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Recognition 'Now Or Never' For U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps Of World War II

From the very start of World War II, an acute nurse shortage hampered health care overseas and at home. Congress created and funded the United States Cadet Nurse Corps in 1943 as a way to quickly train more than 100,000 new nurses. 

Those who know about the corps praise it. But others have been lobbying for more formal recognition for decades. This month, the U.S. House took a step in that direction. 

A heavy and colorful recruitment

During the war, it would have been hard to miss the recruitment effort for the Cadet Nurse Corps.

Signs were everywhere.

Magazines and newspapers had full-page advertisements featuring women, though encouraging anyone with at least a high school diploma to "enlist" in the corps. 

In U.S. hospitals, a critical nurse shortage during World War II was the impetus for the creation of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps.
Credit University of North Texas / United States Government Printing Office
United States Government Printing Office
In U.S. hospitals, a critical nurse shortage during World War II was the impetus for the creation of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps.

Hollywood did its part, producing short films like "Reward Unlimited," produced by David O. Selznick, who made "Gone with the Wind" just a few years earlier.

In the 10-minute flick shown in movie houses around the country, Peggy — played by Dorothy McGuire in one of her first roles — says goodbye to her fiancé, who is about to leave for basic training. They have their first kiss, and he leaves by train.

On her way home, Peggy falls, just as Mrs. Scott, a kind woman who happens to be a nurse, is passing by. She offers to bandage up Peggy's knee, and they start to talk about the country's desperate need for "a 100,000 nurses."

"Well, where will they come from?" Peggy asks.

"From all over," says Mrs. Scott. "Women like myself who've retired, going back in to active nursing. But principally, they'll come from the United States Cadet Nurse Corps," which she then goes on to explain.

Nurse Corps grows, and many made it a career

The U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps was eventually 124,000 strong. The nurses took an oath to provide good patient care and to serve the U.S. "for the duration of the war." In return, they received a stipend and two years' tuition and housing at a college with a school of nursing. 

An amendment to the federal act that created the corps states the corps would not discriminate based on race. Among the enlisted were a few dozen Native Americans, a few thousand African Americans — and a few hundred Japanese Americans, whose families were still living in internment camps.

Many in the corps made nursing their career after the war, including Emily Schacht, who is now 92 years old and lives in Waterford, Connecticut.

Emily Schacht enlisted in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps during World War II. The state of Connecticut, where she lives, has recognized the work of the nurses.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR
Emily Schacht enlisted in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps during World War II. The state of Connecticut, where she lives, has recognized the work of the nurses.

"At the time we — at least I — didn't realize that it was such a real contribution," Schacht said. "It was just something that we did. And, of course, during World War II, our lives were very different."

New York City, where Schacht grew up, had scheduled blackouts and a curfew. Her parents were air raid wardens.

Schacht said she was an honor student in science toward the end of high school. She liked anatomy, physiology and chemistry.

"A friend came to me [and said] she was going to enlist in the Cadet Nurse Corps," she said. "They paid for our education, so I enrolled. And she didn't make it, and I did!"

At the time, Schacht said, she didn't know there was a countrywide shortage. But in the hospital where the cadet nurses worked, it was obvious they made a huge difference.

"Without us, they wouldn't have been able to function," Schacht said. "We didn't think about how hard it was, or how much we were working. We just did it."

The training was rigorous and hands-on. For instance, if a patient developed an infection after surgery, nurses in the program were brought in to find out what happened, and learn what to do next.

"The nursing arts instructors would call everybody who had done a dressing on that patient," Schacht said. "She would review how we did the dressing, and have each one of us demonstrate to her that we knew how to do it."

That style of teaching had never happened before, and the field of nursing evolved from there.

The push for veterans benefits

Starting in the 1970s, some cadet nurses lobbied the government for full veterans benefits. For a variety of reasons, including cost and, some say, gender, the proposals didn't go anywhere. But any hesitation by lawmakers or the U.S. Department of Defense also has something do with what it means to be a U.S. military veteran.  

Retired Lt. Col. Marilla Cushman with the Women In Military Service For America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, said those in military are on duty 24/7. They move places when they're told to move. The nation owes them a great debt.

"They raise their right hand and promise to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and they essentially give their lives to the nation," Cushman said.

That's not to say others shouldn't be eligible for benefits and, Cushman said, the cadet nurses did commit to work in federal settings, including military hospitals. They took an oath. They wore uniforms. She and others have nothing but praise for what the nurses did.

Recruitment for the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps during World War II included advertisements like this one in "Life" magazine.
Credit Time Inc. / Eastman Kodak Company / U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps
U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps
Recruitment for the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps during World War II included advertisements like this one in "Life" magazine.

"So, are they deserving of recognition? I can tell you certainly we have recognized and honored their service at the Women's Memorial," Cushman said.

During World War II, thousands of people worked in munitions factories and shipyards, quite anonymously. Women did jobs that usually went to men. Almost anyone can conjure up an image of Rosie the Riveter, but not so much a cadet nurse.

U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps? What's that?

"Forty years of teaching public health nursing and I didn't know about the United States Cadet Nurses," Barbara Poremba said.

Poremba, a retired nurse and educator at Salem State University, is not the only one. She first learned about the corps in a 2018 newspaper article about a cadet nurse living outside of Boston, and that got her spearheading the most recent "honorary veterans" bills in Congress, endorsed by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. 

The nurses wouldn't get health or financial benefits, but they would get some burial privileges.

This month, the proposal made it into the House version of the Defense Authorization Act, but not the Senate version.

It's now or never, Poremba said. At this point, many who lived through World War II have died — though in the last year, she got to meet several nurses.

"And they all said, 'Barbara, it was never about money. It's about us being recognized for what we did,'" Poremba said. "And that is that they saved the country from the collapse of the health care system because of a lack of nurses."

Eighty percent of hospitals were staffed by cadet nurses during the war and immediately after, as soldiers came home and people needed care, and started having babies. 

In Connecticut, it wasn't until about a year ago that Emily Schacht understood she had been part of this enormous public health effort. It is a great thing the government might recognize the nurse corps, she said,  but she didn't go in it to be recognized. 

"I went into it because it was a field that interested me, my efforts were going to help people, and I felt good about that," she said.

Schacht has been thinking beyond the cadet nurses. Federal funding for the corps was about the need for the profession. Maybe, she said, with the nurse shortage now, the government should do it again.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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