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United States Navy Nurse Corps: Wikis


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Group photograph of the first twenty Navy Nurses, appointed in 1908.

The United States Navy Nurse Corps was formally established by the Congress in 1908. For nearly 100 years previously, however, women had worked as nurses aboard Navy ships and in Navy hospitals.



A Navy Department circular order established the designation of Nurse (19 Jun 1861), to be filled by junior enlisted men. Fifteen years later, the duties were transferred to the designation Bayman (US Navy Regulations, 1876). Although enlisted personnel were referred to as Nurses, their duties and responsibilities were more related to those of a Hospital Corpsman than to a nurse.

During the American Civil War, several African American women are noted to have served as paid crew onboard the hospital ship Red Rover in the Mississippi River area in the position of nurse. The known names of four nurses are: Alice Kennedy, Sarah Kinno, Ellen Campbell and Betsy Young (Fowler). In addition volunteer nuns from the Catholic Sisters of the Holy Cross also served aboard as nurses.[1]

During the 1898 Spanish-American War, the Navy employed a modest number of female contract nurses in its hospitals ashore and sent trained male nurses to sea on the hospital ship Solace.


After the establishment of the Nurse Corps in 1908, twenty women were selected as the first members. These nurses, who came to be called "The Sacred Twenty", were the first women to serve formally as members of the Navy. The "Sacred Twenty", as shown in the photo above, were Mary H. Du Bose; Adah M. Pendleton; Elizabeth M. Hewitt; Della V. Knight; Josephine Beatrice Bowman, the third Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps, 1922-1935; Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee, the second Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps, 1911-1922; Esther Voorhees Hasson, the first Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps, 1908-1911 ; Martha E. Pringle; Elizabeth J. Wells; Clare L. De Ceu.; Elizabeth Leonhardt; Estelle Hine; Ethel R. Parsons; Florence T. Milburn; Boniface T. Small; Victoria White; Isabelle Rose Roy; Margaret D. Murray; Sara B. Myer; and Sara M. Cox. They would include three Nurse Corps Superintendents and twelve chief nurses. Navy Nurses gradually expanded their number to 160 on the eve of World War I. In addition to normal hospital and clinic duties, they were active in training local nurses in U.S. overseas possessions and the Navy's male enlisted medical personnel.

For a few months in 1913, Navy Nurses saw their first shipboard service, aboard Mayflower and Dolphin.

World War I

The April 1917 entry of the United States into the First World War brought a great expansion of the Nurse Corps, both Regular and Reserve.

Nurse Hazel Herringshaw and two patients, 1918

In 1917-18, the Navy deployed five Base Hospital units to operational areas in France, Scotland and Ireland, with the first in place by late 1917. Also serving overseas were special Navy Operating Teams, including nurses, established for detached duty near the combat frontlines. Some of these teams were loaned to the Army during 1918's intense ground offensives and worked in difficult field conditions far removed from regular hospitals.

During the war, 19 Navy Nurses died on active duty, over half of them from influenza. Three of the four Navy Crosses awarded to wartime Navy Nurses went to victims of the fight against the deadly 'flu.

By the time of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, over 1550 nurses had served in Naval hospitals and other facilities at home and abroad. Shortly after the fighting's end, a few Navy Nurses were assigned to duty aboard transports bringing troops home from Europe. Some Navy Nurses even ventured on ground patrols and aided Army Soldiers during this time.

Intrawar Years

The first permanent shipboard positions came in late 1920, when Relief went into commission with a medical staff that included Navy Nurses. Paid retirement for longevity and disability was authorized. In addition to caring for Naval personnel at home and abroad, they responded to a number of civil disasters and assisted in the evacuation of dependents from war-torn China in 1937.

World War II

Nurse and released POW aboard USS Benevolence, 1945.

The Nurse Corps' strength contracted to less than five hundred during the peacetime decades, but its duties were extended to include regular service on board Navy hospital ships. Educational opportunities for Navy Nurses were improved, part of a steady rise in their professional status within the service. Though generally treated like officers socially and professionally, and wearing uniform stripes similar to those for the officer ranks of Ensign through Lieutenant Commander, formal recognition as Commissioned officers, achieved by U.S. Army nurses in 1920, did not come until World War II. Preparation for that conflict again saw the Nurse Corps grow, with nearly eight hundred members serving on active duty by November 1941, plus over nine hundred inactive reserves.


Prisoners of War

Two groups of Navy nurses were held prisoner by the Japanese in World War II. Chief Nurse Marion Olds and nurses Leona Jackson, Lorraine Christiansen, Virginia Fogerty and Doris Yetter were taken prisoner on Guam shortly after Pearl Harbor and transported to Japan. They were repatriated in August 1942, although the newspaper did not identify them as Navy nurses.

Chief Nurse Laura Cobb and her nurses, Mary Chapman, Bertha Evans, Helen Gorzelanski, Mary Harrington, Margaret Nash, Goldie O'Haver, Eldene Paige, Susie Pitcher, Dorothy Still and C. Edwina Todd (some of the "Angels of Bataan") were captured in 1942 and imprisoned in the the Los Baños internment camp, where they continued to function as a nursing unit, until they were rescued by American forces in 1945. Other Los Baños prisoners later said: "We are absolutely certain that had it not been for these nurses many of us who are alive and well would have died."[2]

Flight nurses

Flight nurse Jane Kendeigh and wounded soldier. Iwo Jima, 1945

The first group of 24 navy flight nurses graduated from the Navy Flight Nurse School at the Alameda Air Station in January 1945.[3] By the time they graduated, the nurses could swim a mile, tow or push a victim for 220 yards, and swim 440 yards in 10 minutes[4] Flight nurse Jane Kendeigh was one of the first flight nurses to fly to and from an active battlefield in the Pacific when, on March 3, 1945, she flew from Guam to Iwo Jima and back to aid in the evacuation of wounded soldiers.[5]


The need for naval medical facilities in Asia grew when the war began. A small naval dispensary at Yokosuka, staffed by only six nurses, evolved into a full-fledged hospital staffed by 200 nurses. The Navy Nurse Corps expanded its ranks by recalling Reserve nurses with World War II experience. It temporarily reduced staffs at continental hospitals to staff the forward area. The Navy also commissioned civilian nurses. These nurses served in hospitals as well as aboard the USS Haven and two other Haven-class ships, where almost 35 percent of battle casualties were admitted through September 1952. These hospital ships were a new type of mobile hospital, moving from place to place, sometimes supporting the Inchon invasion or aiding the Hungnam evacuation, or simply shifting about the Korean coast as needed. Two senior Navy nurses, Commander Estelle Kalnoske Lange and Lieutenant Ruth Cohen, received the Bronze Star for their work on the Navy hospital ships.[6]

Lt. Sarah Griffin Chapman, who had lost her lower left leg in an accident and retired prior to Korea, fought to be recalled to active duty so that she could teach other young amputees how to walk again.[7]

Though outside the Korean theater, one aviation accident claimed the lives of 11 Navy nurses. The mishap occurred on the South Pacific island of Kwajalein on Sept. 19, 1950. These women were en route to hospitals in Japan to care for war casualties when their plane crashed into the Pacific shortly after take off.[6]


Lt. Alva Harrison after 18 hours of surgery. Saigon, 1966.

In 1963 Lt. Bobbi Hovis volunteered to go to Vietnam, where she and four other nurses were tasked with converting a run-down Saigon apartment into the first US Navy Station Hospital—in four days.[8]

Navy nurses went on to serve: in the Provincial Health Assistance Program at Rach Gia from 1965 to 1968; on the USS Repose from January 1966 to May 1970 (reaching a full complement of 29 nurses by March 1966 and serving as many as 200 helicopter admissions during a 24 hour period of intense fighting); on the USS Sanctuary from April 1967 to November 1972 (also with a complement of 29 nurses); and at the station hospital at DaNang from August 1967 to May 1970 (which became the largest combat casualty treatment facility in the world, with 600 beds and admissions of 63,000 patients).[9]

Modern Nurse Corps

The Nurse Corps continues as a prominent part of the Navy medical establishment. As of 2006, the Director of the Navy Nurse Corps is Rear Admiral Christine Bruzek-Kohler, the 21st Director of the Navy Nurse Corps, and the Naval Medical Inspector General. Currently, it consists of officers of the rank of Ensign and higher. The Nurse Corps has a distinctive insignia of a single Oak Leaf, on one collar point, or in place of a line officer's star on shoulder boards. Nurse officers are commissioned through Navy ROTC, or by direct commission.

Superintendents and Directors

From its founding in 1908 until after World War II in 1947, the Navy Nurse Corps was led by a superintendent. Its nurses had no permanent commissioned rank. The Army-Navy Nurses Act took effect on 16 April 1947, establishing the Navy Nurse Corps as a staff corps, with officers holding permanent commissioned rank from ensign to commander. The corps was to be led by a director holding the rank of captain while in that position.

List of Superintendents of the Navy Nurse Corps

      • Esther Voorhees Hasson   ( August 1908 –   January 1911)
      • Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee   ( January 1911 –   November 1922)
      • LCDR Josephine Beatrice Bowman   ( November 1922 –   January 1935)
      • LCDR Myn M. Hoffman   ( January 1935 –   October 1938)
      • Virginia Rau (acting)   ( October 1938 –   February 1939)
      • CAPT Sue S. Dauser   ( February 1939 –   November 1945)
      • CAPT Nellie Jane DeWitt   ( November 1945 –   April 1947)

List of Directors of the Navy Nurse Corps

List of Navy Nurse Corps Directors

      • CAPT Nellie Jane DeWitt   ( April 1947 –   May 1950)
      • CAPT Winnie Gibson   ( May 1950 –   May 1954)
      • CAPT Wilma Leona Jackson   ( May 1954 –   May 1958)
      • CAPT Ruth Agatha Houghton   ( May 1958 –   April 1962)
      • CAPT Ruth Alice Erickson   ( April 1962 –   April 1966)
      • Captain Veronica Bulshefski   ( April 1966 –   May 1970)
      • Rear Admiral Alene B. Duerk   ( May 1970 –   July 1975)
      • Rear Admiral Maxine Conder   ( July 1975 –   July 1979)
      • Rear Admiral Frances Shea-Buckley   ( July 1979 –   October 1983)
      • Rear Admiral Mary Joan Nielubowicz   ( October 1983 –   September 1987)
      • Rear Admiral Mary Fields Hall   ( September 1987 –   September 1991)
      • Rear Admiral Mariann Stratton   ( September 1991 –   September 1994)
      • Rear Admiral Joan Marie Engel   ( September 1994 –   1998)
      • Rear Admiral Kathleen L. Martin   ( 1998 –   2001)
      • Rear Admiral Nancy J. Lescavage   ( 2001 –   2005)
      • Rear Admiral Christine Bruzek-Kohler   ( 2005 –   current)

Prominent members

  • Esther Voorhes Hasson, First Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps
  • Captain Nellie Jane DeWitt, First Navy Nurse to become a 4-stripe Captain in the US Navy
  • Rear Admiral Alene B. Duerk, First woman in the Navy to be promoted to flag rank.
  • CDR Lenora Creseda Langlais, First Navy Nurse to receive a Purple Heart.

Ships named after Navy Nurse Corps Officers

Ships named after Nurses

See also


  1. ^ Fowler, William M., Jr. "Relief on the River: the Red Rover." Naval History (Fall 1991): 19.
  2. ^ Kathi Jackson, They Called Them Angels: American Military Nurses of World War II, pg 46 (2000)(First Nebraska paperback printing 2006).
  3. ^ Kathi Jackson, They Called Them Angels: American Military Nurses of World War II, pg 112 (University of Nebraska Press 2006).
  4. ^ K. Jackson, They Called Them Angels, pg. 112.
  5. ^ K. Jackson, They Called Them Angels, pg. 116
  6. ^ a b Fact Sheet: Women in the Korean War (US Army); see also Frances Omori, Quiet Heroes: Navy Nurses of the Korean War 1950-1953, Far East Command (2001)(ISBN-13: 9780961522186)
  7. ^ J. Herman, Frozen in Memory: US Navy Medicine in the Korean War (2006) # ISBN-10: 1601450826 # ISBN-13: 978-1601450821
  8. ^ Hovis, Bobbi. Station Hospital Saigon: A Navy Nurse in Vietnam, 1963-1964. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991; see also "Coup in Saigon: A Nurse Remembers." Navy Medicine 88, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1977): 16-21 (Recollections of Lieutenant Commander Bobbi Hovis, Nurse Corps (Ret.), concerning the coup d'etat on 1 November 1963 that overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem of the Republic of [South] Vietnam)
  9. ^ Memories of Navy Nursing: The Vietnam Era, Compiled by RADM Maryanne Gallagher Ibach, USNR. [1]

External links


Navy Nurses are deployed all over the world, participating in humanitarian missions, and supporting the Global War on Terror. There are many overseas Navy Hospitals, including Guam; Yokosuka, Japan; Okinawa; Italy and Spain.

Further reading

In and Out of Harm's Way: A history of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. by Doris M. Sterner

  • Sterner, Doris M. (1997). In and Out of Harm's Way: A history of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. Seattle, WA: Peanut Butter Publishing. ISBN 0897167066.  
  • Ebbert, Jean and Marie-Beth Hall (1999). Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWI to Tailhook [Revised]. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's. ISBN 978-1574881936.  
  • Godson, Susan H. (2001). Serving Proudly: A history of Women in the U.S. Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-317-6.   Fact filled, extensively researched account of the evolution of the roles of women in the United States Navy, treating the parallel and entertwined paths of the Navy Nurse Corps and the WAVES. About one-third of the pages are devoted to notes and bibliography.
  • Monahan, Evelyn M. and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee (2000). All This Hell: U.S. Nurses Imprisoned by the Japanese. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813121485.  
  • Norman, Elizabeth M. (1999). We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. Random House. ISBN 978-0375502453.  

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Naval History & Heritage Command.


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