At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, there were less than 1,000 women serving in the Army Nurse Corps; but by the time the war ended four years later, over 59,000 nurses had joined the Corps.
Nurses had to graduate from nursing school to be accepted by the Army, so when the U.S. entered the war, the thousands of nurses who first joined the Corps (there were 12,000 within six months of Pearl Harbor) had either already been working in hospitals or had recently passed their nursing exams. But as the war progressed, the demand for trained nurses grew, so between 1943 and 1948 the government paid for women to attend nursing school. As a result, young women began entering nursing school with the express goal of enlisting in the Army (or Navy) upon graduation.
After enlistment, Army nurses attended a four-week basic training, where they were taught “Army organization; military customs and courtesies; field sanitation; defense against air, chemical, and mechanized attack; personnel administration; military requisitions and correspondence, and property responsibility.” After completing their training, some nurses served stateside at Army and Air Force bases, while others were shipped overseas, everywhere from North Africa, to Europe, to the Pacific, to Asia, and beyond.
Overseas, some nurses served near the frontlines in field hospitals, others in evacuation hospitals a little further back, and still others in more permanent station and general hospitals. There were also flight nurses, who worked with the Air Force and cared for patients during medical air evacuations. In addition to caring for wounded and ill soldiers, Army nurses also supervised male corpsmen, who generally did the more menial and routine hospital tasks. As well as general nursing, some nurses specialized in specific areas such as anesthesia or psychiatric care—two specialties in high demand during the war.
Wherever there was fighting—from Anzio to Normandy to Corregidor—there were nurses not far behind. But nursing in wartime could be dangerous: 201 nurses lost their lives during the war—16 directly from enemy fire—and others were captured as prisoners of war (in one case, 67 Army nurses were held as POWs for 3 years in the Philippines by the Japanese). But the nurses showed they were brave as well as skilled, and for their courage they were awarded 1,619 medals, citations, and commendations over the course of the war.
Find out much more about WWII Army nurses here. Or find additional photos of them in Fold3’s WWII US Air Force Photos collection. Fold3 also has hundreds of documents mentioning the Nurse Corps as well as their service in field hospitals, in evacuation hospitals, and as flight nurses during World War II. You can also watch interviews with former WWII Army nurses here, here, and here, or read about their counterpart, the Navy Nurse Corps, here. Or you can read about women serving in other capacities during the war in our Fold3 spotlights about the Women’s Army Corps, Women Air Force Service Pilots, or the Women’s Land Army.