Sarah Sundin: WWII Nursing Part 3/3

This is Sarah’s final installment concerning her research into WWII nursing. I want to thank Sarah for all the great information she provided. I know I learned a lot. What was one interesting thing you learned?

Click the links for Part I and Part II.

wwii-nursing-2US Army Nursing in World War II—Part 3

“Lieutenant Holmes is going into anaphylaxis.”

 Harriet’s elfin face blanched. “Oh no. Thank goodness Dr. Sinclair is on the ward.”

“Not yet.” Ruth grabbed a tray and put two sterilized syringes on top.

“So—so why are you already getting the meds?”

“I want to be ready when he comes. I can’t waste any time.” One vial of adrenaline.

“But he hasn’t ordered them yet.”

 Ruth leveled a look at the girl. “I know the treatment for anaphylaxis.”

“That—that’s presumptuous of you. You’ll make the doctor angry.”

Ruth pulled a vial of morphine. “I don’t care about the doctor’s feelings. I care about my patient’s life.”

In my World War II novel, A Memory Between Us, the heroine, Lt. Ruth Doherty, serves as a US Army Nurse in England. The amount of research seemed daunting, but I found fantastic resources, read intriguing real-life accounts, and gathered fascinating facts about nursing in World War II.

On November 24th, I covered requirements to serve in the Army Nurse Corps. On November 26th, I discussed the training the nurses underwent and rank in the Army Nurse Corps. And today I’ll provide some details on uniforms, nursing practices, and a list of my favorite resources.


On the job, nurses wore a white ward dress with the white nurse’s cap. They were also issued a set of “dress blues,” a dark blue service jacket and a medium blue skirt, a white or blue shirt, black tie, black shoes, and a dark blue garrison cap or service cap. This uniform is pictured on the cover of A Memory Between Us. A dark blue cape lined with red and an overcoat were also used for outdoors wear. Starting in July 1943, the blue uniform was replaced with an olive drab service jacket and skirt and cap, khaki shirt and tie, and brown shoes—but implementation was slow and sporadic.

In combat areas, white ward dresses and skirted suits were absurdly impractical, but the Army was slow to provide appropriate clothing for women. In 1942 during the early campaign in North Africa, the women resorted to wearing men’s fatigues and boots—in men’s sizes. In time the nurses were issued WAC (Women’s Army Corps) field uniforms and the popular Parson’s field jacket, as well as easily laundered seersucker ward outfits, both dresses and pantsuits.

Nursing Practice

On the ward, the nurse was assisted by a male medic, an enlisted man. Some men had serious problems taking orders from women, and some didn’t. In stateside hospitals, 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, the physicians expected unquestioning, speedy obedience from nurses.

For the writer, it’s important to remember 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.

Resources (The official website for Army Nurse Corps history.)

Sarnecky, Mary T. “A History of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. (A comprehensive history with a thick section on WWII).

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).

Brayley, Martin. “World War II Allied Nursing Services.” Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2002. (Detailed information on military nurses’ uniforms). (The Women Veterans Historical Project—a vast collection of oral histories, letters, photographs, diaries and other treasures). (Prepare to get lost…this website contains dozens of on-line historical medical texts, from detailed—800 page!—books describing medical services in each theater, to period textbooks used for neuropsychiatry to infectious disease to orthopedic surgery).

***This blog originally posted 11/29/2010***

sarahsundin2Sarah Sundin is the author of the Wings of Glory series from Revell: A Distant Melody (March 2010), A Memory Between Us (September 2010), and Blue Skies Tomorrow (August 2011). She has a doctorate in pharmacy from UC San Francisco and works on-call as a hospital pharmacist.

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