Wissahickon’s Wonder Woman

Our bridge over the creek & Lincoln Drive now honors a remarkable Pennsylvanian. 

Henry Avenue’s “Wissahickon Memorial Bridge” got a new sign (and designation) this March, just in time for Women’s History Month. Thanks to legislation introduced by State Rep Pam DeLissio, this local landmark now honors a trailblazing Army nurse in WWII and the Korean War — a Pennsylvanian from childhood who became the first woman general in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Brigadier General Anna Mae V. McCabe Hays was born in Buffalo, NY but her family soon relocated to the Allentown area. After graduating from Allentown General Hospital’s nursing program, Hays went to India with the Army where conditions were primitive and frankly kind of terrifying: bamboo huts vs leeches, snakes, monsoons. She then went to Korea with like a M*A*S*H unit which she later said was even worse than India (eg. winters were freezing and supplies were nil).

But she pushed on and continued to excel. Following Korea, she earned advanced degrees and soon was appointed head nurse at Washington DC’s Walter Reed Hospital. One of her patients was nobel prize winner General George C. Marshall (namesake of the European Recovery Program known as the Marshall Plan). Another was President Dwight D. Eisenhower — he and his wife became friends after she cared for him through intestinal surgery. In 1970, President Nixon nominated her for promotion to Brigadier General (Hays retired from her post as chief of the Army Nurse Corps in 1971).

During her career, she led ground-breaking reforms for military policies that are rather appalling, looking back. Before Hays, the military made no allowances for motherhood: if an officer got pregnant, she would be automatically discharged. And if her children were very young, she’d be passed over for important appointments that could help her build her career. Hays put an end to these unfair policies penalizing women, and she also worked to ensure husbands of female service members received the same benefits as wives of males.

The bridge from below and the view looking down

In 2012, Hays was named to Lehigh County’s Hall of Fame. In November 2017, she was presented with a Flag of Valor quilt during a Veterans Day ceremony at Knollwood Nursing Home in Washington DC, where she was residing after living the last 50+ years in Arlington, VA. She passed away a little over a year later at the age of 97 in January 2018. Along with a poignant tribute, her hometown paper posted a slideshow celebrating her life.

In a March 4th press release about the bridge’s new designation, Pam DeLissio said, “It is truly fitting that we now recognize the contributions of this remarkable woman.” And how’s this for bad ass: one of the first things Hays did when she received her Brigadier General appointment was head straight to the army officer’s club, where she resolutely walked in the front entrance. At the time, female officers were expected to enter through a side entrance. Ha.

Not anymore, gentlemen. Now who wants to take the general’s beer order?

The renaming includes new signs in both directions

Though Hays’s monumental career doesn’t seem all that connected to NW Philly or even particularly PA in general, this new designation makes us love this scenic bridge even more — it’s now one of the few named in honor of female military veterans. Come out for the bridge-naming ceremony May 10! (Time & details TBA), follow Pam DeLissio for updates.

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