During World War II, members of the US Army Nurse Corps took care of the sick and wounded throughout the world, often in dangerous and difficult conditions. These brave women inspired four of my novels (A Memory Between Us and the Wings of the Nightingale series), so I’m sharing a four-part series on US Army nursing during the war.
Part 3: Uniforms
Part 4: General Nursing Practice
On the ward, the nurse was in charge, under the authority of the physician. She was assisted by male medics, who were enlisted men. In stateside hospitals, female Red Cross nurses’ aides also served. Physicians entered the Medical Corps with the rank of captain and only male physicians were admitted to the Corps.
As was typical in the 1940s, physicians expected unquestioning, speedy obedience from nurses. However, the war shook things up. The necessities of combat meant nurses were often asked to perform new tasks and were given more authority, especially in combat zones. For the first time, nurses administered anesthesia and gave intravenous medications and fluids. Also, flight nurses were completely in charge during flight and had authorization to treat many medical emergencies.
For more, please see my blog series:
The nurse was responsible for keeping the ward properly heated and ventilated, and for cleanliness, orderliness, and quiet—often difficult in combat theaters. She and the medics changed linens and helped the patients bathe, shave, brush teeth, change clothes, and use the bedpan or urinal. They served food and helped the sicker patients eat. Alcohol rubs were given to relax patients and prevent bed sores.
Nurses took careful notes, stored by the bedside, to monitor patient health. TPRs (Temperature, Pulse, and Respiration) were recorded at regular intervals, at least twice daily. A glass mercury oral thermometer was used. Blood pressure was measured in certain patients as well.
Physicians relied on the nurse’s assessment of patient symptoms—signs of bleeding or infection, weakness, restlessness, anxiety, coloring, mental condition, speech, condition of the eyes and tongue, appetite, bowel and urinary functions, coughing, and pain.
Nurses were vital members of the operating room team, and in combat theaters, they often learned to administer anesthesia, close wounds, and perform other tasks.
Medications were stored in the ward in a locked cabinet. The nurse was responsible for the key, but medics were allowed to access and administer medications in most instances. Nurses were trained to give medicine by mouth, hypodermic (now called subcutaneous), intramuscular, topical (on the skin), and by enema. Intravenous medications were to be given only under the direct supervision of a physician; however, exceptions were made in the combat theaters and for flight nurses.
This was long before our disposable, single-use, “universal precautions” era. Syringes were made of glass and were sterilized in bichloride of mercury before reuse. Gloves were washed and reused—and holes were even patched.
Improvisation was the rule, especially in combat areas, and nurses used their creativity and imagination to turn trash into useful items.
Tomblin, Barbara Brooks. G.I. Nightingales: the Army Nurse Corps in World War II. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. (A wonderful history, including all theaters, full of personal stories).
Technical Manual TM 8-220: Medical Department Soldier’s Handbook. Washington DC: War Department, 5 March 1941. (The official Army handbook used by medics, which contains a lot of information on nursing duties).