World War II Nurses

views updated

World War II Nurses

Excerpt from No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II

Edited by Diane Burke Fessler Published in 1996

During World War II (1939-45) nearly sixty thousand American nurses served in the Army Nurse Corps (ANC). Whether stationed in Europe or in the Pacific, they risked their lives daily, working on or near the front lines; on land, sea, and air transport vehicles; and in field hospitals.

As caretakers of wounded soldiers fresh from the battlefield, wartime nurses dealt with every sort of injury imaginable—from gaping chest wounds and massive hemorrhages to amputations and severe burns. One of the most difficult aspects of their job, though, was helping soldiers handle the psychological damage brought on by brutal combat experiences. Brave World War II nurses, doctors, and medics (enlisted men who served as orderlies) remained strong in the face of death. Although vulnerable to attack by enemy forces, they shunned the danger and set aside their own fears to stay with the patients who needed them.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II:

  • Wartime nurses and doctors worked in overcrowded makeshift hospitals, under less-than-sanitary conditions, often without adequate supplies, and sometimes even without running water or electricity.
  • World War II nurses tended to hundreds of patients each day, working on their feet—with little or no rest—as many as eighty-four hours in a week.
  • Soldiers were disabled not only by wounds but by the effects of debilitating diseases, including malaria (a potentially fatal disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes), beriberi (a serious nutritional disorder caused by inadequate intake of Vitamin B1) and dengue fever (a tropical fever also transmitted by mosquitoes).
  • Some American nurses were in charge of caring for injured enemy forces at prisoner of war (POW) camps. These nurses had to set aside all feelings of intolerance, prejudice, and anger in order to care for the ailing members of the German military.
  • Nurses treated the troops with equal measures of compassion, courage, and humor. They aided their patients by building morale and helped to heal overburdened minds as well as broken bodies. Many soldiers were inspired by the example of the hardworking nurses who cared for them. If the nurses could take the daily horrors of war, then the troops felt they could do the same.

Excerpt from No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II

Agnes Shurr, U.S. Navy

USS Solace

Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor the [hospital ship] Solace went to the South Pacific, and when we were at an island calledTongatabu, an enormous number of warships appeared in the harbor. Everyone knew they were gathering for something, but we nurses were never told what. That was when the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway [see Franklin D. Roosevelt entry in chapter one] were being planned early in the war. We went on toNoumea, New Caledonia .

We took on casualties from the Coral Sea battle and from Guadalcanal and that area. Casualties were terribly high. We treated them and took them to hospitals in New Zealand; we made several trips like that. Sometimes we transferred patients from our ship to another at sea.

The time I was most frightened, we were traveling"blackout" with blackout curtains and red lights inside that allowed us to see. Hospital ships usually traveled alone, and at night turned lights on. This time our commanding officer felt that if we were lighted up, the Japanese would see the warships. We were fired on in the middle ofthe night, and it hit not far from where I was sleeping. I woke up to the sound of the explosion and the "call to stations." Earlier that day we took on a large load of casualties. My ward hadlitter patients so I prepared them to abandon ship. We waited, and I was sure we were going down. How could anyone fire on us, unless they intended to sink us? After a period of time, the all-clear sounded, and we were never told what happened. In those days everything was secret, and we accepted it.

It wasn't until 1991, when a book was published by one of our hospital men, that I found out the firing was from a"friendly" ship. The book, The USS Solace Was There, states that a U.S. ship asked for identification, then fired across our bow but hit us instead. Our lights were turned on, and it was all over.

Margaret Richey Raffa, U.S. Army Air Force

801st Medical Air Evacuation Squadron

We were the first flight nurse squadron to go to the Pacific, landing in New Caledonia in February 1943. We enjoyed the temperature and flowers, which are equally beautiful there all year, but conditions were very primitive. The river behind our tents was our washing machine, and we hung clothes to dry from trees. There were twenty-four nurses, and millions of mosquitoes, all living in one tent. One night during the first week, the tent blew down during atyphoon, and our foot lockers almost floated away.

C-47s [acting as medical evacuation planes] flew to the front with cargo and ammunition, and the nurses rode on top of the cargo. We often had troops going to the forward areas, which was sad for us. They would get into long discussions, feeling that they would probably never come back. The worst part is, some of them didn't.

When we went to Guadalcanal, the plane wouldn't fly directly over the island but flew along the beach, staying low to avoid being spotted by the Japanese. This was emotionally trying for us, not knowing what the landing field would be like. There were no ambulances. The most seriously wounded patients would be on litters, with other wounded in different vehicles. We took off quickly because the Japanese werestrafing the field. Our casualties were still in rather bad shape, having had only first aid treatment. They hadshrapnel and bullet wounds and injuries from hand grenades, often of the chest,abdomen, or head. It presented quite a problem, since there were no doctors on board, and we had to rely on our own initiative. We always had to be alert for symptoms ofshock and hemorrhage, and from the time we took off until we landed, we had our hands full with these mutilated bodies. One nurse might have twenty-four patients, most of them on litters, for a five hour flight, and in those days we didn't have the [help of] enlisted medical technicians. We felt a tremendousresponsibility.

Some patients were taken to the hospital inNew Hebrides and later evacuated back to the States, but there were general hospitals in New Caledonia where these patients received good enough care to be returned to duty. We took boys back up to the front lines a month or two after we'd brought them out wounded.

The problems were constant. For instance, after we reached [an altitude of] 8,000 feet there was a lack of oxygen, and often we climbed to 10,000 feet because of weather conditions. Then we had to give oxygen to patients continuously. Small oxygen tanks were all we had room for, and patients shared them. We did use alcohol on the tanks between patients, but it wasn't very sanitary. A lot of the planes didn't have heaters, and at 10,000 feet, even in the South Pacific, it was cold.

Sometimes we had to make forced landings because of maintenance or weather or fuel shortages, and this caused big problems for the commanding officers of the airstrips where we landed. Most of the time these fields were under attack by the Japanese, and we'd often have to head forfoxholes, with the war being fought right above us. One time I was going to stand at the edge of a foxhole to watch as they went after a Japanese plane. AGI decided to head for the same place and hit my feet, knocking me over. I decided to stay down after that.

Evangeline Bakke Fairall, U.S. Army

250th Station Hospital

I didn't think I'd ever know what it was to be warm after we landed in Liverpool, England, in January 1944. It was night and pouring rain, and we marched in formation carrying our heavy packs to the train. We stood for what seemed like hours while the rain beat a tattoo on our helmets, like rain on a tin roof. The American Red Cross greeted us with doughnuts, hot coffee, and gum after we boarded the train. It was wonderful, for all we'd had to eat was breakfast that day.

Blackouts were always in effect, so we had to do a lot in complete darkness, often without the aid of even a flashlight to show the way. Utter, pitch-black darkness descended about 4:30 P.M. and lasted until 8:30 A.M. Because of air raids, the blackout system was so complete that you never saw even a crack of light when a door was opened. Almost everyone had black and blue marks on their kneesfrom bumping into signs, posts, and fences.

We soon learned to dread air alerts but had no desire to ignore them. Many a night, and often onconsecutive nights, we climbed out of bed, put our trench coats over pajamas, went to the wards to be with the patients, and remained there until the "all clear" came. I remember getting patients up and putting them under each bed. It could be an hour or two hours later before we could return to our tents, cold and hungry. The tents were so cold, and heavy rains kept everything damp. We kept clothes under the pillow at night to keep them dry. Thelatrine and showers were up a hill, and we had to walk there out in the open, day or night.

We knew D day was coming but weren't supposed to talk about it, even among ourselves in our tents. I'll never forget the morning of D day. Very early we heard thousands of planes going overhead, towardthe Continent ; just thousands. As the day went on, they were coming back, and we knew fewer were returning. Everyone was quiet.

When we heard our first convoy of battle patients was coming, we were very excited, because we could finally get to do the work we had come to do. We couldn't do enough for that first group of one hundred patients. Then, as more came, the number soon jumped to over a thousand. My first battle patient had a bullet wound in the spine and was paralyzed from the neck down. I'll never forget that first patient.

This went on for several weeks, and everyone was busy. Then we were told we were to be a rehabilitation hospital, caring only forconvalescent patients, getting them in shape physically and mentally to return to combat. Our spirits went down with a thud, but we gradually adjusted to the change.

About three months later our status changed again, and we received new battle casualties. We worked like beavers, never enough nurses to go around. One nurse might have responsibility for nearly two hundred very sick patients, spread over an area of approximately two city blocks. With the aid of competentwardmen, we managed toget along.

We had every type of case, and sometimes those sick, sick patients kept our morale up more than we did their's. They came to us in many ways, sometimes by plane straight from the front. Just before Christmas 1944, we were busier than ever, and I remember one patient telling me, "I was crawling out of my foxhole about 3:30 this afternoon, and here I am." It was about 7:30 in the evening when we were talking, and we were a long way from the combat area.

The number oforthopedic patients was astounding, running well over four hundred. Ward after ward was filled with fractures, almost everyone up intraction, with rarely anambulatory patient in these wards.

One nurse who was inspecting our hospital really lifted my spirits. She had seen several of these wards with nothing but patients in traction, the nurses wearing raincoats over their uniforms for warmth, and pantlegs wet well above the knees from the heavy, drenching rain. This nurse was amazed that we could care for patients in that situation. I asked, "Have you seen the General Hospital down the road?" It was made of brick, while we were a tent hospital. They had covered ramps between buildings, and we had to walk through the rain and mud to carry supplies and food to each tent. She said, "I've been there several times, but I like this place. You have to have what it takes to work here."

Myrtle Brethouwer Hoftiezer, U.S. Army

166th General Hospital

[Fall 1944] After training at Camp McCoy [in Wisconsin], we had more to go through at Camp Kilmer where we learned to use the gas masks, were put through an obstacle course, and more marching. I remember the GIs yelling and whistling from every barracks window as we went through the mud and did pushups.

One of my first memories of Europe was the public toilet we had to use in England. We were at the dock, waiting to cross the English Channel, and while I was seated in the "privy," a young man came in and sat next to me. When I told the other nurses about it, they asked what I did. "I passed him the paper," I told them.…

It rained and rained at the beginning of our stay in France, and we often had to move the cots we slept in to higher ground to stay dry. We ate outside from our mess kits, often in the rain. Our first hot meal was Cream-of-Wheat, which tastes wonderful in a muddy field in France. We wore the ugly, olive drab underwear for a month with out being able to wash it. Our bathtub was a helmet, and the latrine was a dug-out trench with a canvas screen around it, open to the sky and the pilots who flew overhead.

Everyone was excited when we were finally told to make beds and get ready for a trainload of patients. After all, we hadn't come to France to enjoy the winter climate. My strongest memory is how many times a patient would say, "Get to me when you can. He needs you more than I do." I've never taken care of patients like that since. (Fessler, pp. 29-32, 151-53, 204, 210-11)

What happened next …

In the post-World War II years, nursing came to beviewed as a serious profession. According to Judith A. Bellafairein The Army Nurse Corps, the war "forever changed the face" of the nursing field.

Did you know …

  • The U.S. government covered all educational expenses forstudent nurses between 1943 and 1948.
  • Sixteen nurses were killed during World War II as a resultof enemy action.
  • Sixty-seven World War II nurses served time as prisoners of war.
  • Sixteen hundred nurses were decorated for meritorious service, meaning they received awards or honors from the U.S. military for outstanding conduct while serving in the ANC.
  • Segregation in the U.S. military limited the number of black nurses allowed in the ANC. At war's end, less than five hundred of the fifty thousand nurses in the ANC were black.

For More Information


Archard, Theresa. G.I. Nightingale: The Story of an American Army Nurse.New York: W.W. Norton, 1945.

Gruhzit-Hoyt, Olga. They Also Served: American Women in World War II.Secaucus, NJ: Birch Lane Press, 1995.

Hardison, Irene. A Nightingale in the Jungle. Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1954.

Tomblin, Barbara Brooks. G.I. Nightingales: The Army Nurse Corps in World

War II. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

Wandry, June. Bedpan Commando: The Story of a Combat Nurse during World War II. Elmore, OH: Elmore Publishing, 1989.

Web Sites

Army Nurse Corps History. [Online] (accessed on September 7, 1999).


Ambrose, Stephen E. Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany New York: Touchstone, 1998.

Bellafaire, Judith A. The Army Nurse Corps. U.S. Army Center of Military History: CMH Pub 72-14.

Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 1998.

Fessler, Diane Burke. No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1996.

Goolrick, William K., Ogden Tanner, and the editors of Time-Life Books. The Battle of the Bulge. "Time-Life Books World War II Series." Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1979.

CountryNumber of Deaths
Soviet Union20,600,000
United States500,000
Great Britain388,000
Numbers taken from "The History Place: Statistics of World War II, includingthe European and Pacific Theaters." [Online] Available

About this article

World War II Nurses

Updated About content Print Article