Nurse Corps, Army and Navy

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Nurse Corps, Army and Navy. Both men and women served as nurses for the army in various capacities beginning in 1775, but it was not until 1901 that an official Army Nurse Corps was created as part of the Medical Department of the U.S. Army. The Corps was exclusively female. Distinguished contributions of women contract nurses during the Spanish‐American War provided the justification for this permanent female nurse corps. Although today's Corps is no longer exclusively female, its purpose endures: to provide nursing care for service members. The organization has a dual significance. It is the oldest military nursing service and the first military branch to admit women.

Army Nursing.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, there were only 403 army nurses on active duty. By November 1918, there were 21,460, 10,000 of whom were serving overseas. During the war, nurses worked primarily in base, evacuation, and mobile surgical hospitals in the United States, France, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. They also provided care on hospital trains in France and transport ships carrying wounded home across the Atlantic.

More than 57,000 nurses served during World War II. In May 1942, after the Battles of Bataan and Corregidor, sixty‐seven army nurses became prisoners of war of the Japanese. For the thirty‐seven‐month captivity, the women endured primitive conditions and starvation rations, but still they continued to care for the ill and injured. Nurses landed with troops in the North Africa campaign on invasion day in November 1942. They also waded ashore at Anzio five days after initial assault landings.

Army nurses supported combat troops when President Harry S. Truman ordered U.S. forces into Korea in June 1950. During the three‐year Korean War, approximately 550 nurses served abroad, the majority of them in mobile army surgical hospitals (M.A.S.H. units).

More than 5,000 army nurses served in Vietnam during that conflict. Evacuation by helicopters brought the wounded to medical units located within minutes' flying time of the battlefield. Mobility and large numbers of severely injured patients characterized service in the Vietnam War. Eight women nurses were killed in action.

During Operation Desert Shield‐Desert Storm, approximately 2,200 nurses served in 44 hospitals within the theater of operations. Two of every three nurses in the Persian Gulf War were from the U.S. Army National Guard or were army reservists. By the late 1990s, 4,200 active duty nurses were providing nursing care to soldiers, retirees, and their families.

Navy Nursing.

An act of Congress established the Navy Nurse Corps on 13 May 1908. Soon thereafter, the first twenty nurses, later known as the “Sacred Twenty,” reported for duty. Nurses were not new to the navy, however. During the Civil War, several volunteer nurses served on the Mississippi River aboard Red Rover, a captured Confederate sidewheeler converted by Union forces into a floating hospital.

The Navy Nurse Corps remained a small organization until World War I, when it grew to a peak strength of 1,386 in 1918. Navy nurses served at hospitals in the United States, Britain, and France, and even with some army field units in France. No navy nurses died in action, but thirty‐six succumbed to other causes.

In 1920, the first nurses reported to the hospital ship USS Relief. The Navy Nurse Corps shrank dramatically after the end of the war, averaging only 400–500 personnel during the 1930s.

Navy nurse involvement in World War II began immediately on 7 December 1941. Nurses aboard the hospital ship USS Solace in Hawaii treated the first casualties of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Navy Nurse Corps reached its all‐time peak strength with 11,086 nurses on active duty by 1945, serving at 40 naval hospitals, 176 dispensaries, and 6 hospital corps schools in the United States. Overseas, navy nurses served aboard hospital ships, participated in aerial evacuation of casualties, and were stationed at land‐based facilities across the Pacific and throughout the Atlantic theater. The war prompted the navy to assign relative rank to nurses on 1 July 1942. In 1944, actual rank was established to last throughout the war plus six months. In April 1947, the Army‐Navy Nurses Act established the Nurse Corps as a permanent staff corps of the U.S. Navy bringing permanent commissioned rank and equal pay.

In November 1964, male nurses entered the Navy Nurse Corps for the first time. Currently, they comprise 25 percent of the Corps' overall strength. The 1960s also saw navy nurses serving ashore and aboard hospital ships in Vietnam.

In 1972, the first Navy Nurse Corps officer, Alene Duerk, was appointed to the rank of rear admiral, becoming the first woman appointed to flag rank in the U.S. Navy. The tradition of excellence continues. In Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, navy nurses served on land and aboard two hospital ships. By the late 1990s, there were over 5,000 active duty and reserve nurses in the U.S. Navy.
[See also Medical Practice in the Military; Women in the Military.]


Page Cooper , Navy Nurse, 1946. History of the Medical Department of the United States Navy in World War II, 1953.
Mary Roberts , The Army Nurse Corps: Yesterday and Today, 1955.
Robert Piedmonte and and Cindy Gurney , Highlights in the History of the Army Nurse Corps, 1987.
Elizabeth Norman , Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam, 1990.

Constance J. Moore and and Jan Herman