Throughout the history of nursing, some of the most well-known figures have been war nurses. But what about World War II? This massive conflict transformed the world of nursing, with huge numbers of women signing up as Army and Navy nurses to support the country’s soldiers. Over 59,000 nurses provided their services in field hospitals, on hospital ships, on hospital trains, and even aboard airplanes.
But what was it actually like to be a nurse during World War II?
New Opportunities for Women: Wartime and the American Workforce
World War II was a global conflict that required a massive amount of manpower. Nearly every able-bodied man served in the army or the navy. Many of us had a parent or grandparent who fought in the war, depending on your age. With so many of the nation’s men fighting for their country, unprecedented economic opportunities were created for women. From factory work to being a war nurse, WWII marked the beginning of women’s entry into the workforce.
Many, many nurses were recruited for the war, almost all of them were women. From 1943 to 1948, the US government even provided free education for nursing students. In June 1944, army nurses were granted officers’ commissions, dependents’ allowances, and equal pay. WWII nurses had to be between the ages of 21 and 40, with no children under 14. Before 1943, they didn’t need formal training, but by July of that year, commissioned Army nurses needed specific training. WWII nurses were trained in things like field sanitation, mental health, and the administration of anaesthetics. For women at the time, it was an important opportunity to help the war effort and make a difference.
Nurses on the Front Lines
Unlike in previous conflicts, WWII brought nurses closer than ever to the front lines. This was necessary to make sure that nurses could care for patients in time. They worked under harsh conditions, making emergency decisions on the spot for severely wounded soldiers in field hospitals. Women had never been this close to battle in all of American history. There were nurses serving in all arenas of the war, putting them at serious risk of injury or death. Some did become prisoners of war in Japan, and a total of 201 nurses died in the war, 16 of them due to enemy action. Four Army nurses who survived the battle of Anzio were awarded silver stars.
Army and navy nurses during WWII were often quite close to the action. One army nurse, Esther Edwards, recounts her experience around the time of the Battle of the Bulge:
“Near Saint-Avold, the Allies fired artillery shells over our building, then the German artillery landed close to us, but luckily we were never hit. One nurse was using her helmet to bathe when the firing came too close, so she dumped out the water, put the helmet on her head, and sat there naked until the firing stopped.”
The injuries that these nurses treated were often grisly as well. According to another army nurse, Grace G. Patterson, she said:
Our medical work was interesting. We had orders to exteriorate the gut when a patient had any gut surgery. With so many patients having abdominal surgery, some of the intestinal holes might be missed, so when patients finally reached the hospitals in England, their intestines were put back in.
The Scars of War: PTSD in WWII Nurses
Like the men who fought on the front lines, the women who served as nurses during World War II saw and experienced some very disturbing things. Like soldiers, many nurses developed PTSD in the wake of their service overseas.
In one incident, 79 American Army nurses were held as prisoners of war in the Philippines by the Japanese. According to one anecdote in Pure Grit, a book about the experiences of WWII nurses, a nurse named Francis Mash grabbed a lethal dose of morphine for each American nurse before they departed to Bataan. This was in case they were taken prisoner by the Japanese
While it isn’t well recorded, many WWII nurses experienced PTSD after returning to America after the war. Like the soldiers, they often felt alienated and isolated, haunted by what they’d seen during the war.
Honoring WWII Nurses
Because most of them were women, the nurses of WWII received minimal recognition for their service during the post-war years. Many were denied veterans’ benefits, despite physical and psychological health problems. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan specifically honored WWII nurses at National POW/MIA Recognition Day. This was decades later, however, when many of the women had already passed away. The brave women who served as military nurses in WWII will always be remembered for their courage and fortitude. At a time when few women even worked outside the home, they stepped up onto the front lines to further the war effort.