If William Howard Taft, the President who signed the legislation authorized the creation of the United States Navy Nurse Corps in 1908, could have peered down the corridors of the future and saw the countless acts of kindness, courage, self-sacrifice, and devotion to duty that its members would consistently display, he might have taken a few extra seconds to scan the historic document before putting pen to paper.
You see, the bill that Taft signed authorized the establishment of the Nurse Corps—but it didn’t provide them with a place to live or with food to eat.
But the twenty women selected as the first members of the Nurse Corps did not, to paraphrase a line of dialogue from a famous movie, “rely on the kindness of strangers” to take care of these basic needs. Instead, Superintendent Esther Voorhees Hasson and her fellow Nurses took matters into their own hands, renting out a house to serve as their quarters and convert the kitchen into a mess hall. This dedicated group eventually earned the nickname the “Sacred Twenty,” and from these humble beginnings the Nurse Corps expanded at a rate that even they could have scarcely foreseen.
Just two after the Corps was founded, its members were being sent to far-flung locales such as the Philippines, Samoa, Guam, Yokohama, Cuba, and the Virgin Islands—this at a time when a woman’s place was almost universally considered to be in the home. As World War I drew to a close, nearly 1,400 Nurses had served their country during its most deadly international conflict to that point.
With the end of the Great War and the subsequent drastic reduction in the size of the Navy, the number of Nurses in the Corps also fell dramatically. Just a year before the outbreak of the Second World War, the number of Nurses was less than 430. By the time the war drew to its conclusion, the Corps size had ballooned astronomically to over 11,000 officers (Regular Navy and Reservists on active duty). They served stateside at 40 Naval hospitals, over 175 dispensaries, and also at six schools for Hospital Corpsmen. On the front lines, they were stationed on a dozen hospital ships and deployed to operational areas across both the Atlantic and Pacific Theater: the Aleutians, Bermuda, New Guinea, Australia, New Guinea, Newfoundland, Africa, the Panama Canal zone, Cuba, the Russell Islands, the Solomons, Hawaii, and England, to name a few.
Women against answered the call of duty when war broke out on the Korean Peninsula in 1950. At the height of the fighting, some 3200-plus Nurses were stationed on three ships stationed off the Korean coast serving as station hospitals. It was not until 1965, during the early days of the Vietnam War, that men were allowed to join the Navy Nurse Corps, and they showed the same compassions and unswerving commitment to helping others that had become the hallmark of the Corps.
Today, men and women alike stand side by side in the Navy Corps, augmenting doctors and Corpsmen to form one of the most effective and skilled medical forces—military or civilian—in the world today.