Remembering a woman who felt called to serve after Pearl Harbor
Capt. Ethel Shilmover Grossman of Southfield — wife, mother, grandmother, devoted registered nurse, community leader and decorated WWII veteran — passed away at age 95 on March 13. Born in Baltimore, Md., on Aug. 19, 1921, Ethel was the eldest of four children of Celia and Israel Shilmover. Israel was a veteran of WWI.
Ira Kaufman Chapel in Southfield is helping coordinate Ethel’s May 4 interment in Arlington National Cemetery, which will include an official flag-folding ceremony and bugler. Ethel will then be laid to rest beside her beloved husband, Lt. Col. Manuel A. Grossman of Detroit, who preceded her in death on March 6, 1994, at age 84. Husband and wife, both proud veterans of our Greatest Generation, will finally be reunited.
While researching the life of Capt. Grossman, it became abundantly clear I was writing more than just the final chapter of a life well lived. Instead, the more I learned, the more I felt I was blowing the dust off a treasured history book filled with experiences deserving more of a screenplay than a column. It’s a remarkable story of courage, sacrifice, love, and an unbridled devotion to one’s family and country.
From an early age, Ethel was a trailblazer. In 1942, she became the first Jewish graduate at what was an all-Catholic school: Baltimore’s St. Agnes School of Nursing. Proving she wasn’t interested in the path of least resistance, Ethel put on hold any career ambitions, and instead shocked her parents by applying for the Army Nurse Corps.
Her younger brother, the late Samson, was already in the Navy in part of the same China-Burma-India theater of war his sister would soon be serving in. The Shilmovers would proudly display an official service banner at their home, highlighted by two silver stars that signified how many family members were serving overseas.
In January 2008, Ethel was interviewed by Vietnam veteran Daniel Brightwell, then chairperson of the Southfield Veterans’ Commission and now a Southfield City Council member. The interview is now part of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. In the interview, Ethel explained the impact the bombing of Pearl Harbor had on her decision to enlist.
“After Pearl Harbor, I felt very patriotic. I felt [the service] was where I belonged,” she said then. Determined to serve, Ethel, then 20, admitted she had to say she was 21 to qualify. No one in authority chose to corroborate her story, paving the way for her entry into the Army Nurse Corps.
On May 26, 1942, following an abbreviated training period, newly commissioned 2nd Lt. Ethel Shilmover set off on a dangerous journey across the Pacific to Fiji. She described the ominous voyage for the 1994 edition of Michigan Jewish History, published by the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan:
“The Battle of Midway and the Coral Sea were in progress when we left San Francisco. We zig-zagged 17 days through treacherous Pacific waters to reach the Fiji Islands in a large convoy, which included troop ships, destroyers, cruisers and airplane carriers. One of our pastimes on board was to watch each morning as the planes took off in flight to scan the horizon on their daily reconnaissance missions.”
Her first task in Fiji was to convert two warehouses into surgical and medical units under very primitive conditions. “The operating room was partitioned by blankets and used a special generator for electrical power,” she noted.
In her interview with Brightwell, Ethel recalled the day the first ship arrived with an overwhelming 500 servicemen in need of medical attention. “These men were so young. When you saw how badly wounded some of them were, you felt like they should still be home with their mothers instead of lying in the hospital.” Quite an admission by a young woman herself still three months shy of her 21st birthday.
Ethel would endure three long years overseas bearing witness to the horrors of war. Her tour of duty in Fiji was rewarded by meeting the love of her life, Manuel Grossman, in the same unit. Their relationship endured a bit of intrigue as Ethel described in Michigan Jewish History: “[Ours] was an undercover romance. He was a supply sergeant and I was a commissioned officer. By socializing, I was violating the officers’ code on fraternizing.” But, she added, “Manuel went back to complete training at officer’s school, thus legitimizing our relationship.”
Returning home in 1945, Ethel’s life remained anything but conventional — and that would include her wedding. While traveling home on leave from Oliver General Hospital in Augusta, Ga., Ethel stopped for a weekend visit to see Manuel, stationed in Charleston, S.C. A party at the officer’s club was marking the closing of the hospital where Manuel worked. To Ethel’s surprise, Manuel’s comrades had decided that during the celebration “there [also] should be a wedding.”
“Their time overseas played a dominant role in their lives. My parents’ reminiscences and thoughtful discussion pervaded ‘dinner time’ conversation; and the values they had — they were true examples of the Greatest Generation.” — Ilene Winckler, daughter
Preparations included the pair securing a marriage license just hours before their ceremony, a hastily purchased green wedding dress and the luck of finding a Jewish chaplain. It culminated in an impromptu wedding on Oct. 13, 1945 — a lasting memory during their 49 years of marriage.
Ethel and Manuel eventually returned to Detroit, where they would raise their two daughters — Susan Gold Smith and Ilene Winckler. Their upbringing by two distinguished WWII veterans would leave an indelible mark on both their children.
“Their time overseas played a dominant role in their lives,” Ilene recalled fondly. “My parents’ reminiscences and thoughtful discussion pervaded dinner time conversation; and the values they had — they were true examples of the Greatest Generation.”
Susan recalls her mother sharing intimate details about her WWII experience such as accounts from her time “in New Zealand and India, her patients on the wards and packages received from home.”
Civilians Ethel and Manuel Grossman continued to make service to their country an integral part of their lives long after their days of active duty. Manuel, an attorney, worked as a project administrator and systems analyst for the Army Automotive Tank Command in Warren. Ethel would join him there as an industrial nurse. It seems working in the same “unit” had become a tradition for these two.
Manuel went on to serve as a reservist for 25 years; obtaining the rank of lieutenant colonel and taking his family along on his annual two-week summer active duty stints.
Ethel became a member of the Southfield Veterans’ Commission, working tirelessly on the Veterans History Project and women’s veterans issues. Her efforts were recognized with a special commendation in 2013.
Together Ethel and Manuel attended numerous reunions with members from their Fiji unit; even sharing Thanksgiving and Passover together.
Passover actually created one of the more lasting memories for Ethel while stationed in Fiji. As told by Ethel in 1994 to Michigan Jewish History:
“My only exposure to anything Jewish was a seder on Fiji. A Jewish chaplain on Fiji managed to secure matzah, wine and Haggadahs for a Passover observance for all Jewish personnel on the island.”
A fitting memory for Ethel’s children to cherish this holiday.
Sadly, Ethel’s sister Dorothy Siedband, 88, of Wisconsin, passed just nine days after Ethel. Surviving sibling, Sylvia Schneider, 85, lives in Maine.
Check irakaufman.com in late April for details about a local tribute honoring Ethel. Those wishing to honor Ethel’s memory may contribute to Doctors Without Borders at doctorswithout borders.org/donate.
Watch Ethel Shilmover Grossman’s Veterans History Project interview at