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Throughout the history of nursing, some of the most well-known figures have been involved in nurses war history. This massive conflict transformed the world of nursing, with huge numbers of women signing up as Army and Navy nurses to support the country’s soldiers. 

Over 59,000 nurses provided their services in field hospitals, on hospital ships, on hospital trains, and even aboard airplanes.

But what was it actually like to be a nurse during World War?

Revolutionary War (1775- 1783), Nurses war history

During the Revolutionary War, women often followed the troops hoping for safety, food, and a chance to work. Some of those women worked as nurses. They were valued because of the traditional role women had as caretakers but also because if a woman was doing the nursing, that meant there was one more man available to fight.

On July 27, 1775, a resolution was signed allotting payment of two dollars per month to women who worked as nurses.

Women who supervised the nurses and acted as go-betweens to the surgeons received four dollars. The worth of female nurses was apparently recognized since the pay per nurse was raised to four dollars in 1776.

The signing of this resolution was significant because it created the first organized system for the assignment and payment of nurses for the American military.

Civil War (1861- 1865) and After, Nurses war history

When the Civil War broke out, there was no organized training system in place for nurses in America, which means there was still no such thing as a nursing degree. However, the groundwork had been laid in Europe through the work of Florence Nightingale. That doesn’t mean, though, that women did not play a significant role during the Civil War. They served as nurses in Union and Confederate hospitals.

Many also worked closer to the battlefield. On June 10, 1861, Dorothea Lynde was named “superintendent of women nurses,” which created an organized unit of nurses for the Union.

Spanish-American War (1898) and Beyond, Nurses war history

Between the time of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, mainly men filled the role of military nurses. But as the war approached, the military began to realize that the scant number of male nurses who served in peacetime would not be enough to manage the needs during a war.

In April of 1898, the surgeon general authorized the appointment of nurses who would serve under contract to the military. The authorization did not specify a required gender, so women applied. Most of them were untrained, though, and the surgeon general’s office did not have the necessary resources to examine their qualifications.


The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) offered to serve as the examining board for nurses who wished to work for the government, and the standard for being appointed as a nurse for the government was set at having graduated from a training school and having recommendations from suitable sources. In a sense, this was an early form of the modern nursing degree.

World War I (1917- 1918) and After, Nurses war history

The American Red Cross signed up in excess of 22,000 nurses during World War I. Almost half of them worked on the Western Front. Some of them also worked with the British and French armies serving in American units. Unfortunately, African-American nurses and immigrant nurses were not allowed to serve overseas at the time.

Initially, military leaders sought to keep the nurses safe by keeping them as far away from the battlefront as possible. However, they eventually realized that more lives could be saved if the nurses were readily available to treat wounds at the front. After the war, there was a movement to assign ranks to the nurses.

This happened because their authority was often not recognized since they were not commissioned. In 1920, an agreement was made to assign nurses “relative ranks” as majors, captains, and lieutenants.

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nurses war history jpg1

World War II (1942-1945), Nurses war history

World War II saw the service of 59,000 or more American nurses. Only 1,000 nurses were listed on the rolls of the Army Nurse Corps at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but following the attack, the rolls grew to 12,000. Nurses were called to serve even closer to the battlefield than they had before, even serving under fire.

Thanks to the skill and dedication of the nurses, the U.S. military had an astonishingly low rate of death following injury. Less than four percent of soldiers who were treated in the field following an injury later died as a result of wounds or disease.

Post-World War II (1947-1950), Nurses war history

One year after the end of World War II, there were only about 8,500 nurses remaining in the Army Nurse Corps. On April 16, 1947, Congress established the Army Nurse Corps as part of the Medical Department of the Army and authorized having no fewer than 2,558 nurses on staff.

Nurses of the Army Nurse Corps were also given the right to hold permanent commissioned officer status, which means those who had a relative rank and were still on active duty were assigned a permanent rank, but they served under their previous rank if the new rank was higher. Specialized courses for nurses began to appear on the scene, such as courses in anesthesiology and operating room technique.

Korean War (1950-1953), Nurses war history

Just as they did during World War II, nurses in the Korean War served on the battlefield, tending the wounds of the soldiers. They staffed mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) units and hospitals in both Korea and Japan. At the start of the Korean War, there were 22,000 women in the military; about 7,000 were medical professionals.

Vietnam War (1965-1972), Nurses war history

During the Vietnam War, many nurses were deployed to Southeast Asia. They worked at all of the major Army hospitals in the area. Because men were allowed into the Army Nurse Corps beginning in 1955, Vietnam was the first war in which there was a major deployment of male nurses.

They were sent to areas that were considered too dangerous for female nurses. Due to the unprecedented style of the conflict, nurses were in greater danger than ever before in nurses war history, and several nurses died in Vietnam.

New Opportunities for Nurses World War 3: Wartime and the American Workforce

World War II was a global conflict that required a massive amount of manpower. Nearly every able-bodied man served in the army or the navy. Many of us had a parent or grandparent who fought in the war, depending on your age.

With so many of the nation’s men fighting for their country, unprecedented economic opportunities were created for women. From factory work to being a war nurse, WWII marked the beginning of women’s entry into the workforce.

Many, many nurses were recruited for the war, almost all of them were women. From 1943 to 1948, the US government even provided free education for nursing students. In June 1944, army nurses were granted officers’ commissions, dependents’ allowances, and equal pay.

WWII nurses had to be between the ages of 21 and 40, with no children under 14. Before 1943, they didn’t need formal training, but by July of that year, commissioned Army nurses needed specific training. WWII nurses were trained in things like field sanitation, mental health, and the administration of anaesthetics. For women at the time, it was an important opportunity to help the war effort and make a difference.

Nurses on the Front Lines WW III(3)

Unlike in previous conflicts, WWII brought nurses closer than ever to the front lines. This was necessary to make sure that nurses could care for patients in time. They worked under harsh conditions, making emergency decisions on the spot for severely wounded soldiers in field hospitals.

Women had never been this close to battle in all of American history. There were nurses serving in all arenas of the war, putting them at serious risk of injury or death. Some did become prisoners of war in Japan, and a total of 201 nurses died in the nurses war history, 16 of them due to enemy action. Four Army nurses who survived the battle of Anzio were awarded silver stars.

Army and navy nurses during WWII were often quite close to the action. One army nurse, Esther Edwards, recounts her experience around the time of the Battle of the Bulge:

Near Saint-Avold, the Allies fired artillery shells over our building, then the German artillery landed close to us, but luckily we were never hit. One nurse was using her helmet to bathe when the firing came too close, so she dumped out the water, put the helmet on her head, and sat there naked until the firing stopped.”

The injuries that these nurses treated were often grisly as well. According to another army nurse, Grace G. Patterson, she said:

Our medical work was interesting. We had orders to exteriorate the gut when a patient had any gut surgery. With so many patients having abdominal surgery, some of the intestinal holes might be missed, so when patients finally reached the hospitals in England, their intestines were put back in.

The Scars of War: PTSD in WWII Nurses

Like the men who fought on the front lines, the women who served as nurses during World War II saw and experienced some very disturbing things. Like soldiers, many nurses developed PTSD in the wake of their service overseas.

In one incident, 79 American Army nurses were held as prisoners of war in the Philippines by the Japanese. According to one anecdote in Pure Grit, a book about the experiences of WWII nurses, a nurse named Francis Mash grabbed a lethal dose of morphine for each American nurse before they departed to Bataan. This was in case they were taken prisoner by the Japanese

While it isn’t well recorded, many WWII nurses experienced PTSD after returning to America after the war. Like the soldiers, they often felt alienated and isolated, haunted by what they’d seen during the war.

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