Albert Einstein once said: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
Even though it befits almost all known conflicts in the history of humankind, this line suits the events of World War II the most. Starting in 1939, the Second World War was one of the most violent events human beings have ever been through. However, it was at this time that humankind was blessed with a plethora of opportunities in all shades of life. Indeed, it was the exploration of these opportunities that later led humanity to experience a variety of revolutionary changes. Whether it was about farming, construction, politics, or strategic planning, it was only after the Second World War that the roots of knowledge and understanding were shaken and that humankind was pushed to adopt a more pragmatic approach towards the matters of interest.
Amid all the chaos, one field that flourished and experienced many changes was that of health and medical care. While doctors were doing their best to save dying soldiers in operation theatres and ICUs, the paramedical staff were the people resiliently fighting for the lives of the army out on the frontline.
Among all those who laid their lives and went beyond their call of duty during the crucial events of World War II lie the nursing force.
The nurses of WWII served and sacrificed with its unshaken will and undeniable resilience. The nurses of WWII are still revered as some of the bravest women in history because of their selfless service during such an uncertain time.
The WWII Nursing History In The United States
World War II was a time when all physically able adults got out of their homes to help the US Army and serve their country in whatever way they could. A vast majority of men went out to fight on the front line, and women began to take up nursing to aid wounded soldiers and civilians.
The year 1941 experienced a severe scarcity of military nursing staff. At the time, the total number of actively working nurses in US hospitals amounted to just a few thousand. However, the number of active nurses increased rapidly during the years that followed, with around 59,000 nurses serving throughout the war in total.
In order to serve as a military nurse during the Second World War, women needed to fulfill definite criteria. Anyone willing to become a professional nurse must have been between 21 to 40 years of age, should have met a specific military standard of health, and must have had children above the age of 14, if any at all. Moreover, the candidate was expected to be a citizen of the United States and to have official recognition from the nursing department.
It wasn’t until the year 1943 that military nurses were required to have special training. In July of that year, the military deputed nurses started to receive full-fledged nursing training from military personnel so that they could help more people in the Second World War. This additional military training enabled these nurses to carry out tasks like field sanitation, help soldiers with psychological stress, and carry out anesthesia-related tasks. Depending upon the area where they were meant to serve, some nurses were also provided with enough training to strengthen themselves physically and enhance their endurance. Many of these nurses were also trained to set up small medical camps in war-affected areas on their own and carry out other such tasks that were only required in war fields.
Between the years 1943 and 1948, all nursing students were provided free education by the government, and most of them were women. The US government also honored the selfless services provided by these military nurses by granting them extra allowances and increasing their wages by 50% through the year 1944.
The Crucial Role Played By The WWII Nurse Corps
The role played by military nurses during the Second World War of injured and dying soldiers in the battlefields and hospitals meant that these nurses were weighed down with immense responsibility. Never before in the history of mankind had nurses been as close to the front lines as they had been in the Second World War. Nurses bravely tended to soldiers in the war fields. In the blood-covered floors of hospital corridors, they ran to help those stuck between life and death.
These military nurses provided first aid and other necessary treatment to soldiers on the spot and were also responsible for making serious decisions regarding their health. Some of these nurses, because they were working in regions with maximum action, also became prisoners of war and were imprisoned in Japan. A considerable number of nurses also died in the field while performing their duties. Many others were seriously injured ones and had to get some body parts amputated.
The army medical department established a “chain of evacuation,” under which army nurses had to move patients to where they could best be treated. The same chain applies to nurses working as flight nurses on planes, in trains, and even on ships. It was during this time that a severe wave of the malarial infection hit a number of soldiers, and military nurses now had a new problem to deal with.
Certainly, it was because of these nurses’ expertise that the number of deaths, both civilian and military, in WWII remained less than what was expected. Around 96 percent of injured soldiers recovered, and the mortality rate among the US army was as low as 4 percent. A low mortality rate such as this was and still is a significant achievement during a mass war.
These nurses were not only the saviors of humankind during the war, but many of them also continued to work in hospitals after the war was over. They helped treat citizens affected by the war and also provided their services in transferring injured people to bigger hospitals in major cities. The added training provided to these nurses during wartime made some of them capable enough to train young paramedics as well.
The Post-War Trauma of the WWII Nurses
Like all others who experienced the Second World War closely, these army nurses suffered from severe trauma after the war was over. Among the nurses affected the most, those captured as prisoners of war had the maximum psychological damage, with most of them suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The positive effects of undergoing military training and intense practices under stressful environments were not mutually shared by all the nurses. Therefore, it was later deemed necessary by higher medical authorities in various hospitals to ask many of their nurses to retire from the job.
Many nurses, however, were able to share their traumas with the world, and by doing so, they helped many other nurses rid of their fears. Even though some of these nurses wrote and published their experiences on the battlefield, others talked about what they went through in various interviewers and reports years after the war ended.
WWII Nurses Struggle Against Underappreciation
Unfortunately, like many other units ignored for their services in WWII, the army nurse corps were also underappreciated for their role. After saving innumerable lives on and off the battlefield, these nurses returned home with high hopes and expectations from the government and citizens of their time.
However, only a few well-known nurses received recognition, while a considerably large number of nurses found it hard to work under low wages and an absence of reverence from the society. Most of these nurses were forced to work long hours because they were well-trained and knew more than nurses that did not serve in the army nurse corps. After the war, many nurses deliberately left their jobs to do manual labor in factories or work as waitresses in restaurants, so that they could make both ends meet.
Most of the injured and disabled nurses were denied veteran’s benefits. Those nurses that were not denied their rights were not given them easily. Most of these nurses had to beg for their rightful share so much so that some of them found it better not to struggle and gave up.
In the year 1983, almost a decade after the war was over, the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, honored and recognized the services of the army nurse corps on national Prisoners Of War Recognition Day. Nevertheless, as much as it was appreciated, the effort went to vain. By 1983, many nurses had either passed away hopelessly demanding their rights or settled into a new life working under unrealistic wages.
However, whether they have been rightly honored by the government or not, these selfless women will always be remembered by the world for their courage and the unprecedented role they played in the Second World War. These nurses tended to soldiers on the battlefield, even when their own lives were at great risk. They played a significant role in the US army’s victory in the Second World War.