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Answering the Call

Civil War to World War II

First Navy nurses; Yeoman First Class (F) Bright; Lieutenant (j.g.) Bernatitus; Lieutenant (j.g.) Pickens and Ensign Wills.

(Left to right) The “Sacred Twenty,” first Navy nurses; Yeoman First Class (F) Joy Bright; Lieutenant (j.g.) Ann Bernatitus; Lieutenant (j.g.) Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills. Click image to download.


In 1862, Sisters of the Holy Cross served aboard USS Red Rover, the Navy’s first hospital ship, joining a crew of 12 officers, 35 enlisted, and others supporting medical care. Red Rover remained the only hospital ship in the Navy until the Spanish-American War.


Congress established the Navy Nurse Corps on 13 May 1908. The Surgeon General selected Esther Voorhees Hasson as the Superintendent because of her extensive experience as an Army contract nurse aboard hospital ship USS Relief during the Spanish-American War.


Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels announced that the Navy will enlist females on 17 March 1917. Most of the 11,000 female yeomen worked in the nation’s capital filling a variety of jobs including draftsman, interpreters, couriers, and translators. Late in the war, the Navy enlisted 24 African-American women who worked in the Navy Department building. Three hundred-seven women enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War I. Like the Yeomen (F), they were limited to the enlisted ranks; the majority of them served in Washington, D.C., as accountants, paymasters, recruiters, and stenographers. Fifty-seven Yeomen (F) and two female Marines died from the 1918 Influenza. Navy nurses treated patients in hospitals within the United States, overseas, and on hospital ships during World War I.


Over 11,000 Navy nurses served at naval shore commands, on hospital ships, at field hospitals, in airplanes, and on 12 hospital ships. Lieutenant Ann Bernatitus, Navy Nurse Corps, escapes from the Philippines just before the Japanese invaded; she later becomes the first recipient of the Legion of Merit award. Eleven Navy Nurses were prisoners of war in the Philippines from 1941 to 1945; they received the Bronze Star for their heroism. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Public Law 689 creating the Navy’s women reserve program on 30 July 1942. Lieutenant (j.g.) Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills were commissioned as the first African-American WAVES officers in December 1944. They were members of the final graduating class of the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School (WR) at Northampton, Massachusetts. Also in 1944, Public Law 238 granted full military rank to members of the Navy Nurse Corps. Sue Dauser, the Director of the Navy Nurse Corps, received a full commission in the rank of Captain, thereby becoming the first female in that rank.

Continue reading: Postwar Years to 1990s

Published: Wed Feb 08 14:06:22 EST 2023