Nursing in World War II

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Starting in 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, World War II would officially begin its terror among the world. With an increase in need for soldiers, came a rising need for care and nurses (Levine, 2018). Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States officially entered this war and eventually brought a plethora of nurses with it (Wilson, 2018). American involvement in World War II had an extreme effect on the profession of nursing including the creation of the National Nursing Council for War, increasing the amount of nurses, the view and recognition of women in the war, as well as the view on African Americans serving in the United States Military.

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(Levine, 2018).

Nursing Roles

During the war, nurses were not only at bedside, but were in combat zones as well. For those at Permanente Oakland hospital, dress was classy and white. A uniformed dress or either skirt and tucked in shirt, accompanied with tights, closed toed shoes, and a hat placed in the back was considered appropriate dress. (McPartland, 2011). Now, it is common knowledge that nurses wear scrubs appropriate for their work environment. Comfortable, closed toed shoes are still required as well.

For nurses actively on the battle field, ranking up and earning the titles of officers within the armed forces was allowed and honorable. Nurses were called to work any and every where that was needed. Coming home, however, there was still a fight for the respect and honor they had previously earned. (McPartland, 2011).

Nursing Profession Progressions

During the war, there was such a shortage of nurses that it eventually got to the point of putting the wounded soldiers at a higher risk. Since men were not allowed to be a part of the Army Nurse Corp until 1955, only women were serving and there were simply not enough to meet the high demand. Due to this, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed in his State of the Union Address that Congress amend the Selective Service Act. Amending this act would allow for nurses to officially become a part of the United States armed forces because recruitment was too time consuming and the need for care was intensifying. A few days after Roosevelt’s speech, Representative of Kentucky, Andrew J. May, even proposed that women be drafted into the war if they did not volunteer. However, in the week following the State of the Union Address, twice the number of nurses from the year prior applied for duty; therefore, eliminating the draft option and eliminating the shortage. (Connor, 2016).

By the beginning of WWII, a growing fight to end discrimination against African Americans had gained attention. After fifteen years of this battle, with aid from the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, African American nurses won their press for the desegregation in the United States Army Nurse Corp. This was only the beginning of desegregation, however. Along with race, gender discrimination was a huge battle. White male nurses were continuously fighting for their right to serve and did not achieve this until nearly ten years later. (Threat, 2012).

Race and gender were not the only battle leading to a shortage of nurses, qualifications and willingness were major issues as well. During the time of the war, women had to meet certain criteria to serve. A list of criteria includes, but is not limited to, being a citizen of the United States of America, having the RN title, being within a certain age limit (21-40), being a certain race (until African Americans won their own battle), and having no children below the age of 14. At first, they were not required to undergo special armed force training. Once they were deemed qualified to be involved in the war, they were allowed to work in medical facilities, on the field, and wherever they were needed. (Nursing and medicine in World War II, 2013).

In terms of serving in the war, at first nurses were not required to undergo training. As of 1943, WWII commissioned Army nurses were required to undergo additional training such as field sanitation, and depending on their area of nursing, psychiatry and anesthetics, and physical training to help build up their endurance (Nursing and medicine in World War II, 2013). This is yet another progression in nursing that evolved because of the war. Now, men and women of all races and backgrounds can become health care professionals with the proper education. Most of the progressions within nursing, as far as gender and racial equality, arose during this war. (Threat, 2012).

Home Front during World War II

While the profession of nursing was progressing, home life was also progressing. Before the war, most women were stay at home mothers and/or care takers; however, once the war started and men were sent off to fight, the demand for workers on the home front increased. There was still work that needed to be done, regardless of men being on the battle field, especially now since supplies were needed for war. This gave many women a chance to step out their front door and work for a living. Nearly 6 million women were out working for a change, and for the first time, half the nation’s work force were women. (Levine, 2018).

Women had once been considered too weak for several jobs, but with icons such as Rosie the Riveter and lack of men, industries called all women to help. Once the war was over, many men were forced to face the facts that their wives were now full, working, functioning citizens. This was not just for white women, though. What started off as employers only hiring Caucasian women, ended up with even women of color being hired. This was a huge step in the fight for equality; however, it did not end discrimination. Although African American women were given better opportunities than before, there was still a wage gap and a push for equal rights. (Levine, 2018).

Nursing Since World War II

Overall, nursing changed drastically during and after the Second World War. This era had a major impact on the field of nursing, fighting for equality and representation was a main battle that was partially won due to the need for workers (Joseph, 2016). Nurses are still called to work wherever needed. Jobs include school houses, hospital settings, the armed forces, doctor’s offices and much more. While dress has slightly changed from all white to scrubs (depending on workplace, color may vary), a consistent uniform is now set in place (McPartland, 2011). In terms of nursing specifically and the home front in general, the United States is a growing nation that has learned from its past encounters.


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  2. Levine, S. (2018). Womanpower! Cobblestone, 39(4), 15. Retrieved from:
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  5. Threat, C. J. (2012, August). ‘The hands that might save them’: Gender, race and the
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Nursing in World War II. (2019, Nov 25). Retrieved from