When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the Navy had 160 nurses on active duty. Over the next year and a half, this number would increase more than eight-fold as the Nurse Corps expanded to meet "Great War's" demands. Growth was gradual, with 345 Navy Nurses serving by mid-1917, 155 of them members of the U.S. Naval Reserve Force. The American Red Cross, which had long been the nursing reserve for the Army and Navy, provided many trained and pre-selected women to the wartime Nurse Corps. The Red Cross also supported the Armed Forces' medical programs with organized Base Hospital units, smaller special detachments, initial uniforms and supplies.
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.
However, the greatest number of wartime Navy Nurses served at home, as an integral part of the program to rapidly train and medically support the personnel of a vastly enlarged fleet. At the time of the 11 November 1918 Armistice, there were 1386 Navy Nurses at work in the War Zone, at other overseas stations in the Pacific and Caribbean, and at 25 Naval Hospitals and numerous smaller facilities in the U.S. These Nurses were busy teaching and supervising newly enlisted hospital corpsmen, as well as tending casualties from combat, accidents and the onslaughts of contagious disease that typified the pre-antibiotic era. The global influenza epidemic of 1918-19 was an especially great challenge. Thousands of Navy personnel were taken seriously ill, with many deaths. 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'.
As the War ended and emphasis shifted to bringing home and demobilizing the vastly expanded wartime forces, Navy Nurses were assigned to regular shipboard service, with the first of them joining the crews of the big transports George Washington and Leviathan in December 1918. During this time, the Nurse Corps briefly continued to grow, reaching a peak of just over 1400 members in late 1918, before beginning its own steady contraction. In November 1919, with the War over for nearly a year and the Navy well on its way to reaching a greatly reduced peacetime strength, the Nurse Corps numbered below 900 and was shrinking rapidly.
This page features views related to nurses and the United States Navy during the World War I era.
Additional images of Nurses and the United States Navy during
the World War I era
- Group Photographs
- Scenes in Nurses' Quarters
- Scenes on board Ships
- Nurses' Uniforms
- US Naval Hospital Base 5, Brest, France
Images of this era's Nurse Corps' Superintendent Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee, 2nd Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps, 1911-1922.
Additional pictorial coverage, Nurses and the U.S. Navy - Overview & Special Image Selection.
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