NC Military Nursing

A Call to Action: 

Nursing in Uniform and War

      War has helped shape nursing techniques and the nursing profession throughout modern times.  As women were mobilized for various conflicts, volunteers staffing makeshift hospitals near the war front gave way to nurses’ organizations leading support efforts at home and abroad.

                As the nation finds itself again involved in overseas conflict, the North Carolina Nurses Association looks at the history of nursing in the American Armed Forces.

Civil War 

                When the Civil War broke out in 1861, North Carolina had no hospitals or trained nurses.  There was no standard training or credentials required before one could use the title of nurse.  Most nursing duty fell to infantrymen.  However, as the casualties increased from battle and disease, many Southern women volunteered their services.

                The first recorded Confederate nurse was Sallie Chapman Gordon Law, a North Carolina native who was living in Memphis when the war began.  Women from each state in the Confederacy traveled to battle sites and nursed soldiers from their home states.  Margaret Elizabeth Clewell of Salem, N.C., left a rare, unpublished account of these early attempts of nursing the troops that was found in the Perkins Library at Duke University.  Her memoir, titled “A Volunteer Nurse,” reads in part:

                “I remember that day, September 19, 1861, when I left Salem with a part of volunteer nurses, to go to Fauquier County, Virginia, where the 21st N.C. Regiment was in camp.  We were given the use of a fine old Virginia home, Blantyre, which we soon made as comfortable as possible, and as many sick soldiers were brought in as the house could hold.  We had carried many things with us, knowing we could get nothing in the way of supplies when we reached the camp.  One thing I remember was a large box containing a barrel of good whiskey packed in dry fruit.  Both whiskey and fruit were of great benefit to us, the former being used only when requested in the way of medicine.  The regiment was ordered away to some other place where we could not move our hospital, so we closed up and came home November 20, 1861.  I am resuming my duties at Salem Female Academy.”

                In March 1862, women in Columbia, S.C. began the first “Wayside Hospital.” Schools, churches, barns and other large buildings near train depots were quickly converted into facilities to care for ailing soldiers.  The needs were so great and the concept so appealing that Wayside Hospitals sprang up all over the Confederacy.

                In an article in “Confederate Veteran,” Mrs. C.B. Welborn recounts some of the history of her parents’ hotel, the Barbee Hotel, which was converted into a Wayside Hospital in High Point from 1863 to 1865.  Although High Point in the 1860s was only a village, the townspeople cared for 5,795 soldiers with only 50 deaths.

                Approximately 1,000 women nursed for the Confederacy during the war, primarily working in their own communities.

                By the end of the Civil War, women had established 15 military hospitals in North Carolina.  Jane Wilkes of Charlotte worked with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to establish the first civilian hospital in 1876.  By custom and law, St. Peter’s could only admit white patients, so Wilkes began raising funds for a hospital for Charlotte’s African-American population.  Good Samaritan Hospital opened in 1891.



                Nursing in World War I was done on a gigantic scale.  When war was declared, the Red Cross took immediate steps to mobilize a vast army of skilled nurses to serve in camps and overseas.  At times the nurses endured untold hardships, working endless hours in the barracks and on the firing lines.

                North Carolina, like other states, mobilized units and got ready to take an active part in the conflict.  Dr. John Wesley Long of Greensboro organized Base Hospital No. 65 with 32 medical men, 203 enlisted men and 100 nurses.  They were mobilized in New York City and from there went as a body to France where they were united with hospital forces at Brest.  Some 2,200 desperately ill patients were transported to them before the barracks were ready.  There were no electric lights.  One hundred and two nurses took care of these sick and dying soldiers.

                In October of 1918, the Chief Surgeon of the American Expeditionary Forces called for two operating teams to be sent to the front.  Long selected two North Carolina nurses for this work.  They spent many weeks on the firing line.

                Army Nurse Josephine Finch of Charlotte served in France at Evacuation Hospital #7, near Souilly, which was located within 12 miles of the front and moved from time to time to be close to the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne battles.  The wounded were cared for in tents with dirt floors.  During air raids, the nurses had to carry patients outside and cover them with blankets and often their bodies to protect them.  Finch lost part of a foot to frostbite.

                In 1918, Finch cared for Henry Muenzel of Providence, R.I., as he lay dying of pneumonia.  Muenzel was born in Providence in 1898 and joined the Rhode Island National Guard, which was absorbed by the Army at the outbreak of World War I.  He was shipped off to France in 1917 as the company bugler in the 103rd  machine-gun battalion of the 26th Army Division.  He saw combat in the Chateau-Thierry and Mont Blanc offensives.

                A year after Muenzel died, Finch wrote to his mother chronicling his final days.  By then she had left the Army Nurse Corp and had taken a job at the Anson Sanatorium in Wadesboro.

                “My Dear Mrs. Muenzel,

                “I have planned so many times to write you, but being in France our letters were all censored and took all the joy out of writing letters.  I have just returned a few days ago.  I wanted to tell you that I nursed your boy and was with him when he died.  As near as I remember, it was the 24th of September, 1918.  The priest told me at the time that he wrote you.  He was one of the sweetest boys I ever knew.  I use to often look at him and think what a sweet boy you are.  He was one of the most appreciative patients I ever had.  Anyone could tell he was a boy who had been well raised, and he was so unusual for his age.  He told me often how much he thought of you and Louise (his sister) and always spoke of you both in such loving terms.  He use to call Louise in his deliriums and when I would get to his bed he would be awake and would know me.  At first I thought Louise was his sweetheart and I asked him that.  He said no, Louise is my sister.  I am too young to have sweethearts.  I asked him for your address and told him that someday I would like to write you and tell you what a nice sweet boy he was.  I have a young brother who I have helped to raise and your boy use to remind me of him.”

                Finch was born in a pre-Civil War house in Blanch, Caswell County, on March 6, 1881.  Her father, James Monroe Finch and his brother Charles, fought at Gettysburg.  She died in a VA Hospital in Maryland on December 27, 1943.  Her obituary was titled, “A Fruitful Life” and described her as a pioneer in professonial nursing service in Charlotte.

                (Details of this story have been provided by Betty Watts of Panama City, Fla., who is the niece of Henry Muenzel.) 


World War II


                The following excerpts came from the “Tar Heel Nurse,” the official newsletter of the North Carolina Nurses Association, between 1939 and 1945.  Excerpts include news articles and quotes from association presidents through the years. 

September 1939

            As a result of the serious situation in England caused by the war, the office of the International Council of Nurses has opened temporary headquarters in New haven, Conn.

           Notice:  Applicants for the First Reserve must be in good health, between the ages of 21 and 40 and be able to present a professional background that is acceptable to the Red Cross Nursing Service.  They are the reserve nurses for the Army and Navy.


September 1940

                The North Carolina State Nurses Association sent $500 to the American Red Cross Relief Fund.

                “National defense and pre-paredness are powerful words.  They touch the core of every profession.  Nursing is no exception.  To nurses, these words point out the vital importance of keeping up-to-date on all current events; for each one must decide what her own contribution shall be when the call comes.”

 January 1941

                “At the beginning of this new year, there are many things in the world situation that we sincerely wish were different.  Your executive secretary, Miss Edna Heinzerling, has been made a special agent of the U.S. Public Health Service and will conduct a survey so that the American Nurses Association will have a record of each nurse’s qualifications in case of an emergency.  This survey will ascertain the number of registered nurses available for military and civilian services.

 May 1941


The chairman of the Health and Medical Committee of the Council of National Defense urges all employers of nurses to cooperate by encouraging their nurses to offer their services to the country and by arranging to hold their positions until these nurses return to civilian life.


September 1941


                Congress has appropriated $1.2 million for the preparation of professional nurses.  The fund will be used to increase the number of students enrolled for the basic course in nursing schools, to refresh inactive graduate nurses and to provide postgraduate instruction in special fields of study.  It is hoped 50,000 well-qualified young women will enter accredited schools of nursing to avert serious damage to the nation’s health during the present emergency.  (Fifty years later, the North Carolina General Assembly set up a Nursing Scholars Program along these same guidelines with a biennial budget of $6.8 million.)


February 1942


                “Today the eyes of the nation are focused on the nursing professional.  On the air, in the newspapers and by word of mouth, the call comes that Uncle Sam needs 50,000 more nurses.  That each of us is willing to work is a foregone conclusion, but knowing what to do and being prepared to do it are the big jobs of the moment.  It may mean serving in military posts, at air raid filter stations or emergency disaster hospitals.  We know our goals and are not afraid.”


                The lag in enrollment of the First Reserve of the Red Cross Nursing Service is over.  Since American men, women and children have been killed by the enemy, the number of nurses enrolling has increased greatly.


May 1942


                The 38th Evacuation Hospital of Charlotte, N.C., was called April 15 and is now serving “somewhere in England.”

                The 65th General Hospital (Duke Unit) has recently been called and is now stationed at Fort Bragg awaiting foreign duty.  Katherine Rehder, president, North Carolina Nurses Association, has answered the call to the colors.  Her decision to serve the country might well be an example to every North Carolina nurse who is eligible for military duty. 

                Early in the summer, North Carolina had 614 Red Cross First Reserve nurses.  They were given a quota to enroll another 569 nurses by October 1.


October 1942


                An intensive campaign to enroll 60,000 nurses in the Red Cross First Reserve was started on August 5.  “Uncle Sam Needs Nurses” is the official campaign slogan.  Each month, he is calling for 2,500 for the Army and 500 for the Navy.  Surgeon General, US Army, Major General James C. Magee says that, “Efficient nurses are necessary unless the Army is able to meet nursing needs without delay, there will be useless suffering and avoidable loss of manpower.”


April 1943


                Nurses serving with the Army and Navy Nurse Corps are now receiving a salary of $150 plus maintenance.   North Carolina’s war reserve quota for 1943 is 420.  This means that 35 nurses must be enrolled each month.

                In 95 counties in North Carolina, a Nurse Deputy has been duly appointed to work in collaboration with the Emergency Medical Service of Civilian Defense.  Reports reveal serious nursing shortages exist in many localities.  For example, the 25-bed Community Hospital of Person County has one registered nurse.  Sixty-eight percent of the recent assignments to Army and Navy have been institutional nurses.


                Plans for a Student War Nursing Reserve, designed to be as intriguing as the training period of the Waves, Waacs, Spars and Marines, have been submitted by Dr. Thomas Parran, Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Services.  Formation is expected to assure enrollment of 65,000 new students during the 1943-44 school year.



March 1944


                Mary Walker Randolph, former assistant professor of nursing at Duke Hospital School of Nursing, wrote the following on February 25 from somewhere on the Anzio beachhead, Italy:

                “I wish I were free to write an accurate description, but will when I can.  I am back in a tent and really like it much better than those cold stone buildings.  We are all equipped with fox holes.  The ground in this particular area is marshy so our holes leave our shoulders sticking up.  If activity upstairs seems very lively, I find I can get my shoulders under and most of my helmet.  The American helmet has its faults.  It is too big and heavy to wear with comfort at all times and too small when you need it.  Most of us are wearing soldiers’ trousers because they are so much warmer than skirts.


September 1944


                Procurement and Assignment Service for Nurses is now one year old.  To date, 3,282 nurses have been classified as available for military service and another 39 have classified as available for relocation outside the community.


                Members of the Army Nurse Corps want clothespins, hair nets and bobby pins and dainty lingerie for Christmas presents, while the Navy Nurse requests range from bathing suits (to) silk stockings and rubber boots.


                The Army Nurse Corps must have 4,000 more nurses at once.  Great victories are being won at a price.  The war injured are not some remote, unhappy thought that can be put from our minds.  They are our own sons, husbands and brothers whom we have sent out to fight for our freedom.  Nurses have been given much of the credit for the fact that less than 3 percent of America’s wounded soldiers have died as compared with approximately 8 percent in the last war.


January 1945


                The nursing profession will always remember January 6, 1945.  On that day the President of the United States in his message to Congress said “the wounded cannot wait” and asked for the draft of nurses.  The American Nurses Association endorsed the drafting of nurses as the first step to selective service for all women.


June 1945


                The Procurement and Assignment Service has discontinued active military recruitment.  U.S. Cadet Nurses will furnish replacements for attrition and unexpected future needs.


October 1945


                “We, as nurses, are particularly interested in post war plans regarding the expansion of hospital and health faculties provided by the U.S. Public Health Service.  A study by the American Hospital Association shows that 65 percent of the hospitals are suffering an acute shortage of nurses.”


                Now that the war has been won and many members of the North Carolina Nurses Association have returned from the battle fronts, there will be a Victory Dinner at the annual convention.  You can wear your party dress, suit or military uniform.


                More than 103,000 registered nurses volunteered for military service and over 76,000 gave service to the sick and wounded of the Army and Navy.  Over 300,000 of the Army’s 500,000 wounded were aided by nurses in their return to active service.


                The North Carolina Nurses Association voted to become a member of the Women’s Action Committee for Victory and Lasting Peace.  The purpose of the committee is to unite American women to work for full participation by the U.S. in international efforts to build a world of peace and justice under law. 


                It gives full support of the San Francisco Charter of the United Nations.




                Following are Korean war-era excerpts from the “Tar Heel Nurse,” the official newsletter of the North Carolina Nurses Association.  They include news articles and quotes from association presidents through the years.


June 1950


                When the hostilities began in Korea on June 25, 1950, Army nurses were the first American women to be dispatched with the Armed Forces to the combat zone.  By the first week in July, the first detachment of nurses had arrived at Pusan with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital-MASH.


July 1950


                The Air Force Nurse Corps came into being on July 1, 1949.  As it prepared to celebrate its first anniversary, it was faced with the grim but important task of supplying within a period of 48 hours a large number of nurses to assist in the evacuation of battle casualties from the Korean area by air.


December 1950


                “The world situation, the military activities of the United Nations and the defense program of our country indicate the necessity for our mobilizing nursing resources to meet civil and military nursing needs.  The Emergency Medical Committee plans to establish 20 mobile medical units consisting of 15 doctors and 75 nurses each and six small units consisting of five doctors and 15 nurses.”


January 1951


                On January 8, 1951, five nurses from North Carolina took a five-day course on “Nursing Aspects of Atomic Welfare.”  Nurses attending the calls will report to the State Civil Defense and Emergency Medical Committee to participate in organizing, developing and teaching the second-level nursing courses.





June 1951


                Three thousand additional nurses are needed in the Army Nurse Corps.  North Carolina’s quota was set at 45.  The nursing profession has the responsibility of providing adequate nursing services for the Armed Services.  The Army does not conscript its nurses, but many young registered nurses will help by joining the Army Nurse Corps.


December 1951


                Nurses in North Carolina are taking and teaching courses related to Civil Defense.  Widespread informant is needed regarding defenses against the effects of an atomic bomb, how to keep disease from spreading and how to protect our food and water supplies.


March 1952


                Within the next three months, the Army Nurse Corps seeks to commission some recent graduates of every approved school of nursing in the U.S.  There has developed in our country’s defense thing, a philosophy calling for a continuous flow into and exit out of our Armed Forces.


June 1953


                Capt. Breda Ann Quigley, Army Nurse Corps, has just completed three years in the Far East.  She reported that six months’ duty in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea increased her professional nursing experience three times as much as did the same period spent in a stationary hospital.  “The great variety of cases brought in from the front lines, the challenge to every ounce of nursing skill one possess and the modern surgical miracles performed by the medical officers’ right before our eyes was an experience that stands out as the finest professional six months I have ever spent.”

                Capt. Quigley spoke from an unusual Army background.  Almost half of her eight years in the Army Nurse Corps was spent on a ship engaged in transporting troops and displaced persons to all corners of the globe.  Since 1950, these shipboard assignments have been given to members of the Navy Nurse Corps, but from July 1, 1946 to March 2, 1950, Capt. Quigley serviced the high seas as a nurse assigned to the Army Transportation Corps.  In May, 1950, she was sent to Japan and by the end of that summer had begun her Korean duty tour. 


July 1954


                U.S. Lt. Genevieve de Galard-Terraube, “The Angel of Dien Bien Phu,” was the honored guest of the U.S. Congress.  She was presented with the Distinguished Service in the Progression of Nursing accommodation by the American Nurses Association.  It read as follows: “For her heroic devotion to the sick and wounded soldiers at Dien Bien Phu, which has stirred the respect of all citizens, and for her faithful adherence to duty as a volunteer for services and as a nurse through which she has symbolized and dramatized for all the free world, the high precepts of the nursing profession.”









                Martha Henderson, a geriatric and family nurse practitioner, served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971.  Following her graduation from Duke University School of Nursing, she went to Vietnam with Vietnam Christian Service, whose mission was to offer medical, social and agricultural services to civilians suffering from war.  The following is her account of her service in Vietnam.


                After graduating from Duke School of Nursing in 1968 and working at San Francisco General Hospital from a year, I had the opportunity to go to Vietnam with Vietnam Christian Service. This was a service organization whose mission was to offer medical, social and agricultural services t Vietnamese civilians suffering from war.  This organization was Christian and nonpolitical, but the members were there to offer non-military services to Vietnam and alternative service for American conscientious objectors, such as Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren, and others interested in peace. 

                On arrival, my first assignment was to learn conversational Vietnamese.  With expert teachers and an intense submersion course, I amazed myself with being able to learn the basics of a tonal language.  This was an invaluable skill, not only in communicating about health, but also in efforts to share understanding and concern beyond health issues.

                The one job I wanted was to teach in a small Vietnamese nursing school in lovely Nha Trang on the South China Sea.  The school was attached to a Christian hospital, clinic and TB wards.  I got my wish.

                The school was a one-year program in which applicants had to have completed seven years of school to apply and would function with as much responsibility as RNs when they graduated.  My biggest challenge was to decide how much to teach without overwhelming them. 

                I had a wonderful Vietnamese co-teacher, Nguyen thi Cuc, who had earned a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing in the United States and returned to help educate Vietnamese nurses.  I also had an excellent interpreter, Kim Sa, who had completed the nursing program and translated my lectures in the classroom.

                On the ward, my students became proficient in figuring out what I was trying to say in Vietnamese.  My first job during the overlap with the American nurse/instructor who was going home was to learn operating room nursing, since this was the first course I would teach.  Since I had observed one operation, eye surgery, during which I fainted I knew I must find a crash course quickly.

                Fortunately, the US AID nurses at the large province hospital took me under their wings and taught me circulating and scrub nursing, while the American surgeons taught me more than I ever wanted to know about surgery, including how to close a belly.  When my first class of students started, I was only two steps ahead of them in knowledge and experience.

                It was in this province hospital that I saw the horrors of war: children who had stepped on land mines and had to have amputation repairs, and burn victims with terrible wounds.  It was tragic and I was glad to return to our small hospital in the countryside. 

                At the smaller hospital, we saw all ages of civilians who had primarily infectious diseases like malaria and parasites, sometimes resulting in severe anemia, eye disease, and many other kinds of illness.  We also performed minor eye surgery and inserted IUDs.  (Birth control was against the law in this country at war that required repopulation in the face of killed soldiers.)

                One patient had hookworm so badly that she became severely anemic.  Since we had no blood except recently outdated but safe whole blood that we could scrounge from the U.S. military, we ended up giving her this and causing her to go into congestive heart failure, which we then treated successfully.  A woman came in in labor and the physician told me to have my students give her enema.  Although I knew relatively little about obstetrics, I thought I remembered that enemas might speed up labor.  We followed the doctor’s order and before I knew it, I was catching a baby.

                The experience of teaching nursing in another culture and another language was challenging and thrilling.  Many of the students had health beliefs and practices, as did the patients, that required my opening my beliefs and learning from them.  I can remember when one of my students became sick and I gave her advice about what to do from a Western perspective.  When I visited her in our small nurses’ residence, a fellow student was putting a suction device all over her back to draw out the bad humors.  The old women with teeth red from beetle nut juice would spit this juice into wounds for the healing properties in this natural product.  Newborn babies would be given tea with unboiled water and begin instant inoculation for the endemic hepatitis A virus, while foreigners like me would come down quite easily with hepatitis A and become very yellow and very ill.

                The experience of living in a country at war with American support was also a disturbing and disillusioning one.  I learned the horrors of war, including not only the lives lost and the numbers wounded physically and psychologically, but also the social and economic disintegration of that country.  Poverty and lack of human services in the midst of a war economy meant that few Vietnamese wanted to go to nursing school to do a job that commanded poor salaries.  The war also brought foreign (US) entrepreneurs, prostitution, drug trade, the black market, and the dismemberment of families.

                The costs to Vietnam vets have been great, with more deaths from suicide since the war than U.S. soldiers killed during the war.  While my sadness at the effects of war grew, so also did the bonds of friendship among those who lived and worked together with a similar commitment to peace.  These friendships have lasted for 30 years and a reuion last year was heartwarming. 

                Two years ago, my husband and I returned to Nha Trang, the site of the original hospital, with an organization called Peacework, which was led by another former worker with Vietnam Christian Service.  There is now a government hospital and nursing school, which includes some of the original structures.  We helped complete a very small neurological diagnostic clinic. I visited with a few of my former students and was sad to find that the new government in 1975 had revoked the licenses of any nurses trained under the South Vietnamese government.

                Nursing continues to offer opportunities for nurses to reach across cultural, geographic and political boundaries to offer service, healing and understanding.  We are very fortunate to have a profession where some principles of healing are universal and the need for nursing will always be there.


Modern Military Nursing


                Col. Peggy Wilmoth is commander of the 312th Field Hospital in Greensboro.  She wrote the following about Army nursing:

The privilege of commanding a unit with such a long, proud history as the 312th Field Hospital would not have entered my mind when I joined the Army Reserves.  The privilege of being an Army Nurse has allowed me to grow professionally and personally in ways I would not have dreamed of 20 years ago upon receiving my commission in the Army Nurse Corps, U.S. Army  Reserves.

I had dreamed of being an Army nurse from the time I was a child and listened to my neighbor, Elizabeth Smith, share stories of being an Army nurse during World War II.  I, too, wanted to take care of America’s soldiers – and now that I have a son in the Arm, this desire is stronger than ever.

Army nursing has provided me the opportunity to increase my nursing knowledge and add skills to my practice.  My civilians’ specialty is oncology nursing, but in the Army I am a generalist am expected to care for patients ranging from those in intensive care to the “walking wounded.”  I know how to provide battlefield care to wounded soldiers, and how to treat chemically and biologically contaminated soldiers, and how to prepare and evacuate the wounded – whether by ground or air ambulance.

Army nursing has provided me with the opportunity to grow as a leader.  I have learned how to build teams, solve problems, plan major training events and mentor others.  The Army may have rank, but the best leaders know how to mentor and develop leaders across all ranks and to encourage them to work together as a team.  I have been encouraged to grow intellectually through attendance at Army educational programs and have learned to be a better teacher and communicator by virtue of my military education.

The intangibles are the best part of being an Army nurse.  It is awesome to be a part of a group that is bigger than I, and with such a proud legacy  I attended the 100th birthday party of the Army Nurse Corps last year and was overwhelmed with the sense of patriotism and pride I felt for being a part of this larger-than-life American institution.  I county my Army friends as some of my best friends; they are friends in ways that my civilian friends can never be.  We have sweated and frozen together, we have shared many an MRE together.

Army nursing is value-added nursing, and Army nurses stand out in a crowd for their leadership and their commitment to caring.  I have friends from all over the country who have helped me to grow, think and care about America and her future, and who have led me to “Be All I Can Be” and continue to encourage me to keep growing.