The hat and shoes of a WWII nurse.

Cap and shoes of a WWII nurse.

As we recognize the anniversaries of the beginning of World War I and the end of World War II, it is chilling to realize that nurses were also at the battlefront, but barely noticed.

I grew up surrounded by nurses in a nursing home that my family owned and operated. The patients were mostly elderly people who had the usual physical and mental problems related to aging, but we lived in a rural area and my mother’s skills as a Registered Nurse also made her the go-to person for situations that were considered minor emergencies around the village – cuts, burns and even broken bones and head injuries. I can see my mother calmly cleaning and dressing a bloody wound caused by broken glass and, on another occasion, carefully positioning a child’s possibly broken leg after a fall from a tree.

Eventually a doctor would become involved, but watching my mother and her colleagues in action day after day offered me firsthand knowledge that nurses, even in civilian life, were unsung heroines. There is no comparison of what civilian nurses did to the horrors and chaos of serving as a nurse in a war zone, but nurses in military settings have done their job quietly and largely unnoticed, as well.

Thousands of women serving as nurses put their lives in peril on the battlefield over centuries and yet little is known about their experiences in war or exactly how many participated. Even appropriate financial remuneration has been meager and long in coming. Only at the end of the twentieth century did nurses’ pay, both in military and civilian life, begin to become commensurate with the risks and responsibilities of their jobs.

I was surprised to learn that many women served as nurses during the Revolutionary War. They are not often mentioned in history books. The Second Continental Congress, heeding George Washington’s advice to establish a means of caring for wounded and sick soldiers, authorized the formation of hospitals. In July of 1775, congress initiated a plan to provide one nurse for every ten patients and a supervising matron for every ten nurses. But, nurses were not always easy to hire and formal training was nonexistent. General Washington blamed the low compensation rate—originally $2 a month—for the shortage of nurses, but it’s more probable that a woman risked receiving a bad moral reputation if she wanted to be a nurse. Congress increased nurses’ pay a year later, to $8 a month.

While researching the life of Louisa May Alcott, who eventually became world famous as the author of Little Women, I learned that she had a brief career as an army nurse during the Civil War. Her first book, Hospital Sketches, was a detailed account of her experience. Louisa was an unknown but zealous patriot when she arrived in Washington, DC, in 1862, to work in the Union Hotel Army Hospital. She had read Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing and Dr. Home’s Report on Gunshot Wounds, but that was the extent of her training. She described in her letters to her family that, on her first day, “…stretcher after stretcher arrived from the battle of Fredericksburg…each with a legless, armless or desperately wounded occupant.”

Her descriptions were so vivid and evoked so much emotion about caring for the wounded, that the Union Army published her book and provided it to the families of soldiers. This small volume of true recollections established her reputation as an author.

In the hospital, Louisa was one of eight women under the direction of a single head nurse, caring for hundreds of soldiers with devastating wounds and loss of limbs. They worked with little more than soap, water, and whiskey. She contracted Typhoid Pneumonia after six weeks and would suffer from the effects of treatment with mercury until her death in 1888. She reported in her journal that she was pleased to receive ten dollars for her short but intense stint in Washington. Nurses’ salaries had evidently not improved in the one hundred years since the Revolutionary War, but there is a legacy of gratitude to nurses described in the letters and journals of the wounded. It is estimated that approximately 6000 women served as nurses during the Civil War.

Fifty years later, in 1901, the Army Nurse Corp was created during the Spanish-American War and nurses were appointed to work for three years but were not actually commissioned army officers. The appointment could be renewed if their skills were satisfactory, but it would take two more wars and another fifty years for nurses to receive commissioned officer status in 1944.

I am on this earth because of nurses. During World War I, my grandfather served in the British Army and ended up in a hospital in Malta after suffering the effects of mustard gas and severe wounds in the battle of the Somme. The nurses suggested that he correspond with someone. He remembered a young woman he had met on a farm in Connecticut years before. The letters commenced and she became my eventual grandmother.

Growing up around nurses in the 1950s I was privy to occasional stories and vivid memories. One former army nurse would sit at the picnic table and suddenly launch into a story. She described an event that occurred in the early morning of 8 November 1942 when sixty nurses attached to the 48th Surgical Hospital climbed over the side of a ship off the coast of North Africa and down an iron ladder into small assault boats. She said each boat carried 5 nurses, 3 medical officers, and 20 enlisted men. The nurses wore helmets and carried full packs containing bandages, medicine, gas masks, and canteen belts. Only their Red Cross arm bands and lack of weapons distinguished them from fighting troops. They waded ashore near the coastal town of Arzew on D-day of Operation TORCH with the rest of the assault troops and huddled behind a sand dune while enemy snipers took potshots at them. Before the night was over, their commanding officer ordered them to an abandoned civilian hospital, where they began caring for casualties. There was no electricity or running water, and the only medical supplies available were those they had brought themselves. The hospital was under sporadic fire.

“ We held flashlights so that the doctors could operate,” she said.

“There were not enough beds for all the casualties, and wounded soldiers lay on a concrete floor in pools of blood. The only sedatives were the ones we had carried. Enemy air attacks on the harbor delayed the unloading of supplies for two days.”

While my brothers and I leaned in around the table and ate cookies, we learned that nurses were not spared capture and imprisonment. In 1945 U.S. troops liberated sixty-seven army nurses who had been imprisoned in Santo Tomas Internment Camp since 1942 and evacuated them to a convalescent hospital on Leyte where they recovered from malnutrition. Like many men who saw the worst of war, these women came home and slipped back into their communities and rarely shared their experiences.

From military archives, I learned that the exact number of nurses who served in World War II is unknown, but they received 1,619 medals, citations, and commendations. Overall, 201 nurses died while serving in the Army in World War II.

During the Korean War, Army nurses served in medical units close to the front lines and combat, in field hospitals, on army transport ships, hospital trains and at Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH). By chance, the general public has more knowledge of nursing services, especially during the Korean War, thanks to popular culture. The fictionalized depiction of a medical unit portrayed in the film, MASH, and subsequent television shows offered a romanticized version of women nurses in wartime, but at least it demonstrated that they were there and they also served.

During the Vietnam War, on November 8, 1967, all restrictions to female officer careers were removed. Finally, members of the Women’s Army Corps and the Army Nurse Corps could receive the same promotions as those applied to men. Col. Anna Mae Hays achieved the rank of brigadier general on June 11, 1970. Again, the exact number is not known, but thousands of women served as nurses in Vietnam. The number of women killed in Vietnam is unclear, ranging from seven to nine.

Nurses have served in untold numbers with distinction in wartime even before Florence Nightingale went to the Crimean War and became known as “the lady with the lamp.” I’ve been comforted by the thought that nurses were near the battlefields of Vietnam in 1969 to care for my husband in the brief moments he survived after being mortally wounded in a booby trapped bunker. I may never know who they were, but I’m sure they eased his departure with skill, calm and compassion.