William and Ella Behrens were two of the children of German immigrants Charles and Minnie Behrens, who had come to America in 1881.
Ella had been born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1882.
By 1900 the family was living near Grapevine, where Charles was a farmer.
In this photo of the family William and Ella Behrens are standing at the far right. Charles and Minnie are front and center. (Photo from Tarrant County College NE.)
When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, brother William joined the U.S. Army. He was later wounded in combat.
Sister Ella, thirty-five years old when the war began, began working at the Army’s new Camp Bowie as a Red Cross nurse. Then she volunteered as an Army nurse, supervising the diets of camp soldiers.
When an influenza pandemic swept the camp, troops were quarantined.
Soldiers died. Nurses died.
The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic was one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in recorded history. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 500 million people (one-third of the world’s population) became infected with the virus, “and the number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States. The pandemic was so severe that from 1917 to 1918, life expectancy in the United States fell by about 12 years, to 36.6 years for men and 42.2 years for women.”
Most deaths during the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 were caused by bacterial pneumonia after influenza virus infection.
The camp had been open only three few months when a Star-Telegram reporter detailed the “they say” rumors that circulated about the camp: “They say” soldiers were deserting, spies and even civilians were being executed, spies were poisoning food and water supplies and infecting soldiers with meningitis germs. (Ananias was a member of the early church in Jerusalem who was guilty of deceit.)
Amid that suspicious atmosphere was nurse Ella Behrens, who had a German surname and was overheard singing and talking in German in the camp hospital. She became the subject of rumors. In the wary atmosphere of wartime, investigators arrested her and held her in the city jail on suspicion of being an enemy agent and contaminating soldiers’ food with influenza germs. She was released from jail after eight days. J’Nell Pate wrote in Arsenal of Defense: Fort Worth’s Military Legacy that when Behrens was released she was warned not to tell anyone what had happened to her and was given a discharge from the Army at Camp Bowie. (I can find no coverage of Behrens’s arrest and discharge in the Star-Telegram of the time.)
Only later, after Ella had inquired why she had not received the $60 ($1,000 today) due to nurses for their wartime duty, did she learn that her discharge was dishonorable—because of the eight days she had been “AWOL” while in jail! She also learned that the Army had no appeals process for a dishonorable discharge at that time.
For thirty-one years Ella Behrens lived with the stigma of being “the German spy” as she fought to clear her name. Finally, in 1949 she got help from U.S. Representative Wingate Lucas, who knew the Behrens family to be honorable, patriotic people. By 1949 the Army did have a discharge review board. Lucas presented Ella’s case to the board. Ella also appeared before the board, saying she could not stand to live any longer under the shadow of shame. The board ruled that Behrens had been the victim of wartime rumors and changed her discharge from dishonorable to honorable.
Wingate Lucas said, “It is a sad commentary on our civilization that this fine lady has suffered so long because of injustice. It is thrilling to know that it has at last been corrected.”
Soon after her honorable discharge was granted, Behrens appeared on CBS radio and was “filmed for television.”
But the Army could not reimburse Behrens for everything she had lost.
“Can you imagine how a dog must feel that has a tin can tied to his tail?” she asked the Star-Telegram after the 1949 ruling. “Then one day that can is taken off. But the dog still spends the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.”
Ella Behrens died on March 13, 1955.
Ella Behrens, U.S. Army nurse, is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery.