Grace G. Orr, 84, public health nurse who helped liberate Nazi camp

November 23, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,SUN REPORTER

Grace G. Orr, a retired city public health nurse who helped liberate the Nazis' Mauthausen concentration camp at the end of World War II, died of complications from abdominal surgery Nov. 15 at Good Samaritan Hospital. The Overlea resident was 84.

Born Grace Preisinger in Baltimore and raised on Llewelyn Avenue, she was a 1939 graduate of Seton High School and earned a nursing degree from the old St. Joseph Hospital School of Nursing.

She became an Army nurse and was assigned to a unit that served under Gen. George S. Patton, whose nurses wore Army fatigues and combat boots.

Mrs. Orr landed at Normandy in late June 1944 as part of a field team that consisted of a doctor, nurse and two medical corpsmen. They were assigned to the front lines, and she saw action at St. Mere Eglise and Bastogne.

"I never knew Aunt Grace to be afraid of much, but she didn't like when it was foggy. I learned later that her dislike of fog came from that terrible struggle in the Ardennes forest," said her niece, Jeanne Johnson of Manassas, Va. "She was at the front line of the battle, and she said you never knew what was in the fog, and what was coming at you."

She recalled that her aunt was not always a perfect nurse and soldier, though.

"Grace's unit commander held up her promotion to second lieutenant and absolutely refused to approve a promotion to captain," her niece said. "Despite orders, Grace would not remove the bright ribbons she wore in her hair, because the soldiers she treated liked seeing those ribbons. For Grace, making her patients feel a little better was more important than wearing captain's bars."

The niece said Mrs. Orr was assigned in May 1945 to be part of the team that liberated the Mauthausen camp near Linz, Austria. As part of her duties, she had to find the living among the many dead.

Family members said she spent eight weeks at the camp and lost 30 pounds because of the emotional toll of the work. For many years she declined to speak of the experience, and she would never eat potato soup or dark rye bread because she associated them with the camp.

"The horrors she saw there affected her deeply for the rest of her life. I know that she would never buy striped trousers or shirts, as they reminded her of the prisoner uniforms," her niece said.

She attended dedication ceremonies in Washington in 1997 for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, and last year for the World War II Memorial.

"She felt it was an honor to have served," said her daughter, Susan Richardt Maxa of Baltimore. "She never thought of her World War II service as anything special. She was very humble."

Mrs. Orr was a member of the American Legion's Parkville post.

After returning to Baltimore, she became a city public health nurse. She worked at several East Baltimore schools and at a clinic on Caroline Street, and was active in the polio immunization program of the 1950s. She retired in 1979.

She met her husband, Clarence B. Orr, who later became a Baltimore County elementary school teacher, while in the service. They were married for 32 years before his death in 1979.

A funeral Mass was offered Saturday at St. Michael Roman Catholic, where she was a member.

In addition to her daughter and niece, survivors include a granddaughter.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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