WWII Army Nurse, veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, at a 2004 Veterans Memorial Service

The Nurses of the 51st EVAC Hospital in WWI / First-hand account by First Lieutenant Tillie (Horath) Kehrer

The military medic relies on a staff of highly skilled nurses, just as the civilian doctor does. One key difference is the Army nurses are all commissioned officers, too.

The US Congress established the US Army Nurse Corps (NC) in 1901 as one of six corps under the joint leadership of the Army Medical Department (AMEDD). The US Navy followed suit, establishing the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. Before that, civilian nurses were commissioned to treat wounded soldiers during times of war.

During World War I (WWI), all US military nurses were female registered nurses stationed mostly on Europe’s Western Front. Kept well away from battle zones, no military nurse was killed in action during WWI but 200 of them succumbed to disease while on tour; many of them died from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

After the war ended, recruiting efforts for nurses became less vigorous and the NC was reduced to skeleton crews. Ladies (they had to be) interested in joining the NC needed to be graduates of civilian nursing schools, white, single, and coming to the NC on a voluntary basis.

The volunteer requirement almost ceased to be during World War II (WWII), especially after Pearl Harbor. Efforts to recruit nurses had invigorated as the war in Europe had accelerated but the US involvement on the Pacific Front made military nurses an urgent need. President Franklin D. Roosevelt approached Congress in 1945 for permission to draft civilian nurses into military duty. This draft never happened, as Germany’s surrender, also in 1945, meant an end to hostilities in Europe and freed up military nurses for deployment to the Pacific Theater.

By the end of WWII, there were more than 200 black female military nurses in service.

In 1920, the nurses of the Army Nurse Corps gained ranks equivalent to that of Army officers, with an NC insignia to wear on their uniforms. They did not receive officer pay, however, and were not accepted as an official part of the US Army.

The survival rate for wounded soldiers during WWII skyrocketed, thanks in large part to military nurses. Field hospitals treated 670,000 wounded soldiers during WWI; an astounding 96% of them survived their wounds. Nursing care reduced the number of cases of gangrene, eliminating many of the amputations that devastated the lives of already wounded warriors. Nurses were instrumental in the administration of penicillin, sulfa drugs, and anesthesia that minimized sickness. Military nurses provided care and comfort, both medical and psychiatric, during soldiers’ post-operative recovery.

In 1943, the first superintendent of the NC, Colonel Julia Flikke, retired and Florence Blanchfield was named her successor. Blanchfield proposed new regulations governing the Army’s nurses and many of her recommendations were adopted in 1947, including:

The Nurse Corps of the US Army, Navy, and Air Force would receive permanent appointments. (Previous appointments were limited to the duration of war plus six months).

Members of the Nurse Corps in all US military branches would receive officer commissions under exactly the same terms military and medical officers enjoyed, including equal pay.

Colonel Blanchfield retired later in 1947, the first woman to hold a full-scale US Army commission.

The Vietnam War marked the first time US military medics and nurses established field hospitals in close range of the fighting arena. It also brought methods of battle never seen before. This unconventional war led to the first NC casualties of war. An Army hospital at Cam Ranh Bay was captured during battle and heavily damaged during battle, with many of its staff and patients killed or wounded. Other nurses were killed in action by enemy fire during various skirmishes of that war.

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