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Town and Village

A nurse’s courage remembered anew

Putney’s Maxine C. Loomis honored at town’s Veterans’ Day service

PUTNEY—During Sunday’s Veterans’ Day service at the Community Center, the American Red Cross honored a Putney woman who became the town’s first war casualty when the ship that was carrying her to England was torpedoed by a German submarine on June 26, 1941.

Maxine C. Loomis was born in Putney in 1915, and trained as a nurse in Springfield, Mass. At 26, she volunteered as an American Red Cross nurse and served in England.

The daughter of Carroll and Ethel Loomis, Maxine Loomis was one of two Red Cross volunteers who lost their lives when the S.S. Maasdam, a cargo and passenger ship operated by the Holland America Line, was sunk off Iceland.

A memorial plaque from the Red Cross, which had been affixed to a gravestone in the family plot in Westminster New Cemetery, was stolen two years ago.

Her surviving sister-in-law, Marilyn Loomis, reached out to the Vermont & New Hampshire Upper Valley chapter of the Red Cross to see whether a replacement could be made.

On Sunday, the new plaque was presented to the Loomis family, and was accepted by Marilyn’s half-sister, Barbara Loomis Titus of Dummerston.

‘Those poor, brave nurses’

Service to the nation is nothing out of the ordinary for the Loomises, with the names of 14 family members on the Putney war memorial in front of Town Hall.

They have honorably served in conflicts from the Spanish-American War to the current war in Afghanistan.

But the story of Maxine Loomis still is painful to recount for the members of the family old enough to remember.

The United States was still officially neutral as World War II raged in Europe, but the American Red Cross was already engaged as part of its longstanding humanitarian mission.

The S.S. Maasdam left New York on June 11, 1941, carrying war materiel and wheat bound for Liverpool, England. Also on board: a crew of 48, plus 32 passengers, including 11 U.S. Marines and 17 American Red Cross volunteer nurses. The Marines were headed to London for duty at the U.S. Embassy, while the nurses were going to the Harvard Field Hospital in Salisbury, just outside London.

The Maasdam arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia on June 13, and was assigned to Convoy HX 133 three days later. Submarine warfare was in full swing at that point. In the three years between Sept. 3, 1939 and Aug. 31, 1942, German and Italian submarines sank 1,904 merchant ships as Germany sought to defeat England by attacking the merchant ships that were that nation’s lifeline for food, fuel, and other materials.

Grouping ships in convoys, with destroyers providing armed escort, was the principal strategy for reducing the fearsome toll against Allied shipping. But even with the safety of numbers, crossing the North Atlantic during this time was considerably dangerous.

The weather during the voyage was particularly bad. It began with heavy fog, and then turned stormy.

On June 23, the crew of the Maasdam received its first warning that a German “wolf pack” of attack submarines was in their area. Three days later, on the night of June 26, the Maasdam’s crew spotted the German subs. The convoy was about 300 miles south of Iceland.

The first torpedo fired upon the ship by the German sub U-564 found its mark on the port side. As the Maasdam began sinking, four of the ship’s six lifeboats, carrying 48 crew members and 32 passengers, were able to be launched.

Loomis was in lifeboat 6, which soon took on water and would eventually be swamped. She and hospital housemother Ruth Woodman Breckenridge of Winston-Salem, N.C., attempted to swim toward a Norwegian freighter, the Havprins, that stopped to rescue survivors.

Both women, suffering from cold and exhaustion, came close to rescue, though neither would survive on that terrible night.

As described by David L. Baatenburg — son of Dirk Baatenburg de Jong, a crew member on the Maasdam — in a 2007 piece for the Calvin College magazine Origins (www.calvin.edu/hh/origins/Fall07_25_2.pdf), this is what his father witnessed from lifeboat 6:

“Several people had a hold on the [rescue] drum or the rope, including Maxine Loomis, grasping the drum ‘in utter terror.’ As the drum was pulled toward Havprins, everyone except Loomis let go of the drum as they approached the ship.

“Two lines and a lifebuoy were thrown to her but Loomis, described as being in full shock, continued to hold onto the drum but ‘she apparently had no notion, as she continued staring with terrified wide open eyes.’

“As the ship began to move forward, Loomis apparently finally let go of the floating drum, slipped beneath the waves near the ship’s propeller and like Breckenridge drowned.

“The deaths of Ruth Breckenridge and Maxine Loomis left a scar on my father that never quite healed. When he did speak about the events he never failed to mention the deaths of the two women. ... Days before his death, on March 25, 2007, he again described the helpless feeling at watching those unfolding events, ending with the phrase ‘those poor, brave nurses.’”

Marilyn Loomis, who planned to attend Sunday’s service, felt too ill to make it, as did her 89-year-old brother Wilbur Loomis, who served in the Army in Europe during World War II and survived the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45.

“Whenever her Dad, my father-in-law, spoke of Maxine, there was so much pain in his eyes,” Marilyn wrote in the Brattleboro Reformer in 2012.

An honor restored

In a letter sent to Carroll and Ethel Loomis on Jan. 11, 1943, the national office of the American Red Cross wrote of Maxine Loomis and the five other volunteers from the Harvard Unit who died before they reached their posts that “their courage and resolution was as great, but no greater than that of all the other members of the unit, but their sacrifice was greater and the loneliness and sorrow that has come into the lives of each of their families cannot be forgotten by any of us.”

To honor her service, the American Red Cross gave the Loomis family a plaque a short time later inscribed with the following words:

“To Maxine C. Loomis, in honor of her courage and resolution in crossing the sea to serve with the American Red Cross Harvard Field Hospital Unit England, 1915-1941.”

That plaque remained on Maxine’s grave until two years ago. It was Barbara Titus who discovered that the plaque was missing. She said it was “horrible” to see the blank spot on her grave where the plaque once was.

Its theft was painful for the Loomis family, according to Doug Bishop of the Vermont & New Hampshire Upper Valley chapter of the Red Cross. As Marilyn Loomis told Bishop in a letter, the plaque “was our only reminder of what she did and how she died in the service of our country as a member of the Red Cross.”

Bishop said the Red Cross “must never forget the service, dedication, and humanitarian acts of its volunteers, none more than those who sacrificed their lives. Before a time when students have required community service as part of their high school curriculum, before President Kennedy implored us to think not of what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country, there were men and women like Maxine Loomis who gave selflessly to causes greater than themselves.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #229 (Wednesday, November 13, 2013). This story appeared on page A6.

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