Background: A History of American Military Nurses

American nurses have served the Army in various ways since the American Revolution. They were not a part of the US Army, but nurses nevertheless worked on the battlefields and in hospitals during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. Though the Army tried to recruit male nurses, the pay and prestige for male military nurses was too low and the demand for male combat soldiers was too high to create a large enough all-male hospital corps. In 1898, the Army started contracting with female civilian nurses to provide care for the troops. Over 1,500 “contract nurses” were used during the Spanish-American War (Tomblin 2). In 1901, a permanent Army Nurse Corps was established. The Surgeon General was required to keep a list of nurses to mobilize during national emergencies. This group of qualified nurses who had at least four months of experience in the Army became the official Reserve Corps. In 1908 a Navy Nurse Corps was established as well. 

Image: American military nurses in the Spanish-American War: http://www.history.army.mil/documents/spanam/WwS-Nrs7.jpg
The Army Nurse Corps expanded during the 1910s during the first years of World War I. Demand for nurses spiked after the United States entered the war in 1917, and by the end of  the war, over 20,000 Army nurses had served, including over 10,000 overseas. Army nurses during World War I did not have officer status. To show appreciation for the contribution of American military nurses after the war, the 1920 Army Reorganization Act gave Army nurses relative rank. This gave the nurses the status of officers and allowed them to wear the same insignia and rise in the ranks to major. Relative rank also meant that they were not accorded full rights of a commissioned officer and they were not paid the same as a male officer of the same rank.
Image: American military nurses in World War I:
As WWI came to a close and life returned to normal, the Army Nurse Corps shrunk. Army nurses enjoyed low-key lives working in military hospitals. Many military nursing programs were cut during the Great Depression of the 1930s. With the outbreak of war in Europe that later proved to be the beginning of World War II, a state of limited emergency was declared in America, and the Army Nurse Corps began recruiting nurses back into the Corps. On December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and began US involvement in World War II, however, there were still less than 7,000 nurses in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. (Tomblin 12)
 By the end of World War II, over 77,000 American women had served as US military nurses. 230 of them died in service, and 16 were killed as a result of enemy action. More than 1,600 nurses throughout the war were decorated for their service and bravery – decorations received included the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Soldier’s Metal, Bronze Star, Air Medal, Legion of Merit, Army Commendation Metal, and the Purple Heart (“The Army Nurse Corps”). They served in the UK, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Guam, The Philippines, Australia, North Africa, Italy, and at military bases and hospitals in the United States. They worked closer to the front lines than ever before as an integral part of the “chain of evacuation” that helped lead to an extremely low post-injury mortality rate for American military forces in each theater. In addition to their medical and nursing expertise, they provided comfort and companionship to thousands of battle-fatigued soldiers throughout the war. American military nurses played an important (and often ignored) role in the Mediterranean, European, and Pacific theaters, and they helped usher in a new era of opportunity and respect for American women post-World War II.
In the words of Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II:
“Any words by me would be inadequate to pay proper tribute to the American nurses and to the work that they are doing here and elsewhere. From Bataan to Normandy, the contributions of American women serving as nurses in our Army have spoken for themselves. One needs only to talk with the wounded or witness our nurses at work in the field and in hospitals to realize that they are taking their places alongside the greatest women in the history of our country. Nothing stops them in their determination to see that our troops receive the best attention humanely possible.”
 - (as quoted in They Called Them Angels by Kathi Jackson, p. xix of the Introduction)
*The full citation for each source referenced and used in this page may be found under Sources*