'I never wanted anything else' (w/video)
URBANA — A leather photo wallet may have saved Ted McClurg's life when shrapnel flew through the tank he commanded.
Betty McClurg still has that wallet, pierced through and through by a piece of shrapnel. He kept pictures of his mother and sister in the pocket over his heart.
If Ted hadn't survived that day late in World War II, he'd never have met the love of his life, Betty, or been a father to Ernie, who served in Vietnam, or Elizabeth Felts Olmsted, their surviving daughter.
Betty, 92, grew up in Iowa but has lived in Urbana ever since she married Ted McClurg after nursing him back to health.
She was a second lieutenant in the Army after she moved her nursing career from civilian to military midway through World War II.
She outranked her sergeant husband, but they "managed to share things pretty well" in the 48 years they were married before Ted died of heart problems 20 years ago.
Growing up, she always wanted to be a nurse.
"I never wanted anything else," she says. "In the third grade, the teacher had us write an autobiography, and I said I meant to be a nurse."
She now says that the Great Depression probably contributed more to her life outlook than the war did. Those hard times toughened her and her husband, as it did many in the "Greatest Generation."
She was working in a hospital ward Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese planes launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, killing more than 2,300 people and laying waste to the fleet bottled up in the harbor.
She heard snatches of the news as she moved from hospital room to hospital room.
The war hit home soon — with food and supplies going to an ever-growing U.S. military force, requiring rationing for civilians.
She remembers having to turn her ration cards in to the hospital for the cafeteria to make its meals.
"There were things you didn't get, like sugar," she says. "It was more important that the servicemen got the sugar."
Even with gas rationing, in 1943, she moved with a girlfriend to California, which she says was "pretty racy" in a time when women were often chaperoned to dances.
McClurg says she long considered enlisting in the war effort, and did so in 1944, not long before Allied troops landed at Normandy on June 6. She heard the news of D-Day while stationed at an army hospital in Iowa.
Not much later, her future husband was in her ward. Severely wounded soldiers from the Midwest were sent to hospitals near their relatives.
Ted was in Normandy that fall after being in the ROTC at the University of Illinois, where he studied business.
He served in George Patton's Third Army, speeding toward Germany.
Once in Europe, the tank crew "liberated" wine and food when the opportunity arose, she recalls her husband telling her. At one point, Ted had to stop his crew from taking shells out of the tank to make room for more goodies.
Once its hatch was open, Ted's tank was vulnerable. A German shell exploded and shrapnel flew, mainly hitting him; the worst hit him over the heart and left collarbone.
"That photo holder probably saved his life," says his daughter.
With no medic on hand, the rest of the crew had to leave McClurg by the side of the road.
He came to and started walking toward an aid station; eventually, a soldier in a Jeep gave him a ride the rest of the way.
The war was over for him, but the healing was only beginning. After several hospital stays and an ocean voyage, he found himself in Iowa, on a floor with soldiers with worse wounds than him.
Betty would take him to chapel, and they started to talk. He had an unusual sense of humor, often starting funny stories with a straight face.
They were married Aug. 24, 1945. She wore her uniform.
Ted and Betty McClurg lived for a while on Green Street, in a house later knocked down to make room for Lincoln Square. He was a well-known insurance man who was active in the community, especially scouting.
When he died in 1992, he went out in a big way. Ted had been college buddies with longtime UI music professor and saxophonist Dan Perrino, who started the Medicare 7, 8 or 9 jazz band.
At Ted's funeral, the New Orleans-style band played "When The Saints Come Marching In" as a dirge.
"Afterwards, they played it as lively and fun, and I think Ted would have liked that," Betty says.