It is one of the least visited graveyards for American soldiers in Europe. I have visited several times and marveled at its haunting beauty. I have also wondered how many others make the pilgrimage all the way from the United States to the Rhone American Cemetery and Memorial in Draguignan in Provence. On a hot fall day recently, I enter the graveyard and I cannot spot a single wreath in memory of the 851 military dead, most of whom lost their lives during the liberation of Southern France in August 1944, following Operation Dragoon.
Cypresses and oleanders skirt the 12.5 acres of the graveyard where Americans were first buried on 19 August 1944. My first stop is the grave of Pfc. Lattie Tipton, the close friend of the legendary Audie Murphy, WWII’s most decorated infantryman. Tipton served alongside Murphy in B Company of the 15th Infantry Regiment and was killed in a vineyard, which I have also visited several times, near St. Tropez - just a few hours after landing with Murphy in the first wave on the first day of Operation Dragoon.
Not far away, near the graveyard’s chapel, a bronze relief map shows the progress of the 7th Army from the golden sands of the Cote d’Azur to the Vosges Mountains on the border of Germany. On a wall are inscribed 294 names of the missing, many of whom belonged to the 3rd and 45th Infantry Divisions, which I’ve followed through the war in two of my books.
The brutal odyssey of these two divisions – which served longest in the European Theatre – is little known today. These men of the 7th Army, some having battled all the way from North Africa, across Sicily and up the jagged spine of Italy, landed in France as their brothers in arms were breaking out of Normandy. Their D-Day that 15 August of 1944 garnered few headlines. Their epic travails in the last winter of the war, in the Vosges, were overlooked as the Battle of the Bulge, to the north, dominated coverage of the war in Europe.
I stand beneath an olive tree, hiding from the sun. There has been a water shortage. The grass is no longer the verdant field of the forgotten fallen I remember from my first visit. My attention is drawn to a white cross a few yards away. The headstone reads: ALEDA E. LUTZ, 1 LT 802 EVAC SQ 51 TRP CARR WG MICHIGAN NOV 1 1944. Here lies the only woman in the graveyard.
I soon learn more about the truly extraordinary Aleda Lutz. She joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1942 and then went to North Africa as an Air Evacuation Nurse with the 12th Air Force. She belonged to an elite, pioneering cadre – just 2 percent of 59,000 US nurses in WWII were qualified flight nurses. She flew in unmarked planes – legal targets for the enemy - that delivered critical supplies to hotspots in combat zones and then extracted the wounded. Over twenty dramatic months, she participated in no less than six battle campaigns, evacuating troops no matter the weather in Tunisia, Italy and France. At Anzio, she landed under shell fire four times in one day.
Finally, her luck ran out. Her flight crashed on 1 November 1944 in the mountains of central France. Her plane was carrying 15 wounded men, six of them German. No-one survived. She was the only woman on the plane, aged 28, one of the first American servicewoman to die in combat in WWII, and one of 543 US women who died during the war.
Lutz had gone above and far beyond the call of duty. Arguably the most experienced US flight nurse of the war, she had made 196 evacuations, flew 814 combat hours, and carried more patients than any other nurse to safety – more than 3500. General Mark Clark, who led the 5th Army in Italy, attended her funeral. She received the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously in December 1944, the first military woman to be so honored.
It is a short walk to the chapel from Lutz’s grave. One wall inside is covered in a stunning mosaic displaying the Great Seal of the United States – a golden eagle, talons clutching arrows. Words are highlighted in gold declaring that the chapel serves as a “SACRED RENDEZVOUS OF A GRATEFUL PEOPLE WITH ITS IMMORTAL DEAD.”
I walk back through the graveyard and then gaze at a carving of the “Angel of Peace” on the face of a memorial. The angel holds a baby as she watches over the graves of the hundreds of men and one lone woman who lie before her in eternal sleep. That single heroine, Aleda Lutz, deserves to be far better known, for she symbolizes the courage and resilience of so many women who suffered and served at home and abroad, whether toiling in munitions factories or air-lifting maimed young men from battlefields. Indeed, Lutz and her fellow angels of mercy, as well as the millions of women who labored for victory, were as vital as their brothers in arms in the battle to defeat evil.