When the Nation Needs Them, Nurses Answer the Call
The lack of nurses during World War II led to a massive advertising campaign, an abbreviated path to become a Registered Nurse (RN), and federal funding to cover tuition. About 120,000 women, including many from Maine, stepped up to fill the nation’s nursing needs, and went on to have long careers well after the war ended.
In the book she co-authored, Maine Nursing: Interviews and History on Caring and Competence (2016), writer Juliana L’Heureux, BS, MHSA, RN, along with co-authors Valerie Hart, Susan Henderson and Ann Sossong, report the extraordinary efforts the government took to launch the US Cadet Nurse Corps. By the end of the 1930s, America had become acutely aware of the war in Europe. Hitler’s invasion of Poland increased the possibility that the United States might become involved. The nursing profession rallied to the call for an adequate supply of nurses. Major nursing organizations, the Red Cross, and the nursing units of the federal government met, and the Nursing Council on National Defense was born.
This group later became known as the Nursing Council for War Service (NCWS). The organization’s mission was the recruitment of nurses for a war and of students for schools of nursing. NCWS depended on state nursing associations to accurately count graduate nurses in the country. In 1941, that number was almost 290,000. Of those, 173,000 were actively practicing and 100,000 would be eligible for military service.
The organization aimed to raise enrollments to schools of nursing by 50,000 to 65,000 recruits, which proved to be difficult. War work paid well, while nursing schools had a reputation of providing hard work and low pay. Nursing had an image problem.
The US Cadet Nurse Corps was created in July 1943. As Maine Nursing: Interviews and History on Caring and Competence details, there was “a massive effort involving cinema, radio, and magazines” to promote the corps. More than 300 national radio programs broadcasted information about the corps. The corporate world contributed by featuring cadet nurses in ads for Eastman Kodak, Pond’s Cold Cream, Kotex, Pepsi-Cola, Old Spice, Sanka Coffee, and the National Biscuit Company. The Office of War Information distributed several million leaflets and 2.8 million cards to towns and cities nationwide.
Thousands of department stores, post offices, pharmacies, hospitals, and schools prominently displayed Cadet Nurse Corps posters. Articles and ads appeared in popular magazines of the day, including Collier’s, Harper’s Bazaar, Ladies’ Home Journal, Vogue, and hundreds of other smaller-market publications.
In 1944, Vanguard Films produced a 10-minute film, Reward Unlimited, starring Dorothy McGuire as Cadet Peggy Adams. The film was distributed to 1,600 theaters where it was viewed by an estimated 90 million people. Actresses in cadet uniforms were featured in other films, as well, including Lady on a Train, The Blonde from Brooklyn, and Shirley Temple’s Kiss and Tell, all of which came out in 1945.
As an added incentive, the Cadet Nurse Corps had no tuition or uniform fees and paid a stipend to cadets. The usual three-year program was also accelerated to only 30 months, with student agreeing to either join the military or work as nurses upon graduation.
Maine gained nurses through the Cadet Nurse Corps
One such student was Eleanor Sargent, born in April 28, 1925, in Millinocket, who describes in the book how she became a cadet nurse. After graduating from high school in 1943, Eleanor worked as “a domestic for a lovely family in Bangor.” Next door lived a doctor, the hospital director of Eastern Maine General Hospital, who asked if Eleanor would like to become a nurse. “I told him I would love to but that we were very poor and couldn’t afford it. That is when he told me that the army had started the Cadet Nurse program, and he could get me in it.”
Eleanor went to work at Milliken Memorial Hospital, in Island Falls. Just before she turned 40, the school of anesthesia was launched at EMMC. Eleanor graduated with a certified registered nurse anesthetist degree, which she said, “changed my life completely. I have worked all over the USA. I am licensed in 18 states. I worked as a medical missionary with Feed the Children from 1985 to 2003.”
Laurie Lachance, who served as the first woman Maine State Economist with Governors John R. McKernan Jr., Angus King, and John Baldacci, and who is now the first woman president of Thomas College, as well as serving on Maine’s Economic Recovery Committee, was raised by a member of the US Cadet Nurse Corps.
Her father, a WWII veteran, was managing a store in Patten, Laurie said, “which is where he met my mom,” Mattie (Violette) Gagnon. “She was a cadet nurse. As soon as her training was finished, they sent her to the Bronx to work in a VA hospital, which freed up another, more experienced nurse to go to war.”
Mattie put her RN training to good use after the war, as well. She took nursing jobs that allowed her to be home with the children when they were young, even if that meant working evening shifts.
“Her favorite job was the one she had from when I was in the 7th grade on,” Laurie recalled. “She became the school nurse for the district.” Mattie became active in the Maine Association of School Nurses, eventually serving as statewide president. She was also elected into Delta Kappa Gamma, an international society for key women educators. “She became a leader,” Laurie said. “I had never thought of her in that way until later when I started reflecting on what she accomplished.”
In Maine, there seem to be two degrees of separation, rather than six. As Laurie got to know her college board members, she discovered that one of them, Ken Viens, had a mother trained in the Cadet Nurse Corps, as well.
“Mom’s name was Ruth Yandow Viens, and she trained at Fanny Allen Hospital in Colchester, Vermont,” Ken said. “It was a Catholic hospital, and the ‘girls’ and the nuns were very close.”
Ruth, her husband, and their three children moved to Waterville in 1969. Denise McGuan, Ken’s sister, recalled, “She worked in obstetrics and nursery until she had my brother, Ken. [But], she did tell about her training days and how strict the schooling (and life sleeping in one big dorm room) was for all the girls in training.”
“Friday night was your night off, and if things went poorly during the week, you were not allowed to go out Friday night,” Denise said. “Every morning before Mass, they were reviewed in uniform, and everything had to be starched and in perfect order or you were sent back to your room.”
“These women that trained with my mom were her lifelong, closest of friends,” she said. “When my mom would meet other women who were cadet nurses, it was like they were all part of a special group. For over 60 years my mom returned to a class reunion. There were eight women left 10 years ago in her group. I know of only one now.”
“Mom died this past November 11at age 94, just a couple of days after her birthday,” said Ken. “I am not sure, but she might have been about the last of her cohort.”
Honoring those who served
The Cadet Nurse Corps remain the only uniformed corps members from WWII not to be recognized as veterans. In 2019, US Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Angus King (I-Maine), and Steve Daines (R-Montana) re-introduced the US Cadet Nurse Corps Service Recognition Act, a bill to honor women who served in the US Cadet Nurse Corps during WWII with honorary veteran status. The bill has been submitted to the Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs.
The act would provide Cadet Nurses with veteran status with an honorable discharge from service where merited and with limited burial benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. It would permit the Secretary of Defense to provide honorably discharged Cadet Nurses with a service medal. The legislation would not provide Cadet Nurses with VA pensions, healthcare benefits, or other privileges afforded to former active-duty service members.
“From hospitals to military bases overseas, nurses work on the front lines of patient care and serve as critically important advocates for patients and their families,” said Senators Collins and King in a joint statement. “The US Cadet Nurse Corps played an important role in WWII, addressing a critical shortage of nurses during the war and providing women with an expedited nursing education in exchange for their healthcare services. US Cadet Nurses worked tirelessly to keep America’s healthcare system strong, and many went on to work in military hospitals caring for our injured troops. We encourage our colleagues to join us in honoring US Cadet Nurses by supporting this meaningful bill.”
“They were trained to give the best of themselves and believed their work was a vocation, not a profession.”
A resolution, introduced by Sen. King on Dec. 19, 2018, to recognize the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the US Cadet Nurse Corps and express the appreciation of the Senate for the contribution of the members of the corps during WWII was passed by unanimous consent.
“They certainly deserved recognition for their service to the country,” said Ken.
“What these women learned, they carried with them their whole life,” added Denise. “They were trained to give the best of themselves and believed their work was a vocation, not a profession.”
For more information about Maine Nursing: Interviews and History on Caring and Competence, visit Amazon.com or contact the co-author at Juliana@Mainewriter.com.