Military valor is a term most often ascribed to the brave troops who put their lives on the line for their country, their families, and their comrades. But what about nurses in military history? These men and women sacrificed to ensure the survival of countless soldiers. As history recounts the service of wartime nurses over the past two hundred years, their stories of dedication bring a bold heroism to light. In addition to medical skills, their valiant sacrifices brought courageous mercy and hope to the battlefield, as well as advancements to the medical field.
A Brief History of American Military Nurses
Before Florence Nightingale and her team of nurses rescued astonishing numbers of British soldiers in the 1850s, colonial women during the Revolutionary War followed the continental soldiers to the battlefield to care for the sick and wounded. George Washington’s wife, Martha Washington, worked alongside them as she traveled with her husband to warzones, nursing fallen soldiers and providing necessities.
Recognizing the invaluable service of war nurses, General Washington appealed to congress and received the funding necessary to employ one nurse for every 10 patients. Wartime nurses served in this informal capacity until after the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898 when the U.S. military officially added contract nurses. The military held their service in high esteem, recognizing them as an invaluable asset to the war effort. In 1901, congress established the Army Nurse Corps, followed by the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908.
The number of wartime nurses increased from 1,500 during the Spanish-American war to over 74,000 by the end of World War II. Hundreds of military nurses lost their lives to the violence of war and to illnesses contracted from patients. Their sacrifice garnered the respect of the nation, and in 1947, women in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps were granted permanent commission, entitling them to the full rights, privileges, and rank of their position.
Military Nurses of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783)
During the American Revolution, generals and military leaders recognized the tremendous value of allowing women to tend to the sick and injured. As women replaced men in this capacity, more men were available to serve as soldiers, and generals could employ a larger number of contract wartime nurses without detracting from the war effort.
Martha Washington and Abigail Adams
Martha Washington wasn’t the only future president’s wife who served as a nurse to the continental army. Abigail Adams joined forces with Washington, and together, they wielded their influence among officers’ wives and the affluent, gathering supplies and recruiting other women to aid in the war effort.
Women like Washington and Adams had no formal medical training, but their life experiences and battlefield education provided the necessary credentials. No medical qualifications existed during this time, but the adverse conditions that many colonials faced, combined with the general lack of available healthcare, required most women to develop some basic medical skills.
War Nurses of the Civil War (1861-1865)
By the time of the Civil War, more formal hospitals were established for the specific treatment of fallen soldiers. Many women who wanted to aid in the war effort left their homes to serve at these military hospitals, regardless of their lack of medical knowledge. The nursing profession and nursing schools weren’t established until after the Civil War. Military hospitals of this era employed nurses to administer medications, dress wounds, and serve special diets to patients as needed.
Clara Barton, known as the founder of the American Red Cross, began her heroic journey as a wartime nurse during the Civil War. She left a comfortable position at the U.S. patent office to directly tend to the Union army’s fallen soldiers. Her efforts to bring comfort and medical aid to combat zones earned her the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.” After her Civil War service, Barton founded the American Red Cross, connecting the United States with the global network’s mission to protect the sick and wounded during wartime.
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War Nurses of the Spanish-American War (1898)
During the thirty years following the Civil War, nursing schools and university programs gained traction, offering degrees and certifications for aspiring professional nurses. This rise in education and training prompted the U.S. military to officially add contract nurses to their units as the Spanish-American War began.
Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee
Just prior to the war, Anita Newcomb McGee earned a Doctor of Medicine degree. Her education and connections secured her the position of acting assistant surgeon general of the U.S. Army. Her new rank made her the only woman authorized to wear an officer’s uniform.
While in office, Dr. McGee led the effort to organize more than 1,500 nurses for wartime service, which accounted for nearly all the nursing staff during the Spanish-American War. After the war, military officials recognized the impact of Dr. McGee and her nursing recruits, which provided the credibility she needed to write the Army Reorganization Act of 1901. The Act established the Army Nurse Corps as a permanent unit and eventually led to the Navy Nurse Corps.
Military Nurses of World War I (1917-1918)
Nurses in war performed more complex medical duties and bore greater responsibility for their patients during World War I. The change is largely due to the greater educational opportunities and medical advancements. As the demand for nurses grew and outpaced the supply of qualified professionals, trained military nurses took less experienced recruits under their wings.
As war evolved and weapons grew more advanced, the demand for wartime nurses on all fronts dramatically increased. War nurses treated patients in field hospitals near the frontlines. They also served at evacuation stations and makeshift hospitals. Some nurses treated the injured on military bases, further removed from the battle. Their services were required everywhere, even in troop transports and transport ships.
WWI Nurses treated wounds, infections, and mustard gas burns. As modern warfare grew more horrific, nurses learned to address the emotional trauma of soldiers, requiring some nurses to be trained in social work and psychiatry. This specialized training equipped them to help soldiers deal with their distressing emotional experiences.
War Nurses of World War II (1942-1945)
World War I proved that war had gone global, and this understanding prompted the U.S. Military to develop an air evacuation unit that became known as the United States Army Air Force, or USAAF.
The air evacuation unit required the services of flight nurses, surgeons, and other medical personnel. According to the National Museum of the U.S. Airforce:
On Feb. 18, 1943, the U.S. Army Nurse Corps’ first class of flight nurses formally graduated at Bowman Field. 2nd Lt. Geraldine Dishroon, the honor graduate, received the first wings presented to a flight nurse. In 1944, Dishroon served on the first air evacuation team to land on Omaha Beach after the D-Day invasion.
Flight nurses underwent intense training to learn survival skills and how to care for patients at high altitudes during grueling flights. Throughout the war, only 46 patients died in flight out of the 1,176,048 patients that were air evacuated.
The Angels of Bataan
During World War II, history records the sacrifices of another wartime nurse named Josephine Nesbit. Nesbit, a veteran nurse stationed in Manila, Philippines, led a team of nurses following Japan’s attacks on Pearl Harbor and Manilla. After the bombings, Nesbit and her nurses retreated to the Bataan Peninsula and continued treating patients. The Angels of Bataan fought mosquitos, malaria, dysentery, and the sweltering tropical climate, to fulfill their duties and give medical care to their patients.
Nesbit and her team of nurses were eventually taken as Japanese prisoners of war, where they willingly continued their nursing duties at a Manilla internment camp, caring for soldiers, nurses, and civilian prisoners. After surviving in deplorable conditions for more than two years, Allied forces emancipated Nesbit and her fellow nurses.
Post-World War II: Medical Advancements
During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, emergency medical advancements, the establishment of mobile army surgical hospital units (MASH), and the employment of military helicopters, equipped nurses and medical staff with the tools needed to save an increasing number of lives. Work hours grew longer but their efforts grew more effective. Their labor abroad benefited medicine in the homeland, as trauma care advanced significantly during these years.
Earlier nurses may not have needed much training beyond initial certification, but in today’s world, that’s not the case. Increased use of technology used during treatment, research, and development, and even in maintaining patient medical records, means that modern nurses are always learning.
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