The Profession of Nursing during World War II

The profession of nursing has been a significant aspect of many wars. World War II is no exception. World War II and its aftermath saw many changes for the nursing profession. Nursing during the war and nursing today are extremely different. The roles, working conditions, education and socioeconomic factors during the war impacted nurses both during that time period and today.

The role of nurses before the start of the war was very different from nursing today. The majority of hospitals were staffed with nursing students and therefore, the vast majority of nurses worked as private duty nurses in their patient’s homes (Black, 2017). This would soon change once the Great Depression began (Black, 2017). Many patients were unable to afford private home nurses so many nurses faced unemployment (Black, 2017). Fortunately, this dilemma would soon change once the war began (Black, 2017).

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The onset of World War II would change the course of the lives of many nurses and nursing students. It became inherently obvious that there was a nursing shortage once the war began (Black, 2017). The United States government sought to solve this issue by passing legislation that granted financial assistance to anyone willing to pursue an education in nursing (Black, 2017). This would soon lead to the formation of the United States Cadet Nurse Corps (Black, 2017). The goal of this organization was to train student nurses for the war (Black, 2017). Students who joined the Nurse Corps were given many benefits such as paid tuition and a uniform as long as they signed up to work during the war in both nonmilitary and military hospitals (Black, 2017). The Cadet Nurse Corps promised the women who applied free training with many added benefits such as pay, room, board, a summer uniform, and a winter uniform (US Cadet Nurse Corps, 2017). Free training was given thanks to the participation of many United States nursing schools (US Cadet Nurse Corps, 2017). In fact, the Cadet Nurse Corps was so successful that by the time the program ended, 1,125 of the 1,300 U.S. nursing schools had taken part in the program (US Cadet Nurse Corps, 2017).

While things seemed to be looking up for nursing during this time thanks to programs like the United States Nurse Corps, nurses on the war front faced many obstacles such as poor working conditions. During the war, in the Bataan peninsula, working conditions were severe (Black, 2017). There were two very small military hospitals on the peninsula that were only built to occupy at most 1000 patients each (Black, 2017). However, due to high injury rates, the nurses there cared for 11000 patients each in both hospitals (Black, 2017). Conditions only went from bad to worse once the nurses and soldiers were moved to a bombproof tunnel (Black, 2017). There nurses faced caring for 1000 soldiers in a small tunnel that had no power, vermin everywhere, sweltering temperatures, and poor ventilation (Black, 2017). World War II nurses continued to care for their patients no matter the obstacle and proved just how resilient they were.

Poor working conditions were not the only obstacles that the nursing profession faced during the war. The issue of race was a major issue during the time period (Threat, 2012). Throughout United States history, white men have been viewed as the dominate individuals in both economic and social aspects (Threat, 2012). Some nurses during this time period were slowly trying to change that (Threat, 2012). Many African American female nurses stated that since nursing was a female occupation, their race had no affect on their nursing abilities in the Cadet Nurse Corps (Threat, 2012). Even though racial segregation was a major obstacle in the nursing profession during this time, African American nurses were eventually allowed into the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps (Threat, 2012). Unfortunately, racial segregation was not the only discrimination taking place in nursing during this time period.

Gender discrimination was a prevalent part of nursing during World War II. Nursing was considered a noncombatant, care giving occupation and was therefore deemed a female occupation (Threat, 2012). Male nurses during the war were forced to question their own masculinity (Threat, 2012). Fortunately, male nurses are much more accepted today (Black, 2017). Even though the ratio of male nurses is still extremely low compared to females, nursing schools now are completely open and welcoming to men (Black, 2017). Organizations like the American Assembly for Men in Nursing have even been formed to encourage and support men in nursing (Black, 2017).

Sadly, male nurses were not the only individuals to face gender discrimination during the war. Since the war was drafting every man able to fight across the ocean, the need for women to run things on the home front was obvious (Quigley, 2016). This realization was met with resistance from individuals who were not ready to see women take control in such an untraditional way (Quigley, 2016). However, the dire need for women to take the men’s place at home quickly outweighed the resistance (Quigley, 2016). This need for new workers was filled first by white women, then minority men, and eventually minority women (WWII home front, 2017). These new opportunities would eventually lead to the desire for equal rights for both women and minorities and would have an impact on the major rights movements that would soon follow in the decades to come (WWII home front, 2017).

While these new working opportunities led to major breakthroughs in the independence for women and minorities, the conditions they were forced to work in were dangerous (WWII home front, 2017). Between the years of 1941 and 1944, there were far more industrial casualties than military (WWII home front, 2017). This would eventually lead to the installation of work safety regulations which have actively decreased workplace accidents and is evident even today (WWII home front, 2017).

Poor working conditions were not the only obstacles faced by America’s new workforce. Since women were now needed to fill many positions that were once occupied by men, childcare became a major concern (WWII home front, 2017). This need would eventually lead to the rise of childcare centers all across America (WWII home front, 2017). This obviously impacted the present as childcare centers are still actively used today.

Back on the war front, the vast amounts of destruction and devastation were apparent. European territories and cities were in ruin and millions of Europeans were displaced (End of WWII in Europe). It was clear to see that the United States had to do something to help. The Marshall plan was implemented to aid in Europe’s recovery (Agnew & Entrikin, 2004). Approximately ten billion dollars were given between 1948 and 1951 (Agnew & Entrikin, 2004). Since their infrastructures were in shambles and they were unable to boost their economy on their own, the Marshall Plan was implemented to spur the European economy (Agnew & Entrikin, 2004). Modern day Europe has been rebuilt and her economy is much improved compared to the state it was in right after World War II (Agnew & Entrikin, 2004).

Nursing on the war front was remarkably different from past wars. Nurses during WWII served much closer to the frontlines (The Army Nurse Corps). Their extraordinary skills resulted in a low post-injury mortality rate (The Army Nurse Corps). Without the bravery and skill of those World War II nurses, many soldiers would have died (The Army Nurse Corps). Those nurses embodied the characteristics of selflessness and compassion and saved many lives.

Thanks to the skill, sacrifice, and bravery shown by the nurses during the war, many soldiers were able to continue fighting and then eventually return home (The Army Nurse Corps). Therefore, many would expect for those nurses to have been rewarded once they returned home. However, many of the war nurses faced tremendous adversity once the war ended (McPartland, 2011). Nurses faced low pay, low status, and poor working conditions (McPartland, 2011). They wanted more so many began forming their own unions (McPartland, 2011). They demanded a higher salary, fair working conditions, and leisure time (McPartland, 2011). They wanted to be guaranteed a job no matter their race or religion (McPartland, 2011). The first nurse contract was eventually signed that guaranteed a higher salary and shorter work week (McPartland, 2011). Nurses today now get to enjoy the things that were tirelessly fought for so many decades ago thanks to nurses of the past.

Nursing during World War II was full of triumphs and obstacles. Nurses proved how vital they were to the war effort. They fought to improve the lives of future nurses once the war ended. World War II nurses fought against racial segregation and poor working conditions. They proved just how resilient and compassionate they were. Women in general proved how resilient and determined they were by striving for independence in the workforce. They proved that they were able to do anything a man could and they let this attitude guide them into the fight for women’s rights. The Second World War had many major impacts on life both during and after the war and those impacts are seen today in nursing and beyond.

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