband. At that time, Ramon was a student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. When he recovered, Ramon returned to Chapel Hill to attend flight school so he would be prepared to join the Air Force if the United States entered the war in Europe.
Early in 1941, a group of Charlotte area physicians and nurses, responding to the increasing threat of World War created the 38th Evacuation Hospital Unit (38th). Leaders in health care and the military thought that having medical units comprised largely of people who knew each other and worked together in civilian hospitals would best benefit the ill and wounded members of the military. Martha Pegram was one of 30 nurses to join the 38th Evac Hospital. Her grandfather served in the Confederate Army and an uncle served in WWI. She says she was motivated by “a bit of adventure, a little romance and learning. I knew I would learn things I wouldn't learn at Charlotte Memorial Hospital!”.
Evacuation Hospitals were first utilized in WWII. They were set up as close to the fighting as possible and after medics on the battlefield were the first health care a wounded soldier would encounter. Pegram explained the purpose of the newly created Evacuation Hospitals. “We stabilized then as quickly as possible and sent them to a field hospital and then to a general hospital. We could do anything. We had an x-ray, several operating room beds, a pharmacy, a laboratory and 52 nurses were ready to take care of them [wounded and ill soldiers]’
Evacuation hospitals were tent hospitals so they could be rapidly set up and moved to follow the fighting.
Members of the 38th were inducted into the Army at Marsh Field in Charlotte before going to Fort Bragg for Basic Training in April 1942. In Basic Training, Pegram and the other nurses took 5 mile hikes with their backpacks, did a lot of calisthenics, ate C rations, and as Pegram remembered “We had to learn airplane identification: ours, theirs, whoevers”.
From Fort Bragg the 38th went by ship to England and were assigned to be part of the invasion of North African known as Operation Torch. Their first assignment was Arzew, Algeria. 18,500 American paratroopers, infantry and armored units participated in invasion. The assault began at 1 am on November 8th 1942 and by mid day the nurse and physicians debarked their transport ship to start treating the wounded. Martha recalls the nurses landing in Oran.
“We clambered over a rope ladder and dropped into a little dingy that took you to shore, to an area that had been cleared by the infantry so we knew it was landmine free. We washed up to this little building, dumped our bedrolls and went out back ... About this time we heard gunfire and everyone dived back inside because a sniper, some snipers were out there”.
Within a few days the Hospital tents were erected and over 300 soldiers were treated the first week. The 38th treated American, French, British and Arab patients. The job of the 38th was to stabilize the wounded soldiers as quickly as possible and move them on to larger, safer, field hospitals and from there either back to the battlefield or to general hospitals in England or the United States for further treatment. In the beginning there was neither electricity nor running water. Flashlights and kerosene lanterns provided light for operations and bedside care and water was carried in from a nearby well. In African, the 38th treated 2,940 patients. Battlefield casualties included gunshot, shrapnel, and bayonet wounds, burns, amputations, concussions as well as blindness and deafness resulting from combat injuries. In addition, malaria was a common reason for hospitalization among the troops. Sulfonamides, the first antibiotics, had a central role in preventing wound infections and therefore deaths, during the war. All American service members were issued a first-aid kit containing sulfa pills and powder, and were told to sprinkle it on any open wound as soon as possible. Penicillin became available to combat hospitals by 1944 and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
The 38th followed the fighting across northern Africa from Arzew to St. Cloud, to Oran, to El Guerrah, to Telergma, to Beja to Tunis and finally back to Oran between November 1942 and September 1943. Each time they struck the tents they lived and worked in, moved by truck to a new location and re-established the hospital close to a new battlefield. The 38th gained some fame in the American media. Ernie Pyle, a popular war correspondent and frequently traveled with and wrote about the 38th. In an article in the Charlotte Observer on Jan13, 1943 he wrote in part
“If the folks in Charlotte, N.C. could only peep down out of the African sky and see their family doctors and nurses in their new life – what a surprise they’d have. For a bunch of men and women from Charlotte are operating the only American tent hospital so far set up in North Africa and they’re doing a dramatically beautiful job. … They are far from any town, set in the middle of a big oats field, out on the rolling plains. They began setting up the day after troops had battled their way over that very ground. They took in their first patients the next morning. Now the hospital has more than 700 patients, it takes 400 people to run it, and there are more than 300 tents covering 80 acres of oats stubble. Everything is in tents from the operating room to toilets. Everything was set up in three days. They can knock down and be on the move again in another three days … They are like a giant medical Ringling Brothers.”
In December 1943 a reporter from Life magazine was with the 38th. A sketch of Martha nursing a wounded soldier in a tent was on the cover of the December 27th, 1943 issue of the magazine.
The Allies won the war in North African and the 38th was dispatched to Blue Beach, Italy in September of 1943. In 2002, Martha recalled one of the patients she cared for: "We had a patient in Italy … and he had so many wounds and we worked so hard for this young man and we finally got him stabilized. And I did not know whatever happened to him. We’d given him IVs and blood transfusions … and we worked so diligently, so hard over this guy and he was so dreadfully wounded. We got him stabilized enough to move to a hospital in the rear and that was one of the most satisfying things for me. However, I did not know what happened to him. The Museum of the New South (in Charlotte) had the exhibit (about the 38th) and I told jean Johnson (the curator) about it, well, she found his wife and his two sons and they called me. .. He did make it through and it was just so satisfying to find out what happened to that man.”
In January, 1944 Martha received orders that she could rotate back to the United States, She returned to Charlotte, married her patient from her nursing school days, Ramon(also known as Jack) Mitchell, who was also on a short rotation home from the Air Force. After a short honeymoon, Martha was assigned to the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas to care for wounded troops who had been shipped back to the United States. Not long afterwards, Ramon, who was flying out of Britain on September 23, 1944 and was shot down and taken to a German POW camp. When the Head nurse at Brooke asked for volunteer nurses to staff a POW camp in Roswell, New Mexico, Martha agreed to go. She hoped the German nurses would provide good care for her husband so she wanted to provide good care for German POWs on American soil.
She was there on VE (Victory in Europe) Day, May 8th, 1945. The prisoners were released and Martha returned to Brooke. The war was still raging in the Pacific. Jack was released and assigned to an air base in Texas so he could be near his wife. They happened to be on a date at a movie theater when victory was declared over Japan in August 1945. Both were elated and soon released from the Armed Forces.
They returned to Charlotte and after raising 3 boys, Martha returned to work at Charlotte Memorial Hospital retiring in 1988.
- First Lieutenant Martha Pegram Mitchell's War Stories (CML)
- Martha Eugenia Pegram Mitchell Veteran's History Project (Library of Congress)