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Edith R. ‘Roddy’ Esslinger, Army nurse who served in World War II and the Korean War, dies

Edith R. Esslinger took part in the evacuation from Chosin Reservoir in 1950 during the Korean War.
Edith R. Esslinger took part in the evacuation from Chosin Reservoir in 1950 during the Korean War. (HANDOUT)

Edith R. “Roddy” Esslinger, an Army nurse who served in World War II and the Korean War and who went on to a postwar career as a nurse anesthetist, died Wednesday of heart failure at her Parkville home. She was 99.

The former Edith Clara Roderick, the daughter of John Roderick, a steel foundry foreman, and his wife, Bertha Guernsey Roderick, a homemaker, was born and raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

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Mrs. Esslinger was a 1936 graduate of Allentown High School and the Reading (Pennsylvania) Hospital School of Nursing, now Reading School of Health Sciences, in 1939.

Before enlisting in the Army Nurse Corps in 1942, she worked as a nurse at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, and later at an emergency hospital, also in Washington.

She was sent to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and then to Needles, California, a desert training base, where she was in charge of three wards of 36 beds each. She was later stationed at O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield, Ohio, where her duties included working with German and Italian prisoners of war and plastic surgery cases.

“I don’t sit down or let grass grow under my feet,” she told The Morning Call in Allentown in a 1944 interview. “I love my work.”

She also said that “Axis prisoners are quietly courteous, and are amazed at, but nonetheless grateful for their good treatment. They are delighted with the food served them, since it includes many dishes they had never eaten before.”

Sent to England in 1944, Mrs. Esslinger served with the 91st General Hospital at a hospital in Headington, Oxford, that was known as the “Churchill Hospital.”

She was present for a July, 26, 1944, visit from Queen Elizabeth, later more familiarly known as the Queen Mother, who came to the hospital to thank its staff for their efforts in treating wounded service personnel. She was also there when band leader Glenn Miller and the Glenn Miller Orchestra performed for the patients and hospital staff.

Mrs. Esslinger was promoted to lieutenant while on staff at what The Morning Call described as being the "largest American hospital in England” in 1945, where she was working as an anesthetist.

After returning in 1945, Mrs. Esslinger worked as an anesthetist at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, where she also taught the subject, and in 1948 was promoted to the rank of captain.

In August 1950, she was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, and then to San Francisco, where she sailed for Yokohama, Japan, and then to her duty post at the 122nd Evacuation Hospital in Hamhung in northeastern Korea.

China had entered the Korean War and in late November 1950 thousands of Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River border with Manchuria and entered North Korea, forcing United Nation forces under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Korean forces, trailed by thousands of refugees fleeing the war, to head for South Korea.

On Nov. 26-27, 1950, 120,000 Red Army troops unleashed an attack at Chosin Reservoir, where 25,000 Marines occupied the western edge of the reservoir while the Army’s 31st Regimental Combat Team — also known as Task Force Faith — were on the eastern side.

The attack coincided with brutally cold weather with temperatures 30 to 40 degrees below zero. With United Nations forces becoming surrounded by the Chinese, an evacuation was ordered Dec. 1, over roads that were blocked by retreating forces.

Mrs. Esslinger was part of the ensuing Christmas Eve evacuation to Hungnam, a deep-water harbor on the northeast coast, where a task force of ships awaited the retreating soldiers.

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“She told us that when she eventually got to a ship, she had to climb up its side on a cargo net,” said her son, Matthew Esslinger of Bel Air. “She’d cry whenever she talked about that battle because she had seen the worst of it. She only talked about the war later in life because I think she wanted to keep it away from her children."

During the Christmas Eve evacuation, 105,000 soldiers and 91,000 refugees were rescued at Hungnam.

Mrs. Esslinger was later stationed at an Army hospital at Fort Eustis, Virginia, and then at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where she was discharged in 1955.

She was married in 1955 to Edward Carroll Esslinger, a pharmacist, who died in 2003.

Mrs. Esslinger worked as a nurse anesthetist at Sinai Hospital and what became the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center until her retirement in 1984.

For her service, Mrs. Esslinger was presented the Award of the Quilt of Valor by the MSP Quilting Angels of Germantown, and in 2012 the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center World War II’s Unsung Heroines Award, presented by Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

Mrs. Esslinger, who was known for her quick wit, enjoyed traveling and was an inveterate Orioles fan.

She also liked lunching with friends, and every Wednesday she could be found at the Pappas Restaurant on Taylor Avenue in Parkville. She dubbed the weekly luncheon “Martini Wednesday,” where she liked to sip a chilled martini.

When she wasn’t enjoying a martini, Mrs. Esselinger was a regular at the Curves gym in White Marsh, where she worked out.

Service are private.

In addition to her son, she is survived by two daughters, Susan Betz of Monkton and Carole Durkin of New Freedom, Pennsylvania; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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