By Mike Case
On May 13, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill establishing the United States Navy Nurse Corps. Much like their civilian counterparts, members of the Navy Nurse Corps provide medical care to service members, military families or other people in need around the globe. Currently, many Navy nurses are serving in the fight against COVID-19.
To celebrate the legacy of the Navy Nurse Corps and to honor all military nurses hard at work today, here are eight historical facts you might not know about this group of dedicated caretakers.
1. The first 20 Navy nurses are known as the “Sacred 20.”
During the Navy Nurse Corps’ first year of existence, the nurses, who were all women, were assigned only to the Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C. When the nurses began to report for duty outside of D.C., they were sometimes received with disbelief, as women were not typically part of the military workforce in the early 1900s.
As one Navy surgeon of the time said, many of the male colleagues of the trailblazing female nurses “did not know how they could work in a hospital without a single female patient.” Unlike their male counterparts, these pioneering women did not receive full military ranks until World War II.
2. Two Navy ships are named, or will be named, for members of the “Sacred 20.”
Both the WWII Destroyer USS Higbee and the future USS Higbee, which is scheduled to join the fleet in 2024 are named for Lenah Higbee. In addition to being a member of the “Sacred 20,” Higbee was also the Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps during World War I. She was awarded the Navy Cross for her service.
3. 19 Navy nurses died while serving in the Corps during World War I.
Among them were two other recipients of the Navy Cross, Hortense Wind and Ann Dahlby, who were both awarded the medal posthumously.
Both of these brave nurses lost their lives to the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 while caring for their patients who had contracted the deadly strain of influenza.
4. While the official founding of the Navy Nurse Corps was in 1908, nurses unofficially served even earlier in the Union’s Navy during the Civil War.
Lead by a group of Catholic nuns, these women served aboard the hospital ship USS Red Rover. One of them, Ann Stokes, was the first African American woman to serve aboard a U.S. Navy ship.
5. U.S. Navy nurses were captured as prisoners of war during WWII.
Laura Cobb, Dorothy Danner, and nine other nurses were captured and made prisoners of war after the Philippines fell to invading Japanese forces. Chief Nurse Cobb and the others would earn the nicknames “Sacred 11” and “Angels of Bataan” along with a group of U.S. Army Nurses who were also prisoners of war.
Cobb and the other nurses cared for their patients and fellow prisoners with almost no medicine or supplies for nearly three years while enduring harsh conditions under the captivity of the Japanese military.
When the prison camp was liberated in 1945, all 11 nurses had survived and were returned to the U.S. after the war. All of the nurses received awards, including the Bronze Star and a Gold Star, in lieu of a second Bronze Star.
6. Phyllis Mae Daily became the first African American in the Navy Nurse Corps when she joined the Navy Reserve in 1945.
7. After a bombing during the Vietnam War, four Navy nurses bravely refused to be treated for their wounds to prioritize other patients’ care.
On Christmas Eve 1964, Barbra Wooster and three other Navy nurses were wounded when their barracks were bombed by the Viet Cong. According to a January 9, 1965, article by the Arizona Republic, all of the nurses refused treatment until the more than 70 other wounded had been treated first. The four nurses were awarded Purple Hearts, the first service women to receive the commendation during the Vietnam War.
8. In 1965, Ensign George Silver and four others became the first males to join the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, according to an Oakland Tribune story from Dec. 9, 1965.
Before joining the Navy Nurse Corps, Ensign Silver had served as an enlisted U.S. Navy Corpsmen.
This story originally appeared on USO.org in 2020. It has been updated in 2021.
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