Source: Oteen Newsletter, October 4, 1919
“If Doughboys Gave Medals”
Beside the brave fighting men of WWI were the women of the Red Cross and American Nurse Corps. Fourteen of these courageous women were identified as serving in Fort Caswell during WWI. These women’s lives will be shared in the coming weeks.
Navy Nurse Susan Adkins Williams from Southport was introduced in one of the first Brunswick County WWI Profiles posted on the website. WWI began the shift to viewing women as competent contributors both in war and at home. The diary used in Nurse Williams’ profile gives a clear picture of the physical and mental strength required to serve overseas. To read a short article about WWI nurses serving overseas, visit https://www.armyheritage.org/soldier-stories-information/emma-elizabeth-weaver/
These women chose to serve. What motivated them to join the war effort? A look into their lives may help answer that question but there are no obvious answers. Some had both parents, some lost one, one was an orphan. Some were the oldest children in the family, others were the youngest. Some were relatively wealthy, others came from more disadvantaged backgrounds. All of them relocated, at least briefly, to cities for training.
One immigrated from Germany. Two were born and raised in NC, one relocated to NC (Asheville) for nursing training and remained in NC throughout her life.
During World War I,
- 5 served only at Fort Caswell.
- 7 served in multiple locations.
- 3 served overseas.
After World War I,
- 7 continued serving.
- 2 of those continued serving in the US Navy.
- 1 served in World War II, became the first Navy nurse to win the Bronze Star, and achieved the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
In their life after service,
- 8 were married.
- None had children.
- 1 died at age 33 (tuberculosis)
- 3 died in their 50s.
- 3 lived into their 90s, with one dying at age 99.
ANC Pin from WWI; Source of Pin: NC DNR
The American Nurse Corps (ANC) was formed in 1901 after the Spanish American War in which 1500 nurses were contracted to help. A permanent nursing corps was deemed necessary. The Red Cross recruited reserve nurses, while the ANC included active duty nurses.
Posters such as the one shown below lured women to become trained nurses. Only graduate nurses were eligible for serving in WWI.
“The minimum educational requirement is one year of high school work. The profession, however, offers almost unlimited opportunities for high school and college graduates. During training the students receive full maintenance, also books, uniforms and a monthly allowance of $25.00. Free elective post-graduate courses are open to graduates.
“The schools in the Department of Public Welfare, New York City, also Bellevue School, afford the best of facilities for a broad general training.
“Address the Principal of the following registered Schools for further information –
Bellevue Hospital School, East 26th Street – New York City
City Hospital School – Blackwell’s Island, New York City
Cumberland Street Hospital School, Cumberland Street, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Kings County Hospital School – Clarkson Street, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Metropolitan Hospital School – Blackwell’s Island, New York City”
When the US entered WWI, there were only 403 nurses on active duty. By November 1918, there were 21,460 with 10,000 serving overseas. By one estimate, 1/3 of nurses in the US served with the military during WWI.
These were the requirements for US Army nurses. Some requirements were changed during the war in order to admit more nurses.
- US citizens – later changed to accept citizens of Allied countries
- between 25 and 35 years of age – later changed to 21-45 years of age
- Graduates of training schools offering theoretical and practical nursing
- Appointed by the Surgeon General with the approval of the Secretary of War
- All applicants had to be individually considered, especially regarding physical examinations before and after appointment.
No member of the ANC was assigned to overseas service against her will.
According to Volume V of the Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War, published in 1921-1929 by the Government Printing Office, “The part played by the post hospitals in the care of the sick and wounded during the World War was, perforce, relatively small.” Unless the post hospitals were at large recruit depots like Fort Jay or Fort Leavenworth, they had few personnel and the senior medical officer on duty was in charge of the hospital while also serving as post surgeon.
A chart in the referenced document (page 394) that lists the number of personnel in United States Army Post Hospitals shows that the majority had no nurses whatsoever. One post hospital with a list of the number of nurses broken down by month matches fairly closely to Fort Caswell: Chief Nurse Nellie E. Davis began in March 1918 with a staff of 7, swelling to 13 during the influenza pandemic in the fall-winter of 1918, dropping gradually as nurses left for other posts or overseas until March 1919 when all nurses were discharged.
US nurses overseas worked on surgical teams, hospital trains, hospital ships, and in all sorts of hospitals: field hospitals, mobile units, base hospitals, evacuation hospitals, camp hospitals, and convalescent hospitals. They often worked 14-18 hour shifts for weeks at a time. They served on shock, gas, orthopedic, and surgical specialty teams where they could be moved to the front lines in groups of five or six.
All of this was accomplished while wearing full length dresses! Initially the dresses were required to be white, but in order to free up time to care for the wounded rather than cleaning their white clothing, nurses were given permission to wear gray uniforms.
“All white is the dress uniform of the Red Cross nurse in foreign service, where its wearing, for laundry purposes has to be a luxury. But sometimes a wounded man is decorated in the ward, or a General may visit; almost certainly then the nurse will wear dress uniform as a mark of honor, and one which is dramatic in its symbolism. Nurses of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps wear the same uniform, with their insignia the Caduceus of the Army or anchor of the Navy replacing the Red Cross pin. They retain the Red Cross on the cap, however, if they have entered military service from the Red Cross reserve.”
“This is the Nurses’ uniform that wounded soldiers know best – the gray cotton crepe working uniform of the Red Cross Army and Navy Nurse, which makes its wearer “the best dressed woman in the world.” Gray is an innovation used abroad made necessary by the laundry problem in France. The Red Cross brassard is worn only by nurses serving directly under the Red Cross.”
“Stormy weather attire is the same in the Red Cross or Army and Navy service, the only difference being in the insignia. The heavy ulster was worn often in the sleeping tents as well as the out-of-doors during the rigors of last winter in France. Though the nurses who had tent quarters in base hospitals maintained that they were as warm as those within solid walls, during the almost fuel-less months.”
272 US Army nurses died of disease. Those who died during their Army service were buried with military honors.
Three nurses were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and 23 the Distinguished Service Medal.
- Nurses held no rank.
- In 1920, they were authorized to retain ranks from 2nd Lieutenant to Major.
- In 1947, the Army Nurse Corps was established as a staff corps, with officers holding permanent commissioned rank from second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel.
- Their pay was half that of soldiers with the same rank.
- They were neither enlisted nor commissioned personnel.
- In 1944, military status was granted by Congress.
- African American nurses could join but could not serve in the war.
- Men were prohibited.
- The first man was commissioned in 1955.
The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920. These women accelerated the changing views of what women could accomplish. To learn more, listen to episode #125 of the WWI Centennial podcast.
Nurses assigned to Fort Caswell were discovered by searching “Nursing News and Announcements” in the issues of The American Journal of Nursing in the relevant years. The list of fourteen may not be complete.
More details were found when the nurses lived in small communities with archived newspapers. Larger cities rarely published details about them in their society pages or included obituaries.
A few references were found in the Wilmington newspapers.