Margarete Ethel Neel (1913–1971)
Margarete Ethel Neel became the symbol of the International Red Cross after World War II. The White County chapter submitted to the national headquarters a wartime photo of Neel guiding the wheelchair of wounded Private Gordon Pyle of California. It was reproduced as a poster for the organization’s post-war fundraising activities. A plaque commemorating Neel’s Red Cross service stands in front of the Searcy American Legion Hut, where the White County chapter of the Red Cross is located. The chapter was dedicated to Neel just after her death in 1971. Neel was among the first women listed on the rolls of the U.S. Women’s Memorial when it was dedicated in Washington DC in 1997.
Margarete Neel was born on December 17, 1913, in Minturn (Lawrence County), the only daughter of Missouri-Pacific Railroad dispatcher and depot agent Allie Joe (A. J.) Neel and schoolteacher Pearl Neel. Neel was educated in the public schools of Searcy (White County). She studied piano as a child with noted Little Rock (Pulaski County) teacher Sister Martha. Neel graduated from Searcy High School in 1931. She attended Galloway College for Women, then in Searcy, where she obtained a teaching certificate. She continued her music education at George Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, and the University of Chicago, where she received her BA in 1936. In 1938, she was awarded her MA in music from the Chicago Conservatory of Music.
In the early 1940s, Neel became assistant director of the Catholic USO at Fort Chaffee outside Fort Smith (Sebastian County). During World War II, she worked for the Red Cross in the Pacific Theater. She was assigned to the 109th Station Hospital in Australia for the Okinawa campaign. The famous snapshot that made her the symbol of the International Red Cross was taken in New Caledonia just before she was transferred to Calcutta, India, in the China-Burma-India Theater.
More than 500 Red Cross recreation and hospital personnel were stationed under primitive conditions in the Indian unit, where they aided the Allied forces that fought on two fronts. The China-Burma-India Allied forces were trapped between the German troops of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel on India’s eastern border. Allied airmen in the theater flew over the Himalayas to the Japanese front on the India-China border to the west. The work of the Red Cross Indian unit was among those profiled in author George Korson’s At His Side, a 1946 nonfiction account of Red Cross work throughout World War II. The photograph of Neel and Pyle first appeared on the October 1944 cover of the Red Cross Courier magazine and then became the cover of the Korson book. At the end of World War II, after twenty-one months overseas, Neel was furloughed home to recuperate. The photo of Neel and Pyle was chosen from thousands sent in by local Red Cross units to be reproduced on 1.4 million fundraising posters that were distributed internationally. In 1946, Neel was assigned to the National Red Cross Speakers Bureau in New York City. After leaving the Red Cross, Neel became an elementary school teacher, a private piano teacher, and a Girl Scout leader. She worked briefly at the American Girl Scout headquarters in the 1950s; she then served as the Searcy scout leader for many years. She taught in elementary schools in Searcy and Judsonia (White County) and in St. Louis, Missouri, and San Antonio, Texas. For the last five years of her life, Neel taught “exceptional” children in California.
Neel died on November 22, 1971, of aplastic anemia. She is buried at Oaklawn Memorial Cemetery near Searcy.
For additional information:
Cantwell, Janis. “Poster Girl: Searcy Woman Was Image of Red Cross in WWII.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Three Rivers Edition. November 9, 1997, p. 1.
Korson, George. At His Side: The American Red Cross Overseas in World War II. New York: Coward-McCann, NY: 1946.
Obituary of Margarete Neel. Searcy Daily Citizen. November 22, 1971, p. 1.
Last Updated: 12/15/2009