8 Facts to Know About the Navy Nurse Corps 

By Mike Case

On May 13, 1908, 112 years ago, 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 Navy Nurse Corps’ 112th birthday and to honor all military nurses’ hard at work against the coronavirus, here are eight historical facts you might not know.

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.

Photo credit US Navy Photo

“The Sacred Twenty" at the Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C. in October 1908.

As one Naval 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.

During the influenza pandemic, a nurse wears a mask while filling pitcher from water hydrant in 1918. | Photo credit National Archives

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.

Photo credit National Archives

Masks and cubicles used in U.S. General Hospital Number 4 at Fort Porter, New York in 1918.

Among them were two other recipients of the Navy Cross, Hortense Wind, and Ann Dahlby, who were awarded the medal posthumously.

Ann Marie Dahlby (left) and Hortense Elizabeth Wind (right). | Photo credit U.S. Navy

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.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Laura Cobb in 1945. | Photo credit U.S. Navy

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 while under the captivity of the Japanese military.

Photo credit US Navy Photo

The 11 liberated Navy nurses with Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid on February 23, 1945.

When they were liberated in 1945 all 11 nurses survived and returned to the U.S. after the war. All of the nurses received awards, including 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.

Photo credit National Archives

Phyllis Mae Dailey, the Navy’s first African-American nurse, takes the oath of service on March 18, 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.

Purple Heart awards are presented to staff nurses injured in the bombing officers’ quarters on Christmas Eve in 1964. | Photo credit US Navy Photo

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 servicewomen 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.

Photo credit US Navy Photo

A patient has his traction adjusted by Lt. Junior Grade Jerry McClelland, one of the first five males in the Navy Nurse Corps.

Before joining the Navy Nurse Corps, Ensign Silver had served as an enlisted U.S. Navy Corpsmen.

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