Nurses in the China-Burma-India Theater

  A small number of Army nurses were stationed in Army hospitals in China, Burma, and India throughout 1943 and 1944, where they treated the American and Chinese troops who were pushing into southern China along the Ledo Road. At the time, the road was the sole overland lifeline for military supplies to Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalist Army, which was fighting a war of survival against Japan.

  American nurses and Chinese patients experienced a clash of cultures which made the nurses' jobs difficult. The Chinese patients had difficulty understanding the concept of a "high-type" woman performing "menial" bedside care. The nurses found it hard to maintain proper discipline among the wards because the Chinese did not feel it necessary to follow a woman's orders. A nurse assigned to the 20th General Hospital remembered that her Chinese patients insisted on supplying their own food while in the hospital. The result was "orange peels, egg shells, chicken feathers, and vegetable peelings piled high beside each bed." Nurses could not keep their seriously sick patients in bed. "They wandered off to the bazaar in their pajamas to haggle over fresh vegetables, and live ducks and chickens, which they brought back to the wards and kept under their beds." Many patients refused to consume their atabrine tablets and contracted malaria. The most serious problem the nurses had, however, was that Chinese patients with contagious diseases refused to remain isolated from their fellows and thus inadvertently spread diseases throughout the hospital.

  For every Allied soldier wounded in the struggle for Burma in 1943, 120 fell sick. The malarial rate that year was a staggering 84 percent of total manpower. The Army sprayed DDT on mosquito infested areas and ordered all personnel to wear protective clothing after dusk regardless of the temperature. Troops were issued daily medication to protect them against malaria. Scrub typhus, a disease spread by mites, posed another problem. This disease demanded an extremely high level of nursing care and had a 30 percent fatality rate. Although the Army attempted to employ DDT to control the spread of the disease, it had minimal success. Troops also suffered from exhaustion, malnutrition, and amoebic dysentery. Plane crashes and truck accidents occurred frequently across this difficult terrain. Nurses stationed in isolated jungle hospitals in the India-Burma Theater worked under primitive conditions in an extremely trying climate. Many served in the theater longer than the traditional two-year assignment and suffered from low morale. They performed a necessary task but often received little recognition in this demanding but forgotten theater of war.

  In February 1945 U.S. troops liberated the sixty-seven Army nurses who had been imprisoned in Santo Tomas internment Camp since 1942 and evacuated them to a convalescent hospital on Leyte. Although suffering from malnutrition and beriberi, they recovered from their ordeal fairly quickly. The duty they performed in combat and the hardships they endured as prisoners of war are testaments to the professionalism of the entire Army Nurse Corps throughout the war.

  World War II ended with the surrender of Japan in September 1945, and Army nurses stationed around the world began planning to return home. They could look back on their service with great pride. Their accomplishments were many. Nurses had been a part of every link in the chain of evacuation established in every theater of the war. Their work contributed significantly to the low mortality rate experienced by American casualties of all types.

  Nurses received 1,619 medals, citations, and commendations during the war, reflecting the courage and dedication of all who served. Sixteen medals were awarded posthumously to nurses who died as a result of enemy fire. These included the 6 nurses who died at Anzio, 6 who died when the Hospital Ship Comfort was attacked by a Japanese suicide plane, and 4 flight nurses. Thirteen other flight nurses died in weather-related crashes while on duty. Overall, 201 nurses died while serving in the Army during the war.

  Army nurses returning to civilian life discovered a changed post war society. The place of women in American society had been irrevocably altered and expanded by the entrance of women into professional and industrial jobs previously reserved for men. Most important for nurses, however, was society's enhanced perception of nursing as a valued profession. The critical need for nurses and the federally funded Cadet Nurse Corps program had been well publicized during the war. Upon their return home, Army nurses were eligible for additional education under the G.I. Bill of Rights, which would enable them to pursue professional educational goals.

  Veteran nurses also brought home with them valuable skills and experiences, increasing their professional status and self-esteem. The Army had trained significant numbers of nurses in specialties such a s anesthesia and psychiatric care, and nurses who had served overseas had acquired practical experience otherwise unobtainable. Those assigned to field and evacuation hospitals had become accustomed to taking the initiative, making quick decisions, and adopting innovative solutions to a broad range of medical-related problems. They had learned organizational skills by moving and setting up field and evacuation hospitals while following the troops and had developed teaching and supervisory skills while training the corpsmen under their command. Paperwork no longer intimidated them, as circumstances had forced them to deal with increasingly complex administrative chores.

  The Army nurse's experience forced her to grow professionally and gave her the self-confidence and opportunity to pursue her career when she returned to the United States. She came home to a society that was ready to accept nurses as professional members of the United States health care system. World War II had forever changed the face of military nursing.