Whether it’s WW1, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, or literally any other war within the past 200 – 300 years, nurses were used to keep the soldiers on their feet, and not six feet under. WW2 was no different. Around 5 000 Australian nurses served in WW2, alongside around 10 000 British nurses, and over 59 000 American nurses. Traditionally, nursing was always a woman’s job; however, lately, the number of male nurses has been on the rise.

During WW2, nurses could be given ranks, just like the soldiers could. The rank that they first started at was a second lieutenant, and most people just stayed at that rank. The chief nurse of a hospital was usually a first lieutenant, but sometimes a captain. The highest rank that could be held by a nurse was a colonel. It was only held by the superintendent of the US Army Nurse Corps.

Posters promoting the job of nursing to US women.

Nurses worked closer than ever to the front line in WW2. This made nursing an extremely dangerous job. Not only did they have the same dangers that nurses had in WW1, such as being bombed, even by your own country, or its allies. Many nurses were captured and kept as prisoners of war (POW). Often they would be put onto ships, ships that were a good target for a bombing. This is how many nurses died in WW1, however, not as many died that way in WW2.

Nurses in WW2 also had to worry about getting shot. On the 8th of November 1942, sixty nurses climbed over the side of a ship off the coast of North Africa and into small assault boats. Each boat carried 5 nurses, 3 medical officers, and 20 soldiers. The nurses wore helmets and carried full packs containing musette bags, gas masks, and canteen belts. Only their Red Cross armbands and lack of weapons distinguished them from fighting troops. They waded to the shore near the town of Arzew with the rest of the assault troops. They had to hide behind whatever cover they could because enemy snipers would take potshots at anything that moved.

Nurses from the 48th Surgical Hospital walking from Azrew docks to join the remainder of their unit after Operation Torch.

That night, the nurses, soldiers, and medical officers found some abandoned beach houses that they could use for shelter, however, before the night was over, their commanding officer ordered them to go to the civilian hospital, to begin caring for any wounds the soldiers may have received, in better conditions. There was no electricity or water. The doctors and nurses worked under whatever light their torches could give them. The only medical supplies that they had were the ones they brought themselves.

There weren’t enough beds for all the wounded soldiers, so many of them just lied on the concrete floors, in pools of their own blood. The entire time they were under constant sniper fire, and one nurse had to be physically restrained from going outside to ‘give them a piece of her mind’.

Thankfully, WW2 had a much lower fatality rate for nurses than WW1. According to the US Army Nurse Corps, over 200 nurses died during WW2. This is much lower than the approximate 1500 that died during WW1.

Sources:

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