1908: Navy Nurses and the Nurse Corps
The Civil War experiences of the Sisters of the Holy Cross did not translate in to long term plans for nurses in the U.S. Navy. During the Spanish American War (1898-1899), the Army and the Navy contracted with female nurses to care for the ill and wounded. More than 1500 women, trained as nurses, including African-Americans and Native Americans, served as contract nurses during the war for the Army and Navy. One of these volunteer contract nurses, Esther Vorhees Hasson, became one of first women to join the Navy's Nurse Corps and became the first Chief of the Navy Nurse Corps.
The U.S. Congress established the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps on May 13, 1908 through a Naval Appropriations Bill. Twenty women, known as the "Sacred Twenty," traveled to Washington, D.C. took, and passed oral and written examinations to become the first official female members of the U.S. Navy. Led by Ester Hasson, and Lenah Higbee, they became the female core of Navy's medical department. By the end of WWI, nearly 1500 women served in the Navy Nurse Corps.
The Navy Nurse Corps remained active after WWI, though reduced in numbers. Irene Merker, whose oral history is included in this exhibition, enlisted as a Navy nurse in 1938 and served throughout WWII.
By June 1945, over 20,000 active duty Navy nurses and Navy Reserve officers served abroad and in the U.S. on hospital and troop ships, in naval hospitals, dispensaries, air evacuation sites, hospital corps schools, as flight nurses and at forward operating bases. Navy nurses played critical roles throughout WWII from Pearl Harbor to the close of the war. Eleven nurses, captured by the Japanese, became prisoners of war in 1942. They continued to nurse other POWs and, after rescue in 1945, were granted the Bronze Star Medal by the Army.
In 1942, the U.S. Congress and the Navy took a further step in recognizing the importance and contribution of its nurses, they authorized "Permanent Relative Rank" for nurses from Ensign to Lieutenant Commander. Nurses received permanent commissioned rank as a staff corps in 1947.
The Navy Nurse Corps has changed to reflect the times as well: the first male nurses were commissioned in 1964 and men now make up 25% of the corps.
The USS Higbee, launched in 1944, became the first U.S. warship named for a female member of the U.S. Navy, Navy nurse, Lenah Higbee. The Naval Historical Collection holds cruise books from two of the Higbee's cruises.