Obituary: Muriel Engelman

Heroic war veteran who risked German capture to nurse her 'wonderful' American GI soldiers


One of the last surviving decorated US veterans of the Second World War, Muriel Engelman has died in Laguna Woods,California, at the age of 101. She was the recipient of the Legion D’Honneur, France’s highest public service medal.

Muriel Engelman served for two years in the Army Medical Corps with the 16th General Field Hospital, the closest medical facility to the front line during the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s surprise counter-offensive in the Ardennes during the winter of 1944.

It was a battle which saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war and cost several thousand US and Allied lives.

Engelman was subsequently included alongside Marlene Dietrich, Virginia Hall, Josephine Baker and others in a compendium of Women Heroes of WW2 – 32 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue, published in 2018.

Born into a Jewish family in Meriden, Connecticut in 1921, the then Muriel Phillips knew from a young age she wanted to be a nurse and graduated from Cambridge Hospital School of Nursing in Cambridge, MA, in 1942.

During her training America had entered the war and upon leaving college she was enlisted into the medical corps, choosing to serve with the army overseas. She was posted initially to Fort Adams, Newport RI and then to the newly formed 16th General Hospital, based at Fort Devens, MA, in preparation for departure to Europe in December, 1943.

In her memoir, Mission Accomplished: Stop The Clock, she related how she had accidentally and unknowingly almost caused a disaster during her Atlantic crossing when she learned a boyfriend was on the adjacent vessel in the 50-ship convoy.

She excitedly attempted to make contact with him via morse code and in so doing, risked disclosing the convoy’s location to any U-boat in the vicinity. When the Admiral of the Fleet, who was on her friend’s vessel, was informed the pair both only narrowly escaped court-martial.

Redemption was to follow in the form of several months’ heroic service, including at one of the most harrowing and relentless engagements endured by US forces during the war in Europe.

After training and preparation in England, the 16th General Field Hospital was deployed to France in the summer of 1944. In October, with the Germans in apparent retreat and Allied forces advancing, the hospital was assigned to the outskirts of Liege, Belgium.

Muriel worked 12-hour night shifts in the surgical unit, receiving and caring for German counter-offensive, led by a sustained assault with a new terror weapon, the V1 rocket (‘buzz bomb’), in an attempt to cut off US supply lines.

Muriel recalled: “They came over every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, for the next two and a half months. Our hospital was hit three times, killing and wounding patients and personnel. You’d hear them coming in the distance, putt-putt puttering along, and your heart would sink.”

The 16th General Hospital was an experiment by the War Department, who wanted to station a full hospital operation in tents as close to the front line as possible, using the new triage system whereby priority for treatment and evacuation depended on the patient’s injuries.

The key engagement of the Battle of the Bulge commenced on 16th December with the encirclement of the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, under constant bombardment from all sides and shortages of food and ammunition due to heavy cloud cover which had prevented air resupply.

By Christmas Eve the Germans were only ten miles from Liege. Engelman recalled: “Most American hospitals had already evacuated to France or Luxembourg. We felt like sitting ducks, hoping and waiting for orders to evacuate which never came. Instead we nurses were told to pack our musette bags with warm clothing and to be prepared to move out at ten minutes’ notice in the event of capture by the Germans.

“I was especially scared because my ID ‘dog tag’ denoted ‘H’ for Hebrew and we knew from the Malmedy massacre patients we had received a few weeks earlier that Hitler had no regard whatsoever for Geneva conventions.”

Along with the few other Jewish staff, Engelman felt sure she would be either killed on the spot or “deported to the East” if taken prisoner. She marvelled at the spirit of her “handsome, brave young patients”, some of whom wanted to switch dog-tags with her to save her life.

On 26 December the skies finally cleared and Allied air forces were quickly able to relieve the besieged 101st which had heroically held out at Bastogne. Within a week the German counter-offensive had crumbled, Hitler’s gamble had failed and the war in Europe was entering its final phase.

After two years’ service in Europe Engelman was repatriated to the US as 1st Lieutenant and awarded four medals along with the Belgian Fourragere and Meritorious Service Unit Plaque.

She didn’t return to nursing after the war ended. “I could never go back to civilian nursing. There was no patient on Earth as wonderful as G.I. Joe the American soldier.”

Upon her return Muriel was re-acquainted with Melvin Engelman, a WW2 US navy veteran whom she had known from the age of ten in Connecticut.

They married in 1949 and settled in Wappingers Falls, NY where Melvin, by now a qualified dentist, established a surgery. They had two children, a son, Curtis, and a daughter, Suzy. The couple subsequently retired to Florida and then Laguna Woods, CA, where Melvin died in December, 2000, aged 99.

Muriel Engelman published her memoir in 2008 and in her late 80s she embarked on a programme of lectures to veterans’ groups, high schools and colleges and media appearances to accompany her book. She was adept at relating her wartime experiences and speaking to audiences without notes or an autocue for up to an hour at a time.

She was awarded the Legion d’Honneur by President Macron in recognition of “France’s immense gratitude for and appreciation of” her service.

She received her medal from the French Consul for California at a ceremony in Los Angeles, on 18 September, 2018, attended by family and friends.

Muriel Engelman is survived by her son Curtis, daughter Suzy, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Muriel Engelman: born 12 January, 1921. Died 30 June, 2022

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