Until the beginning of the 20th century women were only involved unofficially in the military as nurses. Without women serving as nurses, the war effort would have been greatly hampered. However, women lacked official designation and recognition from the army. They demanded that their work in the military should be given national standards along with a national register. They felt their work should be part of the military.
The Army Nurse Corps was established by the United States in 1901 and any woman who wanted to enlist in the army as a nurse could do so by joining it. During World War II, nearly 60,000 nurses served in the Army Nurse Corps. These nurses were out on the front lines assisting with the dead and wounded. Never before were women so close to combat as during the Second World War. The Army Medical Department set up the "chain of evacuation" plan during the course of the war, which meant that nurses worked under the direct line of fire in the evacuation of hospitals and field hospitals. They served on medical transport planes and worked on hospital ships and hospital trains. As a result of the dedication and skill of those nurses, there was a very low mortality rate among soldiers in the American military forces who were injured. Less than 4 percent of soldiers in the American military who underwent evacuation or received any kind of medical care died from their wounds or from disease.
The huge amount of manpower that was needed by the United States military in the course of World War II created many new economic and social opportunities for women. Not only did the military find an increase for the number of roles for women, but society at large also found increasing roles for women. This need for nurses codified and clarified the role and standing of nursing as a profession. As many women began to enter both industry and the professions, so too did women enter the field of nursing. The army took note of the changing attitudes among Americans and their view of nursing and decided to recognize the nursing profession in the military. In June 1944, the U.S. military awarded women officers commissions with equal pay and full privileges on retirement as well as dependents' allowances. Between 1943 and 1948 all nursing students were provided with free education.
During the war years, with fighting and bombing taking place all over the world, first-aid workers and nurses were in great demand. Although there were plenty of nurses in 1939, as that was the only profession open to women, the demand outstripped the supply. Young women who were training to become nurses were rushed through short, abridged courses, did some work in hospitals and were shortly thereafter sent overseas to field hospitals. Many of these new nurses worked on the front lines while others were busy transporting wounded soldiers home in air ambulances.
In overseas field hospitals all medical staff worked long hours treating those soldiers who had been injured on the battlefield. Nurses worked hard trying to make those injured on the battlefield as comfortable as possible despite the difficult conditions. Besides tending to the physical injuries of the soldiers, the nurses tended to their spiritual need by joking and laughing with the injured and keeping their spirits high.
During World War II, 1,619 medals were awarded to members of the Army Nurse Corps, reflecting their dedication and courage, while 16 medals were awarded posthumously to those nurses who died in action.
The military took women from all over the United States and transported them to all corners of the world. Upon their return, army nurses found a totally changed society back home. Working in the military gave these nurses vast experience and broadened their lives, and after the war they took advantage of the many opportunities that were opened to them. The most important facet for these nurses was the totally changed perception of nursing; it suddenly became a valued profession. There was a critical need for nurses and these returning nurses were able to fill the void. Under the federally funded Cadet Nurse Corps program, these returning army nurses qualified to receive additional training that would enable them to embark upon a professional nursing career.