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This Day in History: Navy Nurse Corps

On this day in 1944, women in the Navy Nurse Corps are given full military ranks for the first time. The Corps’ Superintendent, Sue Dauser, becomes the first woman in the Navy to hold the rank of Captain.


The move came after years of hard work.


Nurses had been helping the Navy for decades, of course. When the hospital ship Red Rover traveled up and down the Mississippi during the Civil War, it had volunteer nurses on board. Likewise, USS Relief carried volunteer nurses during the Spanish-American War.

Navy Nurses aboard USS Solace (1945)

Things became more official in 1908. The Navy Nurse Corps was formally established, and the Navy began soliciting applications from nurses around the country.


The requirements were tough: Applicants had to be graduates of a general hospital training school with experience in “medical, surgical, care of men, and contagious diseases.” Applicants were also expected to be “professionally, morally, mentally and physically fit” for the position.


An inaugural group of 20 nurses was finally selected. This dedicated group came to be known as the “Sacred Twenty.”


Conditions for these early Navy nurses weren’t the best. The nurses didn’t hold a military rank, and they were paid less than men. Moreover, nurses weren’t even allowed aboard ships at first. When World War I began, conditions in war camps were another tough factor. One nurse wrote of the terrible cold that kept her up all night shivering. “[Nurses] would cough apparently all night,” she concluded, “would work all day, and would fall on their cots for another night of coughing.”


Yet the nurses persevered, and the Navy gave them more responsibility. Nurses began serving aboard ships. They taught nursing skills to other women overseas. They also began teaching hospital corpsmen, which enabled the ranks of corpsmen to grow.


“They worked night and day in the cold and damp, on decks that were being washed by seas, without any lights whatever,” one Army commander said of the nurses aboard his troop transport ship, “exposed to the dangers of contagion with a deadly malady, and they have rendered these services most cheerfully.”


One Navy nurse received a Navy Cross for her service in World War I; three more received Crosses after the Spanish flu. Yet the nurses still did not have an official rank in the Navy.


The problem would finally be rectified when the Secretary of the Navy wrote Congress early in World War II. The lack of rank was “unsatisfactory and confusing,” he wrote. Awarding rank, he concluded, would “increase the professional efficiency of the Corps.”


Congress agreed. Sort of. It approved a bill giving nurses “relative rank.”


Fortunately, that state of affairs didn’t last for too long. On February 26, 1944, nurses were given full military rank—although the rank was given on only a temporary basis. (The ranks were to go away six months after the war ended.) Nevertheless, the temporary commission came with the same rank, pay, and privileges as other commissioned officers.


The Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps had previously held the “relative rank” of Captain, but now Dauser became the first female Captain in the United States Navy.


You’ll be happy to hear that the “temporary” status didn’t last long. (Pun intended?) In April 1947, the restriction was removed, and the ranks were made permanent.


“In reality the war nurse is a soldier,” the New York Herald reported in 1918, “fighting pain, disease and death with weapons of science. . . . an adequate nursing force is as essential to victory as any other military factor . . . .”


Amen. Many thanks to the dedicated men and women who today serve in the Navy Nurse Corps!

Enjoyed this post? More stories of American

heroines can be found on my website, HERE.

Primary Sources


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