Celebrate Nurses Week with the Military Nurse

Each year in the United States, National Nurses Week is celebrated starting on May 6. We have been reminded this past year of the incredible work nurses do on a daily basis and of the sacrifice they make to care for the wellbeing of others. To mark National Nurses Week, the Unwritten Record is celebrating the contributions nurses make in the United States Armed Forces as highlighted by the World War II era film, “The Army Nurse.”  

The Army Nurse” was created in 1945 by the Department of the Army and produced by the Department of the Treasury in cooperation with the Signal Corps. Its purpose, to raise money for the war effort, is highlighted at the end of the film by Superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps, Col. Florence A. Blanchfield who asks the audience to buy Victory Bonds to finance the care of wounded servicemen. The film depicts the hard work, dedication, and commitment of the army nurse. It shows activities in the training and service of army nurses, depicts various nursing assignments at evacuation, general, field, ship, aircraft, and debarkation hospitals, and discusses nurses who were prisoners of war.

The following clips taken from reel 1 of “The Army Nurse,” highlight some of the tasks an army nurse must complete to save a service member’s life. The second clip discusses the preparation and training a nurse must complete. This includes 3 years of professional schooling and 4 weeks of basic training.

Clip from 111-M-1173 “The Army Nurse” reel 1
Clip from 111-M-1173 “The Army Nurse” reel 1

Reel 2 of the film outlines the methods of evacuating an injured soldier and each hospital the soldier visits on their way to the United States. At each hospital, nurses provide all levels of care.  

Clip from 111-M-1173 “The Army Nurse” reel 2 discussing the evacuation of an injured solder from field hospital to evacuation hospital to train or plane hospital to the general hospital in theater of operation
Clip from 111-M-1173 “The Army Nurse” reel 2 discussing the evacuation of an injured solder from hospital ship to debarkation hospital to general hospital in the United States
Clip from 111-M-1173 “The Army Nurse” reel 2 discussing the contributions of the Army Nurse

The nurse has a long history of serving the United States military. Nurses have been aiding soldiers in an unofficial capacity since before the Revolutionary War. They continued serving in an unofficial capacity until the late 1890’s when the U.S. Surgeon General established criteria for a reserve group of contract nurses to care for sick and injured service members. Congress officially established the Army Nurse Corps in 1901 and the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. By the end of WWI, more than 22,000 nurses served between the Army and Navy Corps. World War II presented a need for nurses and the military and American Red Cross initiated an intense recruitment and training program, resulting in nearly 74,00 women serving as nurses.

As the Korean and Vietnam conflicts ushered in a new era of warfare tactics, nursing had to keep up with the changes. With the advent of helicopters, the severely wounded were able to be removed from hostile areas quicker resulting in a greater chance for their survival but this also meant that nurses were caring for more severely wounded soldiers. This resulted in a greater need for trauma and critical care nurses. Military nurses served in humanitarian missions throughout the 1980’s, providing care around the world to earthquake, hurricane and famine victims. During the 1990’s 3,000 nurses were deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield. (registerednursing.org)

Three branches of the military have their own nursing corps, the Navy, Army and Air Force. The Navy Nurse Corps was officially established by Congress in 1908 after nearly 100 years of nurses serving in an unofficial capacity aboard Navy ships and in hospitals. The Navy Nurse Corps also oversees the medical needs of the U.S. Marine Corps. The Army Nurse Corps was established by Congress in 1901 and is made up entirely of registered nurses. The Air Force Nurse Corps developed from the Army Air Corp flight nurse program. In 1947, the U.S. Air Force was established in 1949, the Air Force Nurse Corps developed from the Army when 1,199 nurses were transferred to the Air Force. (University of Wisconsin)

Many nurses end up in direct combat zones or behind enemy lines caring for the ill and injured, they are also exposed to diseases at a higher rate than other positions. Because of this, military nurses have suffered casualties during every major conflict. The following numbers are estimated casualties from the University of Wisconsin 

  • Spanish American War: 21 contract nurses died from diseases such as typhoid and malaria
  • World War I: 430 nurses, the majority died from the influenza epidemic as it swept through military ports and bases
  • World War II: Around 30 nurses died from hostile fire
  • Korea: 16 nurses died in or enroute to the battle theater, none from hostile fire
  • Vietnam: 8 nurses died in or enroute to the battle theater, 1 died from hostile fire 
A view of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial during the dedication ceremony on the National Mall on Veteran’s Day. (Local Identifier: 30-CFD-DN-ST-94-01291.jpeg)

Nursing in the military is now a position open to all regardless of gender or race but it hasn’t always been that way. Nursing was strictly a female only profession in the military until 1955 when Congressed passed a law authorizing commissions for male nurses in the U.S. Military and in 1966 when Congress furthered the progression by passing a law authorizing commissions in the Regular Army for male nurses. Before then, male nurses actively sought opportunities to serve but were relegated to the position of orderly where they were expected to uphold the same standards and training as their female counterparts but were paid about half the salary of female nurses. (history.army.mil

Black nurses faced years of discrimination while trying to serve as nurses in the military. They served as contract nurses in the Army during the Spanish American War helping to treat those infected with yellow fever and typhoid during epidemics that overwhelmed the military. Despite their achievements, Black nurses faced discriminatory requirements making it difficult for large numbers to serve in the military during World War I and World War II. Specific criteria limiting their involvement didn’t exist, but Black nurses were refused entry into the Army and Navy nurse corps at a very high rate. With the exception of 18 female Black nurses who served in World War I, the Army Nurse Corps remained white until 1941 when the Army, under pressure from the National Associations of Colored Graduate Nurses, started admitting Black nurses. A quota of 48 nurses was set, and the women were assigned to segregated hospital wards and expected to provide medical care to German prisoners of war. (National Women’s History Museum

By the end of World War II, approximately 500 African American nurses held commissions compared to 59,000 white nurses, accounting for just 0.8% of the Army Nurse Corps. After years of the Black community lobbying for equal treatment in the military, President Truman signed Executive Order 998 which required the government to integrate the then segregated military. As of  2019, Black nurses make up approximately 17 % of the Army Nurse Corps. (Smithsonian Magazine)

Nursing is an important profession and those who choose to become nurses deserve to be celebrated all year long as well as during National Nurses Week. As discussed in the film, “The Army Nurse,” they play an integral part in the lifesaving and recovery process of wounded soldiers. You can read more about the topic of military nurses in the blog post  “The Big Picture: Nurses In the Army” by Ken Myers and under the tag “nursing” in the Unwritten Record blog. The NARA catalog also offers sound recordings, photographs and moving images documenting the role nurses play in United States history. “The Army Nurse” is also available in the NARA catalog to watch in its entirety by clicking here: 111-M-1173