AMSN salutes military nurses

AMSN salutes military nurses

Marlene Roman

One of the best things about being President of AMSN is the opportunity to meet so many wonderful medical-surgical nurse colleagues. I am very lucky to have gotten to know and to have worked closely with them over the past year. One group of individuals, our military colleagues, has made quite an impact on me. With world events such as they are, I have learned how our military colleagues have fared and how these world events have altered their lives. AMSN’s first special interest group (SIG) was formed last year and held its first meeting at AMSN’s 10th Annual Convention in Kansas City. This was the Military/Uniformed Services SIG chaired by Major Dorothy Dizmang, USAF. I would like to take this opportunity to honor our past, present, and future medical-surgical nurses who serve our country.

Military nursing had its origins in the Crimean War when Florence Nightingale organized her nurses to serve in a battle zone. In March 1854, Britain, France, and Turkey declared war on Russia. The allies defeated the Russians at the battle of Alma in September, but reports in The London Times criticized the British medical facilities for their treatment of the wounded. In response, the Minister at War appointed Ms. Nightingale to oversee the introduction of female nurses into the military hospitals in Turkey. This maneuver was an outstanding success.

In Colonial America, the Continental Army was formed on June 14, 1775. The Commander in Chief, General George Washington, asked Congress for “female nurses to attend the sick …” On July 27 Congress authorized medical support and submitted a plan to General Washington which provided one nurse for every 10 patients. Nurses were paid $2 a month and were allowed one daily ration.

On June 10, 1861, less than 2 months after the War Between the States began, the Secretary of War appointed Dorothea Dix as Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army with authority to select and assign women nurses to general and permanent military hospitals. In August 1861, Congress authorized the Surgeon General to employ female nurses at a salary of $12 per month plus one daily ration. Before the end of the Civil War, an estimated 6,000 women had served as nurses for the Union Army. The introduction of female personnel into responsible roles in a traditionally male military environment was one significant step in the progress of women toward a fuller involvement in American society. Dorothea Dix, nicknamed “Dragon Dix,” created the Army’s first professional nursing corps.

In 1899, the Surgeon General’s office issued the first Army regulations governing the Nurse Corps. A bill to establish a permanent Nurse Corps was written and passed as part of the Army Reorganization Act of 1901. Under the new law nurses were appointed to the regular Army for a 3-year period. The nurses held no rank and had no promotion opportunities but, for the first time, were eligible for health care while on active duty and were issued uniforms. The U.S. Navy Nurse Corps was established in 1908. In 1913 Navy nurses began serving on ships aboard the transports USS Mayflower and USS Dolphin. Navy nurses also held no rank and did not gain full commissioned status and benefits until the passage of the Army-Navy Nurse Act in 1947, which gave all nurses full military rank.

World War I

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, there were 403 Army nurses and 160 Naval nurses on active duty. In May, 400 Army nurses sailed for France. En route, two nurses were killed when a ship’s gun exploded aboard their transport ship. By June 1918, 2,000 regular Army nurses and over 10,000 reserve nurses were on active duty at 198 stations worldwide. Three Army nurses were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (the 2nd highest combat decoration). Thirty-six Navy nurses died during the war, most from influenza while nursing troops during the epidemic. Three were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for “distinguished service and devotion to duty.” In July 1918, the Nurse Corps was renamed the Army Nurse Corps. When the Armistice was signed in November 1918, there were 21,480 Army nurses and 1,476 Navy nurses on active duty.

World War II

In June 1940 there were only 942 women in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. A conference held in July 1940 identified the military’s need for nurses. This led to the creation of the Nursing Council for National Defense. This council emphasized the need to train additional nurses. During World War II, Army and Navy nurses served in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific as well as in military hospitals throughout the United States. They suffered the highest casualty rate of all military women. Eighty-three were taken prisoner of war. Military nurses, along with the physicians and corpsmen they served with, established a remarkable record during WWII. Fewer than 4% of all U.S. soldiers who received medical care in the field or were evacuated by air died from their wounds or disease.

In 1941 the Army and Navy Nurse Corps had 7,719 nurses on active duty with 105 of them assigned to hospitals and clinics in the Philippines and Guam. Five Navy nurses on Guam were taken prisoner by the Japanese 2 days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and held until August 1942. In the Philippines 11 Navy nurses and 66 Army nurses were taken prisoner and held for more than 3 years. The nurses knew that Japanese soldiers had killed British nurse prisoners the previous year and many expected to be executed. The women were spared the immediate horrors inflicted on the 79,000 U.S. troops captured on Bataan, where nearly 25,000 POWs died on the infamous Death March. My father was in the Philippines when General Wainwright surrendered to the Japanese. He survived the Bataan Death March and 28 months in a Japanese POW camp. When he was released, he weighed 87 pounds but he lived to the age of 84. For further reading, I highly recommend We Band of Angels by Elizabeth Norman. Ms. Norman is scheduled as a keynote speaker at AMSN’s Annual Convention in Crystal City, VA, October 17-20, 2002.

In late 1944 the Secretary of War formally recommended that women nurses be drafted. The House of Representatives passed HR 2277, the Nurses Selective Service Act in March 1945. The Allies entered Berlin less than a month later and the war in Europe ended. The War Department notified the Senate that the legislation would not be needed. Public opinion polls taken at the time showed 73% of Americans supported drafting female nurses. By the summer of 1945 there were nearly 57,00 Army nurses and 11,000 Navy nurses on active duty.


Over 6,000 Army, Navy, and Air Force nurses served in Vietnam. Women served in hospitals, crewed on medical evacuation flights, with MASH units, and on hospital ships. The accomplishments of the military nurses and their dedication in saving innumerable lives have barely been recorded for future generations. A former Army nurse, Diane Carlson Evans, founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project in 1984. Congress authorized the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in 1988 to honor the “women of the armed forces of the U.S. who served in the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam era.” The sculpture, dedicated in 1993, depicts three uniformed women with a wounded soldier. Nurses spoke of the horror of war and the difficulty of talking to their friends about what they had seen. Soldiers remembered the nurses with love and affection — the kind smile, the gentle touch, and the soft words that eased their pain. Evans felt that without those nurses, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall would stretch for 50 miles. Planted around the statue’s plaza are eight trees to commemorate each of the eight women who died in Vietnam.

AMSN is honoring our nurse colleagues in the military/uniformed services at the 11th Annual Convention. Scheduled to speak at the Annual Convention, October 17-20, 2002, is Brigadier General William Bester, Chief Nurse of the Army Nurse Corps. The Military/Uniformed Services SIG will host its 2nd annual meeting at the convention. All military/uniformed services colleagues are invited to join us at Medical Surgical Nurses: The First Line of Defense in Crystal City, VA, just outside Washington, DC, on October 17-20, 2002 for what promises to be an exhilarating and informative convention. This will be a great time to network with your colleagues and to visit the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. For additional information on AMSN and to receive information on the Annual Convention, visit; email; or call (856) 256-2323.


Fessler, D. (1996). No time for fear. Voices of American military nurses in World War II. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

Klein, J. (2001). Honoring female military nurses. [On-line].

The Florence Nightingale Museum Trust. (1999). The Florence Nightingale story. [On-line].

Norman, E. (1999). We band of angels: The untold story of American nurses trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. New York: Random House, Pocket Books.

Sarnecky. M.T. (1999). A history of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. (2001). The Vietnam Women’s Memorial. [On-line].

Wilson, B. (1996). WWI: Thirty thousand women were there. [On-line].

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