The history of American conflict contains a sometimes untold saga. Nurses on the battlefield would seem a given need for any war or conflict, but in fact, it wasn’t always easy for nurses to get to the wounded, or even get to proper equipment.
The story of American nurses on the battlefield reveals a perhaps unexpected story on how women were treated – as they were treating the wounded. Meanwhile, the development of modern medicine and the equipment necessary for the varied theaters of war would bring nurses to all corners of the world – and all the way up to the front line.
The Revolutionary War
Women, or “camp followers,” had a difficult time during the Revolutionary War. They were at risk of being dismissed at any time, for a myriad of reasons, including if they were found to be “unmarried, did not perform a necessary task, misbehaved, or were ill. Those fortunate enough to obtain permission to stay were given anywhere from one-quarter to one full ration, depending on what duties they performed.”
Their tasks included cooking, cleaning, launderers and cooks. Those who worked as nurses were allotted full pay, but were relegated to the dirtiest medical tasks. They were also subjected to many dangers, including high exposure to diseases such as camp fevers and smallpox.
The Civil War
Sadly, there is little written record of the thousands of nurses that worked on the battlefields during the bloodiest war in US history. However, those who rose to prominence did leave their historical mark, including Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix, who organized a desperately necessary nursing corps to care for the thousands of wounded soldiers.
The Spanish American War
In the time between the Civil War through to the Spanish American War, the contractual status and living conditions for nurses had vastly improved. A curious letter from 1899 describes the work of the Daughters of the American Revolution during the time of the Spanish American War:
“On entering the service the nurse signs a contract to serve for at least one year, unless she should sooner be discharged, and she receives for service in the United States, $40.00 a month; for service outside the States, $50.00. Besides this, each nurse receives quarters and rations, as well as all transportation expenses to and from her home and when traveling under orders; and is further entitled to 30 days leave of absence with pay, for each year of service. She is also cared for during illness. This compensation as compared with that given to graduate nurses in civil hospitals is very fair, and quite satisfactory to the nurses themselves. A uniform and badge have lately been prescribed for the army nurses.”
“The first nurses were appointed on the 10th of May (1898), and ordered to the General Hospital at Key West, and before the 15th of July, 47 had been asked for ‘by surgeons at different General Hospitals and had been selected by the ‘Daughters’ for appointment by the Surgeon General. About this time the Yellow fever appeared among the Santiago troops, and nurses were urgently needed there. The Surgeon General, therefore, employed the wife of the Superintendent of a Washington Hospital, and sent her to New Orleans to procure the services of immunes, both male and female, The majority of the nurses appointed were colored women without hospital training, a considerable number of whom were sent to Santiago in July and August. The ‘Daughters’ also supplied a few trained immune nurses for this service.”
World War I
Military nurses arrived in Europe before the troops, and they worked tirelessly throughout the war:
“By Armistice Day on November 11, 1918, 21,480 nurses had enlisted and over 10,000 had served overseas. They served with distinction: three were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, 23 received the Distinguished Service Medal, and numerous nurses received meritorious awards from allied nations. Several were wounded; more than 200 died in-service.”
“War service was hard, uncomfortable and heartbreaking. Overseas the nurses faced raw, cold weather and shortages of water for bathing and laundry, long hours at work and little privacy or time off. They treated shrapnel wounds, infections, mustard gas burns, exposure and medical and emotional trauma.”
World War II
In the most violent and widespread war in human history, nurses were in in extreme demand. They had to work under various life threatening battlefield conditions in all theaters of operations. The dangers were immense. One period brochure describes in great detail the plights and accomplishments of the nurses who fought, including this synopsis of the citations and of the casualties suffered:
“Nurses received 1,619 medals, citations, and commendations during the war, reflecting the courage and dedication of all who served. Sixteen medals were awarded posthumously to nurses who died as a result of enemy fire. These included the 6 nurses who died at Anzio, 6 who died when the Hospital Ship Comfort was attacked by a Japanese suicide plane, and 4 flight nurses. Thirteen other flight nurses died in weather-related crashes while on duty. Overall, 201 nurses died while serving in the Army during the war.”
The Korean War
There were 102,000 men wounded throughout the Korean War, but many of them survived due to the famous MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units. The MASH units were more effective, but put nurses at higher risk due to their proximity to the front lines. Nurses also worked on hospital ships and as flight nurses on evacuation aircraft. 2013 marked the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, but the heroic service of the nurses has never been forgotten:
“One of these brave nurses was Anna Mae Hays. Commissioned in the Army Nurse Corps in 1942, she served in a hospital unit during World War II. When War broke out in Korea, she mobilized with the 4th Field Hospital in 1950 and participated in the Inchon Landing. The hospital unit cared for more than 25,000 patients during the next 10 months, one night receiving 700 wounded men. On June 11, 1970, she because the first woman in military history to attain general officer rank. On March 12, 2013 she was inducted into the U.S. Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame”
“Captain Lillian Kinkela Keil, a member of the Air Force Nurse Corps and one of the most decorated women in the US military, was another who served her country in a nurse’s uniform. She flew over 200 air evacuation missions during WW II as well as 25 trans-Atlantic crossings. She returned to civilian flying after the war, but when the Korean War broke out she re-enlisted and flew several hundred more missions as a flight nurse.”
“Anna Mae Hays and Lillian Kinkela Keil are just two of the thousands of military nurses who were on active duty when the Korean War ended on July 27, 1953. More than 700 Army nurses served in the MASH units; more than 4,000 Navy nurses served on hospital ships; dozens of Air Force nurses served on MEDEVAC aircraft. Seventeen military nurses died during the Korean War, mostly from aircraft crashes.”
The Vietnam War
The usage of the Medevac system (utilizing helicopters to quickly evacuate wounded from battlefield zones to transport them quickly to a hospital) meant that thousands more lives would be saved in Vietnam. It also meant that nurses would see a much greater deal of work:
“Combat nurses worked twelve hour shifts six days a week and when a mass casualty incident occurred, like a major battle, those twelve hour shifts could easily turn into twenty-four to thirty-six hour shifts. Nurses also volunteered their time in the communities around them, often going to the local orphanages or hospitals to offer the civilians their medical services or to teach classes on basic hygiene, first aid or even English. In addition, nurses had to deal with numerous emotions: stress from the amount of patients they had to serve, anger at seeing young men so horribly wounded and guilt at not being able to save all of the wounded men or make them whole again.”
“Despite the long hours and sometimes horrifyiang wounds these women had to face, many nurses found their service rewarding. They were able to serve their country and save and comfort the wounded men in their facilities. During the Vietnam War 98% of the men who were wounded and made it to the hospital survived. Nurses witnessed some truly miraculous events such as men recovering from their wounds or acts of true selflessness that are common during combat situations, and many nurses made close friends with their fellow coworkers some of whom still keep in contact into the present day.”
To all military nurses past, present – and future – thank you for your service.