When one of Maxine Llewellyn’s patients fell in love with her and proposed, the young nurse turned him down, for “selfish” reasons, she says.
“He had lost a leg,” said Llewellyn who’s known today by her married name Maxine Bredt. “I loved dancing, my music was in my feet, so I turned him down.”
Amputations, bullet wounds and disfigurement were just part of Bredt’s daily reality as a Nursing Sister, the title given to Canadian women who served as nurses during the Second World War.
The Sisters were commissioned officers, not nuns, but for the injured men who filled the army hospitals by the hundreds, they were a godsend.
Their goal was to make the soldiers’ lives as comfortable as possible. “They were are our boys, and we loved them,” said Bredt.
That contribution is being honoured by Veterans Affairs Canada as it prepares for Veterans’ Week, a series of events and ceremonies to be held across the country from Nov. 5 to 11.
This year’s poster highlights the 75th anniversary of the Italian campaign, and for the first time a Nursing Sister will be the face of its promotional efforts.
“It’s a pretty nice feeling,” said Bredt, who turns 100 in September and still fits into the khaki green Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps uniform she was issued 75 years ago.
After the war, she says, male veterans would march front and centre in Remembrance Day parades with the women relegated to the rear.
“We were never given any honours or any showing what we did in the war,” she said.
What they did was work long hours to relieve the suffering of Canadian, British and even enemy soldiers badly hurt in battle, under difficult conditions, in makeshift hospitals.
It was a far cry from the idyllic northern Canadian setting where Bredt grew up, in Terrace, B.C., where she dreamed of being a nurse.
But the war gave her the chance to follow her calling.
“I wanted to be right in the action,” Bredt said. “I had finished my training, and nurses were very scarce.”
Dodging the U-boats
She signed up for the medical corps in January 1944 and was soon on her way to Europe by sea, “dodging the U-boats,” German submarines whose goal was to sink Allied ships.
After a brief stint in England Bredt was posted to the 14th Canadian General Hospital in Perugia, Italy, about 150 kilometres north of Rome.
The unit had set up shop in a tobacco factory. “The medical ward alone would be 234 more beds, in one ward,” said Bredt, “You just had to make do, and you never complained about it.”
That included making the best of some macabre situations.
Bredt recalls drawing a smiley face on the stump of a soldier whose leg had been freshly amputated. “You pull the skin one way and the face would smile, pull it the other way it would frown. The patients loved it,” she said.
But hardest of all, says Bredt, was her time in England working in a burn unit at Basingstoke, after the Italian campaign had wrapped up.
“You just never forget, those boys and the burns, and how they suffered,” said Bredt, still visibly emotional, as she described how young soldiers trapped in burning tanks would be rescued and brought to the ward for treatment.
“I had to fight back the tears,” she said.
‘A symbol of strength’
“I think she’s a symbol of strength,” said Robert Loken, manager for honours, awards and commemoration at Veterans Affairs Canada, who produced the poster.
He says the department chose Bredt as part of their strategy of moving away from generic battlefield photos in favour of more personal stories.
“It’s really to put a face to that person who was there to defend our freedoms,” he said.
Loken says it’s important to highlight Canada’s participation in the Allied Italian campai, which ran from the summer of 1943 until the beginning of 1945 and in which 25,000 Canadian soldiers were killed or wounded.
He says featuring Bredt was a way to underline the importance of the battle for Italy and the role of women in the war.
“More often than not, any soldier who was injured during a battle, their first line of contact with a medical professional was a Nursing Sister,” said Loken.
An icon at the Legion
One place that’s eager to put up their copy of the poster is Bredt’s local Royal Canadian Legion Branch 115 in Hudson.
President Rod Hodgson says they’ve chosen a place of honour for the image of the retired lieutenant, known around the legion as Maxine.
“She’s an icon here, a real icon, and we’re so, so proud.” said Hodgson, who has known Bredt for about 60 years.
After the war, the young military nurse put down roots in Hudson after marrying a former RCAF flyer named Bill Bredt.
The couple raised four children there, and both worked for Trans-Canada Airlines, the precursor to Air Canada, Bill as a pilot and Maxine as a flight attendant.
Bill died in 2000, but Maxine is still a fixture at the Legion, especially on hamburger night.
And in her 100th year she hasn’t lost her spark or the music in her feet.
“She can dance circles around you,” said Hodgson.