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Honoring a humble pioneer; Posthumously inducted into Veterans' Hall

As a young woman back in the 1930s, marriage and raising children were not at the top of Margaret Gill's to-do list.

The North Tonawanda woman instead found fulfillment pursuing a career in nursing that would take her to the forefront of some of the biggest battles of World War II and its darkest inhumanities.

Her service at the Battle of the Bulge earned her a Bronze Star for bravery, making her the first woman in New York State to receive the medal.

Yet, she never talked about the achievement after the war when she married Harry Jeffords, also a WWII veteran, and raised three children.

But on Friday in the lobby of North Tonawanda City Hall, there was plenty of talk about what this woman accomplished in her life.

State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, announced the posthumous induction of Gill Jeffords into the New York State Senate Veterans' Hall of Fame during a ceremony to unveil a plaque honoring the former Army 1st lieutenant.

Her daughter Mary M. Jeffords, a Niagara Falls resident, attended the ceremony and said her mother would have been proud, though embarrassed by the attention.

"My mom was a very humble person. In fact, I didn't even know she was the first woman in the state to receive the Bronze Star," Jeffords said. "We knew she had the medal, but not that she was the first woman in the state to receive it."

That knowledge would come years later after Gill Jeffords passed away at age 68 in 1978 and her daughter found among her mother's personal items an old newspaper clipping about the honor.

Maziarz, who nominated Gill Jeffords for the induction, described her as an American war hero, noting that it was extremely unusual for a woman in the military to be serving in combat conditions in those days.

"A look at her life reveals a person who took great risks to serve our country and our soldiers," Maziarz said. "Amidst the horrors of war, she selflessly treated the sick, wounded, and dying. Her wartime service and her entire medical career deserve to be remembered."

Trained in nursing by the Sisters of Charity Hospital in Buffalo, she enlisted in the Army in May 1941. When the Allied Forces carried out the Invasion of Normandy in June 1944, she was among a group of nurses who established a field hospital.

That December on Christmas morning, the hospital shifted to Bastogne to treat casualties during the Battle of Bulge. Under the harshest of conditions in a hospital without a roof and missing a wall, Gill Jeffords and her fellow nurses treated the wounded in the cold and snow.

But perhaps the biggest horror was yet to come when the infamous concentration camp of Dachau was liberated.

"I have pictures of Dachau burning that my mother took. The Nazis wanted to hide their atrocities, so they burned the bodies and some of the prisoners weren't dead.

"They threw the weak on top of the dead. The Nazis literally did this and ran the day the Allied Forces liberated Dachau," the daughter said.

What Gill Jeffords witnessed in entering the camp and treating the nearly dead prisoners left a lasting impression.

"She actually saw some of the living prisoners who'd been tossed on the pile of dead bodies. They weren't sure they could save anyone, the lice and the dysentery were so bad," Jeffords said.

Whenever Gill Jeffords recalled her experiences at Dachau, she would say that inaction against evil was unacceptable.

"She was very adamant about saying 'You have to make a stand in this world against injustice and corruption or you are no better than the people who committed these atrocities,' " Jeffords said in recalling her mother's words as she wept in the lobby of City Hall.

Her mother's service, the daughter added, earned her a total of five battle stars in addition to the Bronze Star.

After the war, Gill Jeffords settled on Long Island with her husband, where they had moved for jobs. They met in Paris during the war.

In addition to the State Senate Veterans' Hall of Fame, Gill Jeffords is part of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The plaque unveiled at City Hall will be on permanent display on a wall in the building's lobby.