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Sara Blanche Vance

Young American Patriots, 1946

West Virginia Veterans Memorial

Remember...

Sara Blanche Vance
1906-1944

"Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, guts. That’s what little girls are made of; the heck with sugar and spice."

Bethany Hamilton

U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Sara Blanche Vance, commonly called Blanche by those around her, was a small-town West Virginia girl. For generations her family had resided in West Virginia with the males holding an upstanding tradition of military service. Her grandfather, Elijah Vance, served in the Civil War as a Confederate soldier. Her father, Richard Vance, did his time during World War I—the so-called “War to End All Wars”—at thirty-eight. Her brother, Ernest Wetzel Vance, joined the second great war at eighteen. Sara, herself, joined at thirty-three.

Sara’s town of Iaeger had a population of about 986 at the time she was growing up. Families had low incomes and were divided into small communities surrounding Iaeger known as Coon’s Branch, Mile Branch, Christian’s Branch, Red Bird, Sandy Huff, and Johnnycake. The opportunities were slim, even more so for women.

Sara’s mother, Samantha Stacy, was a young bride, essentially a child. Marrying around the age of fourteen, Samantha immediately became a housewife and would eventually have over a dozen children. As for Sara’s father, he was a contractor with a fifth grade education and a low income.

Sara’s older sister, Stella, would be born first in 1904. Then Sara, possibly named after Samantha’s mother, would greet the world second on the fifth of November in 1906. Virginia, or Virgie, would come in 1907. Then Hazel in ’08. A year later, Berchie, her first brother, would come and break the female streak. Finally R. Elmer followed in 1914. Another female streak would follow the Vances with Thelma in ’17, Helen [Audrey] in ’19, and little Cleo in ’20. However, Cleo would barely make it to the new year and not even to her first birthday before dying. Two years later the “Y” chromosome would really kick in with Eugene in ’22, Ernest in ’25, Barnes in ’26, and finally Raymond in ’27. (Source: U.S. Federal Census, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940.)

Sara was only one among her many siblings, but she started to stand out. Her first accomplishment was getting an education. She left home to get her nursing degree at Raleigh General Hospital School of Nursing in Beckley and ended up staying there to continue her career. After school, she worked at the Pinecrest Sanitarium in 1934 as a floor manager and briefly went to Cincinnati General Hospital in Ohio.

Her desire to heal and help would take her much farther than Beckley, or Ohio, or even the confines of the U.S. Denying the path of her mother as a housewife and unable as a woman to follow her father as a soldier, Sara would take a path in between as an army nurse. Her decision to join the army in 1942 would first take her to Kentucky, Camp Campbell, Kentucky, to be exact. There she would undergo rigorous training to adapt her to army life. Sarah’s training would not be limited to a single camp, though; Indiana would be her next stop. However, no matter how close Atterbury, Indiana, got her to being field ready, it got her no closer to her army unit, who for the most part were all training miles away at Fort Eustis, Virginia. She’d meet her unit in 1943 under the sweltering North African sun. It would be the farthest Sara had gone from home.

With the 33rd Gen Hospital unit, Sara would travel to Casablanca, French Morocco; Bizerte, Tunisia; and, finally, Italy. In Africa, she and her unit presumably would buy fresh melon and grapes from the local Arabs and barter with the British boys for biscuits, cocoa and coffee, and lumps of sugar. They would take anything over the stomach-churning, cold, army rations. Sara would travel in a rickety train, in weather a Raleigh gal would never experience on the hottest of summers. The uncomfortable ride, which offered little water, little sleep, and no light at night, would cross the desolate Moroccan and Algerian countryside, catch glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea, and finally reach her first official destination—Bizerte.

On August 15, the train would stop, trucks would be loaded, and Sara would be transported to her first field experience, which was not even a field but a hillside covered in rocks, dung, and sparse brown vegetation. Welcome to Bizerte.

By September the site was ready to accept patients, and by then the 33rd had already become accustomed to nightly air raids. By December Sara would have participated in the treatment of the roughly 5,963 patients who had come to the hospital.

It would be in Italy that Sara’s life would end. The cause would be a bang, but her life would end with a whimper. On October 22, Sara would die from stomach damage, inflicted upon her by enemy bombs during an air raid at Anzio. It was reported that Sara’s digestive system was damaged and that prior to her death all she could bring herself to eat was egg whites. An official autopsy was performed but was lost in the frenzy of war. Ironically enough, Sara died just a few days before her requested transfer to an evacuation unit closer to the front lines came through. She had wanted to be closer to the action.
Vance marker

Marker for 2nd Lt. Sara B. Vance. Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission

Sicily-Rome American Cemetery

Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, Nettuno, Italy. Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission

Sara would be buried in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, among thousands of white crosses. Back home, a bridge over the Tug Fork and the Norfolk Southern Railway would be dedicated to her, and a Christian memorial service would be held in Beckley. In his local history, William R. Archer says that she was the first woman from West Virginia killed in action in WWII (Legendary Locals of McDowell County Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2013, p.53).

Because she was one of the few West Virginia women who died in the line of duty in the 20th century, much has been written about Sara Blanche Vance. The military history in this article has been adapted in part from: Keith Conner, “Army Nurse Who Never Came Home Will Not Be Forgotten Thanks to Veterans Memorial,” Bluefield Daily Telegraph, 29 May 1995, A1, A6; “Iaeger Native One of Thirteen To Be Memorialized,” Welch Daily News, 10 Nov. 1995, n. p.; and “Iaeger Native One of Few To Be Memorialized,” Gilbert Times, 9 Aug. 1994, 1, 9.

Article prepared by Jessica Kambara, George Washington High School, Advanced Placement U.S. History
May 2015

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Sara Blanche Vance

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