Header with a photo of Mari K. Eder on the left, the text "Ret. Major Gen. Mari K. Eder. Author, Speaker, Consultant at Benson's ReView" in the middle. And two book covers (The Girls Who Stepped Out Of Line and The Girls Who Fought Crime) on the right.

Last week I checked in with my former boss, just to see how he and his wife were doing. It’s unavoidable; we soon were talking politics and the state of the nation. “I don’t know where my America has gone,” he said sadly. “I just don’t understand how we got here. Everything is so divisive.”

But his America, our America, is definitely still here. Yesterday I heard from Kate Nolan’s daughter, Mary Anne Battaglia. Kate is the U.S. Army Nurse featured in my book, The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line. She served in a front-line combat hospital in World War II, and earned five battle stars for her service, taking part in every major operation, from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge and into Germany itself and Victory in Europe (VE) day.

Mary Anne wanted to tell me an incredible story. She had recently mailed a copy of my book to her sister-in-law, Carolyn Maynes Battaglia, in Virginia. Then it happened.

Kate Nolan at the Military Women's Memorial in 1997 with a new generation of women who serve. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Battaglia.

Kate Nolan at the Military Women’s Memorial in 1997 with a new generation of women who serve. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Battaglia.

Carolyn said, “I couldn’t wait to read the chapter on her Mom, which I read first. Then I started at Chapter One and found myself only able to read a chapter per day because I was so overwhelmed with these stories. When I got to page 77, I thought to myself, “this sounds like Mary Previte’s story.” Then the third paragraph mentioned her! I was speechless!

“I went on to Chapter Six and realized there was a whole chapter on Mary! I’m not an impulse buyer by any means, but that night I went online and ordered six copies to give to my six siblings who I would be seeing the following weekend. I did just that last weekend and they too are incredibly excited to hear about this.”

Carolyn grew up in Haddonfield, NJ, in the Roberts Avenue Neighborhood, five houses down from Mary Previte. Mary Previte had lived through World War II as a child, trapped in a Japanese concentration camp in China. Mary’s parents were Chinese missionaries and young Mary and her siblings were captured when the Japanese Army commandeered their boarding school. The school children were later transferred; she spent over three years incarcerated in a prisoner of war camp, along with nearly 1,500 other westerners. Following the war, Mary’s parents moved back to the U.S. She graduated college and went on to teach, serve as a New Jersey Assemblywoman, and work with at-risk youth, leading the Camden County NJ Juvenile Detention Center.

According to Carolyn, Mary was a force of nature, even – or maybe especially – in her own neighborhood. In 1973, she and a group of her neighbors were having that familiar conversation at a Fourth of July brunch on her patio: “What has happened to my America?’ They were talking about the divisive rhetoric of the time and the topics of Vietnam, President Nixon, and protests in the streets. Americans were burning flags and soldiers returning from war weren’t being welcomed home. Politics was tearing the country apart.

Mary said in a later commentary, “The brunch moved into a ‘Let’s do something’ mood.” Together, the assembled friends made themselves a commitment to neighborliness and patriotism; they enthusiastically started a day-long Fourth of July Celebration.

First, the Roberts Avenue neighbors decided to create a flag, a massive American flag, the width of King’s avenue, the main thoroughfare in town. Carolyn remembers her father measuring the width of that road, “Using one of those big yardsticks that folds out and snaps into place. It is a massive flag!” The flag is easily twenty feet across and fifty feet long, a massive ribbon of red, white and blue.

“My Mom and some of the other ladies in the neighborhood sewed that flag on our dining room table and on into the next room. I was twelve years old then and was thrilled to be able to help carry that massive flag in the first parade.

“Afterwards there was always a rollicking block party, with a cook-out and lots of treats for the kids, watermelon eating contests, egg toss, sack races, tug of war and other games and entertainment. I can remember Mary with her megaphone, getting everything and everyone organized. She was definitely in her element,” Carolyn recalled.

The annual Roberts Avenue Fourth of July celebration has continued now for nearly 50 years, sometimes with serious themes and sometimes with a more lighthearted approach. But the Roberts Avenue neighbors are easy to recognize as they pass by onlookers gathered for Haddonfield’s parade – carrying that massive American flag.

The only exception was in 2020, when the parade was cancelled, but the flag was still displayed on Roberts Avenue, in honor of Mary. “People would stop and have their picture taken with the flag,” Carolyn recalled. “Some cried when they saw it.” The spirit of the American people was definitely on display for all to see during an isolating and uncertain time.

Kate Nolan at the Military Women's Memorial in 1997 with a new generation of women who serve. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Battaglia.

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Battaglia.

Like Kate Nolan, Mary Previte passed away in 2019. That Fourth of July parade in 2019 was her last. But she hasn’t been forgotten. While the large flag was displayed in front of her home for the Fourth of July, the town planted two trees in her honor that October. The plaque near the tree planted by her home reads, “Mary Taylor Previte – Tireless Advocate for Good.”

With the lifting of COVID restrictions, the Roberts Avenue neighbors decided to go all out. Mary’s good neighbors paid tribute to her this year – celebrating her life and legacy.

There was a float depicting an airplane and nine volunteers dressed up as World War II paratroopers, commemorating the 1945 liberation of the concentration camp where Mary had been held. American soldiers had liberated the prisoner of war camps in China, just days after the U.S. declared victory over Japan.

Kate Nolan at the Military Women's Memorial in 1997 with a new generation of women who serve. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Battaglia.

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Battaglia.

There were signs paying tribute to “Our Mary” and children handed out slips of papers to remind onlookers of her story and her contributions to her neighborhood, her community, and her country. Afterwards the block party returned in all of its glory, neighbors and friends celebrating their freedom and their common ground.

Kate Nolan at the Military Women's Memorial in 1997 with a new generation of women who serve. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Battaglia.

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Battaglia.

Our America is still here. Patriotism exists and good neighbors continue to make a difference. These two women, Kate Nolan and Mary Previte, never met. They were only about ten years apart in age but experienced the harsh reality of global war thousands of miles apart. Through family connections, these veterans from a different era have made a connection, one important for us all.

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