Service to Veterans the core of Red Lodgian’s mother’s heart

Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Thursday, October 3, 2019
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Courtesy photos
Joel S. Todd and his wife, Thelma during World War II.

When World War II broke out Thelma Matthewson of Syracuse, New York, and mother of Joel W. Todd, of Red Lodge, did not just want to support the Armed Services, she wanted to be in the action. Perhaps her moxie is genetic; she is related to Christy Mathewson, Baseball Hall of Famer and a distant cousin.  

She enlisted in September 1942, as an Army nurse. Her service led her to North Africa, Europe and the Middle East. In May 1942, Joel S. Todd enlisted and went to London. They met and married in London. He would later fight in the Battle of the Rhineland. 

After North Africa, Thelma was assigned to a post in Germany in January 1943. She would not leave Germany until October, 1945. 

The United States Army Nurse Corps (AN or ANC) was formally established by the U.S. Congress in 1901. It is one of the six medical special branches (or "corps") of officers which – along with medical enlisted soldiers – comprise the Army Medical Department (AMEDD). There were 59,000 American nurses serving in WWII. Two hundred nurses died.

In Germany, Thelma’s service group moved so far east, her base had to evacuate because they were in the area of the pending Battle of the Bulge. There was a serious risk of being overrun. There were a handful of nurses there and similar number of American nurses in North Africa compared to troop numbers says Joel. 

But her fear was not near the front. “It was during the bombing of London,” said Joel. She told him the “Buzz Bombs” would scream and that was bearable. “It was when they went silent and you waited for them to drop,” he said. “They didn’t know where it was going to be, they just basically had to live their lives. The randomness of it. That would be terrifying.”

As Hitler tried to get the atom bomb going the U.S. destroyed their heavy water plants serving them a big setback. Joel said, “(German scientist) Van Buren was captured; it was not voluntary. He came over and he made a deal. He was the father of our rocketry. He was a genius. He was in charge of developing all of that.” Going to the moon, the Manhattan project-German genius contributed.  “A lot of things happened at that time were so critical to the outcome of the war.”

Everyone was first based in England for allied operations. “After serving in North Africa she returned to England to the 52nd General Hospital, Kidderminster, England. Doctors and nurses from Memorial Hospital in Syracuse, New York initially staffed and established that hospital. “With 10,000 treated there, only 3 died. It was considered an extraordinary result. It was a testament to their professionalism.”

After D-Day and the beachheads were established, an American hospital was set up in France. “By the time of Battle of the Bulge she was up closer to the line. They kept moving to follow the troops,” said Joel.

Although generally tight-lipped about the war, he was amazed how nonchalantly she would recall that time. “She’d be getting coffee and say to me, ‘Oh, we were going to be overrun by the Germans, we had to be evacuated.’” She would also treat combat wounded German Prisoners of War.

“This is the ultimate small world story," said Joel. "My best friend growing up was Art Maze in Liverpool, NY, a suburb of Syracuse. Art went into the army, to Vietnam. Very smart kid. They put him in intelligence, sent him to Germany. He spent over a year in West Germany on the German border monitoring German and Soviet communications. All spy work.”

While he was there, he met a girl, Gaby, they came back to the United States and they were married here. 

“My mother was his mother’s best friend. So we were invited to the wedding. At the wedding, Art’s father approached my mother. He said, ‘Are you the red headed nurse?’ She said yes. When younger she had flaming red hair and they called her “Red.” He said, ‘You don’t remember me but I was one of the German soldiers and you treated me!’”

Todd’s father died of extreme hypertension, when he was ten, most likely from PTSD from the war. “My mother thought he did (have PTSD) but that wasn’t ‘official.’ He was a combat medic. Because of what he saw and what he did. Back then, there was no medication to control that. He was a robust guy; he wasted away.” His father died at 58. 

Joel says proudly, “He was Joel Sherman Todd-we are direct descendants of General Sherman!” 

Thelma passed at 96 in 2015. “She lived totally independent until 93, no assistance or anything. Did all of her own housework, cooking and cleaning. She lived in Liverpool, New York.”

When asked her secret to long life he said, “I think one of the things she did better than anybody (was that) my mother had three meals every single day and she cooked.” She made sure it was balanced. 

“Her nutritional habits were excellent. She followed them all through her life. In retrospect, I would say that’s why she was so healthy. She always made sure she did the same for us. That was the first thing she’d say when we came home-you know how moms are.”

Thelma had three children with her first husband. She remarried two years after her husband died and had her fourth son with him. “My youngest brother,” says Todd. “He just retired from the FBI. He’s lived in Dallas almost his entire career. When the Savings and Loan system collapsed, he slapped the cuffs on Dixon.” (Don Dixon operated Vernon Savings and Loan in Texas.) His picture cuffing Dixon with the Texas Attorney General looking on was on the cover of Time magazine. 

Joel’s family lived in Billings in 1973 and came to Red Lodge time to time. Joel became an attorney in Philadelphia who would visit Red Lodge with his family. Finally, Joel and his wife decided not to just visit. “We took one look at this place and knew it was where we wanted to be.” They bought the land for their home in ‘96, breaking ground in 2001. From 2002-8, they were spending summers here. By the end of the 2008 summer, they decided to stay.

What does he want us to know about his mother’s service? 

“I can tell you what is indicative. When my father died, she got a very small amount of life insurance. She moved us back to Syracuse. She used it as a down payment on a house in Liverpool (near Syracuse), New York. She got a job as a Surgical Recovery Nurse in Syracuse at the Veterans Administration Hospital.”

He concluded, “Her entire professional career was devoted to taking care of injured or sick veterans both as a Nurse Corps nurse in WWII and as a service nurse in Syracuse.” 

He noted, “She’s been a tremendous influence on me.” He recalls her stamina and determination. “She worked the 11 to 7 shift.” Joel was old enough to be home with the kids. “She’d be there to put us to bed and she’d be there in the morning to get us off to school. She took care of everything. We never had any childcare. Ever. She did it all herself. With three kids!” The later marriage did not change the dynamics much since his stepfather had suffered from service in the Pacific and left everything to her to manage. In addition, she had the fourth child. 

He is quick to add that as the children of a single parent it was not a life without responsibilities. “Mine was taking care of the house, doing dishes and the outside. Funny story. My wife heard this and she thought she was getting a domestic!” 

“Didn’t happen,” he said with a laugh. 




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