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The work for nurses was more difficult and important than glamorous—a point this recruiting poster strives to make.


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n early 1945, Congress was poised to do something previously unthinkable: draft women.

The U.S. Army needed nurses, and it needed them badly. The costly Normandy invasion, the fierce fighting in the French bocage, and the bloody Ardennes offensive had produced casualties that strained army medical resources to the breaking point. An acute shortage of nurses, the army said, was jeopardizing the care given to wounded fighting men.

In his State of the Union Address on January 6, 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt painted a grim picture as he asked for the unprecedented step of conscripting women. The army, he said, needed 18,000 more nurses to bring the Army Nurse Corps to a strength of 60,000. “The care and treatment given to our wounded and sick soldiers have been the best known to medical science. Those standards must be maintained at all costs,” he said. “We cannot tolerate a lowering of them by failure to provide adequate nursing for the brave men who stand desperately in need of it.”

The president emphasized that the problem was not a lack of nurses in the civilian population. Rather, he said, the number of nurses “volunteering has not produced the number of nurses required.” He asked Congress to amend the Selective Service Act to provide for the induction of nurses into the armed forces because “[t]he need is too pressing to await the outcome of further efforts at recruiting.”

Roosevelt’s call to action sparked a five-month debate that was as noteworthy for what was avoided as for what was discussed. No one disputed the need to provide first-rate medical care for the troops, but disagreements arose over whether there was an actual shortage of nurses and, if so, who was to blame. Curiously absent was any significant outcry against the specific concept of drafting women—something arguably at odds with gender roles of the time, and an issue that sparks spirited debate even today. News reports claimed that congressional reaction to Roosevelt’s proposal was mixed, but they offered little to show that elected officials opposed a female draft. One clue lurked in the remarks of Representative R. Ewing Thomason of Texas, who noted that a such a bill “would not survive ten minutes…but for the tragic present need” for nurses.

A consummate politician, Roosevelt had headed off much opposition by framing the issue as one purely of patriotism. Anyone opposing the idea of drafting nurses ran the risk of being labeled as insensitive to the urgent needs of sick and wounded GIs, and few elected officials wanted to run that risk.

Clare E. Hoffman, a congressman from Michigan, accused the president of playing politics by using the “suffering of the men wounded in Belgium in an attempt to drive through Congress a bill to give him control over nurses.” Sagging enlistments, however, were real and predated the Battle of the Bulge. From June to September 1944, nursing enlistments had hit their lowest point since the beginning of the war. The New York Times blamed the “dangerous illusion that the war is practically over” for the low numbers, along with confusion about the army’s actual need for nurses.

Two days before the president’s address, the superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps, Colonel Florence A. Blanchfield, had said that the army had a target of 50,000 nurses—10,000 fewer than the president later claimed. Under her figures, the shortage was 8,000 nurses, not the 18,000 the president cited.

Some confusion arose because the War Department had sent mixed signals about the number of nurses needed. In March 1945, Katharine J. Densford, president of the American Nurses Association, told Congress that between November 1943 and May 1944, the War Department had raised enlistment goals, sharply lowered them, and then raised them. These mixed signals, she said, seriously hampered recruiting.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]ime magazine blamed the low numbers on the nurses themselves. “Few nurses raised their hands for any kind of military service,” it asserted, and had “endless reasons for not volunteering.”

But the insinuation that nurses were shirking their patriotic duty rankled many—nurses in particular. If nurses were to be drafted, Densford said, it should be the first step in a plan to subject all women to conscription. Bessie A. R. Parker, acting dean of nursing at New York Hospital, said that if nothing was done about the “general conscription of women, nurses would resent the discrimination.”

“[T]he public is entitled to ask why nurses, who have volunteered, in proportion to their numbers, far beyond the record of any other group, were prematurely singled out for conscription,” read an editorial in the Saturday Evening Post. And Frances P. Bolton, a congresswoman from Ohio, claimed that “a higher percentage of nurses has volunteered for military service than any other skilled or professional group, with the possible exception of doctors.”

Indeed, of the estimated 280,000 nurses in the United States during the war years, more than 74,000—about 26 percent—had volunteered for wartime service. Although many applicants were rejected for an inability to meet army physical standards, among other reasons, the Army Nurse Corps grew dramatically during the war. In 1940, it consisted of 942 nurses; by 1945, it had grown to 42,000 nurses, all volunteers.

An army nurse in France tends to a soldier suffering from burns.

Many blamed a haphazard and inept recruitment process for the seemingly inadequate numbers of volunteers. The U.S. Army itself did not directly recruit nurses. Since 1942, it had delegated the job to the American Red Cross. Time magazine called the process “ham-handed and confused,” with both agencies involved but neither fully responsible. Densford told Congress she had encountered delays in processing applications for army service of as long as seven months. Elmira Wickenden, executive director of the National Nursing Council, cited similar delays.
“[T]housands of nurses waiting for assignment are beginning to wonder how real the need is….” she said.

Representative Bolton echoed that concern. On a visit to Walter Reed Hospital, she said she had found army nurses with little to do. She was “horrified” when they told her their job was to run errands for army wives—something the army quickly denied. Anonymous army nurses complained to Time that much of their time was spent on tasks that required no medical training, such as making beds, filling out reports, and housekeeping.

Walter H. Judd, a physician and congressman from Minnesota, chastised the War Department for giving “little support and no appropriation” to recruiting nurses. “How do we know the voluntary system has failed, since it hasn’t had a chance to work?” Judd asked. Interestingly, the U.S. Navy did not need conscription. It was able to meet its nursing needs through enlistments, Rear Admiral William John Clarke Agnew, the assistant navy surgeon general, told Congress.

But there were likely other factors at work as well. A military analyst for the New York Times, Hanson W. Baldwin, blamed a disproportionate glamorization of other women in uniform for hampering the recruitment of nurses. He singled out the Women’s Army Corps, which consisted of female soldiers performing military jobs to free male soldiers for combat duty. Because of the novelty of women soldiers, the WACs had received a great deal of publicity. The Saturday Evening Post, for instance, termed WACs “Those Wonderful G.I. Janes,” and published illustrations of stylishly attired female soldiers.

“The nurses are well aware of the glamour and the publicity and the increased rank and prerogatives given to or acquired by the Women’s Army Corps,” Baldwin wrote. This was unfair, he claimed, because “nurses are usually much farther forward, run greater risks and have far harder work, requiring far longer professional study than do most of the WACs….”

Risk was a potentially significant factor. Army nurses were noncombatants, but they often served in danger. Seventy percent served overseas, often close to the front lines. When the Philippines fell in 1942, the Japanese captured 67 army nurses, along with 11 navy nurses, and held them in an internment camp for nearly three years. During the war, 201 nurses died in the service—16 of them from enemy fire. Because of the danger army nurses faced and their difficult working conditions, the New York Times reported that some nurses had been discouraged from enlisting by husbands, brothers, or boyfriends serving overseas, who had seen the war up close.

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]eft unmentioned in the debate was how long it would take the Selective Service System to gear up to register and induct nurses and whether it could act quickly enough to alleviate the present shortage.

On January 9, 1945, three days after Roosevelt’s address, Representative Andrew J. May of Kentucky introduced a conscription bill to make nurses eligible for the draft, subject to the same exemptions as men. (The bill applied only to female nurses because the Army Nurse Corps did not accept male nurses until 1955.) Under the bill, inducted nurses would receive the rank of private, whereas nurses who enlisted would be commissioned as second lieutenants. This, May hoped, would encourage nurses to enlist rather than risk being drafted as privates.

Clare Boothe Luce, a journalist and congresswoman from Connecticut, saw no logical reason not to allow women to be inducted into the women’s branches of all the armed services and tried to broaden the bill to subject all women to conscription, but the House quickly rejected her amendment.

On March 7, 1945, the House approved, by a 347 to 42 margin, a bill to draft nurses. All unmarried nurses between 20 and 45 would be subject to the draft, and drafted nurses would be tendered commissions as second lieutenants.

The House bill contained an anti-discrimination provision. African American nurses were an untapped resource that might help relieve the shortage. Of the 42,000 nurses in the Army Nurse Corps, only about 300 were African American. “Efforts of Negro nurses to serve to capacity have been thwarted by many types of discriminatory practices,” said Mabel K. Staupers of the National Association of Graduate Colored Nurses. The National Nursing Council for War Service estimated that 2,000 African American nurses were eligible for army service.

On March 28, 1945, the Senate Military Affairs Committee approved a conscription bill, sending it to the full Senate. But there the bill stalled. On April 9 and May 21, the Senate deferred action without explanation, although some news reports suggested that behind-the-scenes opposition was responsible. As quickly as the issue had arisen, it died. On May 26, 1945, Under Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson asked the Senate to shelve the bill.

Senators breathed a sigh of relief. Elbert D. Thomas of Utah called the withdrawal of the conscription bill “the most satisfactory disposition of the difficult problem.” He was thankful that “[t]he most extreme emergency measure of the war has solved itself.” Senator Edwin C. Johnson of Colorado, who had felt it unnecessary to draft nurses, saw vindication. “This is the very thing I have been trying to tell them,” he said of those pushing the legislation. “There wasn’t really a shortage of nurses, but an overdose of red tape.”

Indeed, by June 1945 the U.S. Army was so flush with nurses it directed the Red Cross to stop accepting applications.

How did things change so dramatically so quickly?

The most obvious answer is the end of the war in Europe, which eliminated new combat casualties in that theater. But the publicity surrounding the draft debate also spurred enlistments. In the week after Roosevelt’s address, 4,000 nurses applied for army duty—twice the number for the last two months of 1944. And after hearing complaints of inept recruiting practices, the Red Cross and the army streamlined their procedures. By March 1945, according to the army surgeon general, Major General Norman T. Kirk, the Red Cross and army had slashed the time between when a nurse volunteered and when she was sworn in from as long as seven months to two weeks. By the next month, they could process enlistments in a single day.

And so no women were drafted or forced to register for the draft in World War II. The Selective Service System remained an all-male preserve. Whether to conscript women—or even require them to register for the draft—were issues that would have to wait for another day. ✯

This story was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.