Katharine Bainbridge, 84, drove ambulance in France during war

April 02, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Katharine G. Bainbridge, who drove an ambulance on the front lines during the early days of World War II and was an eyewitness to the fall of France, died Wednesday of cancer at Genesis Eldercare Center in Lutherville. She was 84.

A Baltimore socialite who was born and raised in Homeland, she was the daughter of Robert Garrett, prominent philanthropist and financier, who was associated with the Baltimore banking house of Robert Garrett & Co., which had been founded by his great-grandfather.

A 1932 graduate of Westover, a girls boarding school in upstate New York, Mrs. Bainbridge volunteered to go abroad with the American Friends of France as an ambulance driver in the fall of 1939.

FOR THE RECORD - Katharine G. Bainbridge: In an obituary for Katharine G. Bainbridge published in yesterday's editions of The Sun, the name of a survivor was inadvertently omitted. Mrs. Bainbridge is also survived by a sister, Ella Brigham of Paul Smiths, N.Y.

After being trained in first aid by the American Red Cross in Baltimore, she asked a Ford plant mechanic to show her how to handle a Ford ambulance because that was the type she would drive in France.

Assigned to the Valley of the Meuse, Mrs. Bainbridge recalled in a 1944 Harper's Bazaar article that anxiety and fear swept over her unit once the Nazis invaded Norway in April 1940. Thinking she was losing her nerve, she thought of asking for a transfer to another unit, out of harm's way.

"Don't ask yet," advised a French lieutenant who was a friend. "As long as you're scared -- nervous and alert -- you're all right. But if you ever feel yourself getting cocky, ask for a transfer then, because that will mean you have really lost your nerve."

On May 10, 1940, the Nazi invasion of France had begun with troops only 45 kilometers from her unit.

"That was a bad day," she told The Sun in a 1940 interview. "At 5 in the afternoon, we heard bombs falling quite near and thought, `Well, this is it,' " she said.

"I was there when the big drive started. We were evacuating civilians from the valley and had a space of some 2 1/2 days' evacuating time. We slept when we could and ate when we could, and it was not until we finished the evacuation that we realized we hadn't eaten in all that time. We had just forgotten about it," she said.

Perhaps the most harrowing moment occurred when her unit was northeast of Paris and was under sustained air attack May 17 and 18, 1940.

"It was during the intensive drive, and some of us had to abandon our ambulances. We hid in the woods from six to eight hours. The German planes scraped over the treetops, wave after wave. Then I was really scared," she told The Sun. "They began to machine-gun the woods after they passed over where we were. Either they didn't see us or we were just lucky.

"Paris is a dead city. The Germans are everywhere, in uniform and civilian clothes, and the French are stunned," she added.

For her courage under bombardment, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

After returning to Baltimore a month after the fall of France, she organized a course at Fort Holabird to train women to drive ambulances and trucks. The unit later became part of the American Red Cross Motor Corps.

She was married in 1943 to John S. Bainbridge Sr., a World War II Naval officer and lawyer. After the war, the couple settled in New York and later New Canan, Conn., while she continued volunteering for the Red Cross.

She returned to Baltimore after her divorce in the early 1970s and settled in Brooklandville. In recent years, she lived at the Bright- wood retirement community in Lutherville.

Mrs. Bainbridge, who enjoyed traveling by steamship, had taken many voyages aboard the Queen Elizabeth II, her favorite ship.

Services are private.

She is survived by her son, John S. Bainbridge Jr. of Baltimore; and four grandchildren.

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