Naval History and Heritage Command

National Museum of the U.S. Navy

Navy Nurses

Upon entry into the war, the U.S. Navy had 160 nurses on active duty.   They were established in 1908.  By mid-1917, this number almost doubled, with 155 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 women to the wartime Nurse Corps.   The Red Cross also supported the Armed Forces' medical program with organized Base Hospital units, smaller special detachments, initial uniforms and supplies.    As the war ended and emphasis shifted to bring home and demobilzing the vastly expanded wartime forces, the Nurse Corps briefly continued to grow, reaching a peak of over 1,400 members in late 1918.   Navy Nurses also played a vital role in helping those inflicted with the Spanish Flu that killed over 4,000 personnel from August 31 to December 31, 1918.  The epidemic was most severe ashore, especially at training facitlies.  Worst hit was Great Lakes, Illinois, with more than 900 deaths, nearly 500 in just one week in September.  Many ships were afflicted and some disabled.  For example, onboard the cruiser USS Pittsburgh, stationed at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, had the majority of her 1,100 man crew sick, including 58 dead.   As a preventive measure, masks, respiratory sprays and vaccinations were widely used but modestly worked.  Quarantine seemed to work better, where communities were completely isolated from those not afflicted.   Many of these first Navy women lost their lives in this battle, and three were awarded the Navy Cross for their heroism. 

Image:  NH 51406:  USS Leviathon (ID# 1326), Navy Nurses onboard, WWI.  U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.