by ANDREW NEAL
Royal Oak resident and veteran journalist Michael W. R. Davis has a personal connection to his latest book, “Forsaken Angels: In Their Own Words.” He’s now hoping it will help rally support for granting World War I nurses, like his mother Laura, posthumous military commissions.
A Kentucky son, Davis was born in 1931 to parents Laura and Erle. After graduating from Louisville Male High School, he went on to study history at Yale and later moved to Miami, where he stumbled into a life of journalism. He would go on to have bylines in Business Week, Time, Life, Huffington Post, and author 18 non-fiction books.
After retiring from Ford, where he spent 25 years as a public relations director, Davis worked as an executive at the Detroit News and spent five years as executive director of the Detroit Historical Society.
His father Erle was a newspaper man too, although Davis never saw himself as following in his footsteps.
Erle was working at the Chicago Tribune in the midst of World War I. He would later join the effort, too. He was dating Laura Huckleberry, a nurse for the Northwestern University hospital unit No. 12. In May of 1917, Laura’s unit received orders that they were headed to France to support a 500-bed base hospital. She and her unit would continue to serve overseas until the end of the war, over a year and a half later.
During their time apart, Laura and Erle penned hundreds of letters to each other, detailing the highs and lows of love and war. “My dad with his never-lost sense of story, he had retained all those letters,” Davis says.
A decade after she died, Laura’s diary was found stuck behind the drawer of an old wooden dresser. This gave her son the idea to tell her story.
“It was a very hard story for me to tell, to write about your mother,” says Davis. “You know, how do you write about your mother?”
He started by gathering as much material as he could. The Northwestern archives served as an indispensable source for supporting documents and relevant information. “Just her letters wouldn’t have done it.”
While the supporting documents are helpful, and include relevant news articles and diaries of other doctors and nurses in the unit, it is Laura’s letters to Erle that tell the real story in Forsaken Angels.
“It’s more than just a diary of World War I nurses, there’s far more to it than that. It’s ultimately a love story, a wartime love story, unusual in that respect,” says Davis. “It tells so much about the times. It’s a social history.”
Laura was also part of the journalism business without ever penning a published word. “He would get stuff out of her letters and walk it right over to the Chicago Tribune,” Davis says of his parents.
One instance Davis outlines, before the war, a boat tipped over and drowned many people. Laura was one of the Red Cross nurses sent to treat patients and recover the bodies.
“She went to the telephone and called dad to tip him off about this,” according to Davis. “And the same thing happens during the war.”
“Her fellow nurses were not just in the abstract but they were her roommates, her closest friends who were killed.”
Davis is now using the words of Forsaken Angels to rally support from both the community and Congress to posthumously grant these World War I nurses Army commissions.
“There’s a bigger national story because of the way these nurses were treated. They were treated as second-class citizens.”
Davis’ mother was a chief ward nurse. He estimates that her modern rank would be that of a captain or major. “It’s the kind of thing in my view no one should be against. Because there’s no cost. It’s not like you’re going to give them veteran benefits. That’s not the wish. It’s to posthumously grant them the commissions.”
Davis has sent letters to members of Congress including Mike Bishop, Debbie Stabenow, John Yarmuth, Mitch McConnell, and others. So far, he’s yet to make progress on convincing a member of Congress to introduce the symbolic gesture for a vote.
“I just thought I’d plant the idea and see what happens,” Davis said. “Somebody will grab it and run.”
“Forsaken Angels: In Their Own Words” is now available online via Amazon.