SEMINOLE – Today, Jeannette Greathouse is an 82-year-old Seminole resident. But she was the headstrong 18-year-old only child of a well-to-do French lawyer and wine broker when war came to her home town of Baccarat, France, in June 1940.
As artillery thudded in the distance, she rode her bicycle into town and found a friend of hers treating the wounded. Her friend pressed her into service, giving her painkiller shots to the injured man.
Parked nearby were seven or eight ambulances with the words “Given by General Pershing” painted on the sides. She didn’t know it at the time, but the ambulances and drivers were from the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps.
One driver stood out from the rest. His grooming and manners were impeccable, and his deep blue eyes seemed to see right through her, like X-rays. He was a 26-year-old artist from Staughton, Mass., named Thomas Esten.
Unlike the other drivers, who usually worked in pairs, Esten worked alone. And his artist’s ability to draw accurate maps for his colleagues earned him the affectionate nicknames “The Mad Mapper” and “Slapsie Mapsie.”
“I guess I fell in love with the guy,” Greathouse said. “When I wasn’t with him, I was afraid. When I was with him, I wasn’t afraid.”
When word came that the aid station was being moved because the fighting was getting too close, Greathouse pedaled home to get Esten some food to take with him.
But the family’s 5-acre estate had been taken over by Polish soldiers planning to attack the Germans that night. By the time she got back with the food and a few roses she had picked, the outpost was gone. But she found Esten, who had stayed behind, waiting for her. She gave him the food and flowers, and he drove off.
“Somehow, I knew I’d never see him again,” she said. “I’ve only had that feeling three times in my life, and I was right every time.”
A friend of Greathouse’s, who saw Esten after he left, brought her an envelope from him. It contained the enameled silver cap badge, with the French initials of his organization, from his uniforms.
A month later, she received a note from Esten. The words were sweet, thanking her for the food and roses, but the postmark was chilling. It was from a German POW camp.
She later learned that Esten’s ambulance had been wrecked and he had been captured by the Germans. But he was soon released, because he was a civilian noncombatant from a neutral country, and went home.
In 1943, Greathouse got Esten’s Massachusetts address from the American embassy in Paris and wrote to him. The letter came back with a note that Esten had died of pneumonia in North Africa in April 1942.
She later learned that, after going home, he had served as a volunteer ambulance driver in the American Field Service. He was assigned to British Army units in Syria and later Libya.
Although he was an American civilian, France awarded Esten two Croix de Guerre medals. The British buried him, with full military honors, alongside their fallen heroes at their military cemetery in Alexandria, Egypt. Only in their homeland, Greathouse believes, do the bravery and humanity of America’s unarmed volunteer ambulance drivers of World War II go largely unappreciated.
“Policemen and firemen are heroes, undoubtedly,” said Greathouse, who married a GI named Leon Greathouse at the end of the war. “But those volunteer drivers didn’t cost the taxpayers a cent, and they risked their lives – and sometimes gave their lives – to help the wounded.”