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Picture Perfect Images and Realities of Military Nursing During the World Wars

Class 6: Flesh and Blood: Military Nurses Tell Their Own Stories


The final class considers the realities of nursing in World War II by contemplating how nurses viewed their own experiences through their writings, oral histories, and photographs. Through these sources, the class explores the exciting nature of the profession during the conflict, the everyday activities nurses experienced, as well as the harsh realities and challenges of wartime nursing that did not match glamorous depictions of nurses and nursing in government recruitment materials. Kathi Jackson’s They Called Them Angels surveys the everyday experiences of American military nurses during the war in a narrative form, while incorporating the women’s individual voices. Jackson’s work examines why nurses enlisted, what they thought of uniforms, training, travels, and relationships with men. Conversely, “Military Nurses in Battle” in American Women and World War II by Doris Weatherford and “Save His Life and Find Your Own” in Our Mother’s War by Emily Yellin, relay the difficulties and gruesome experiences nurses faced on the battlefields and their daily hardships. Finally, Judy Barrett Litoff and David Smith’s We’re in This War, Too features a published collection of nurses’ letters from World War II that describe a variety of different experiences, such as discrimination, violence, rough living conditions, witnessing pain, and constant danger. The letters show the range of nurses’ experiences depending upon their race, ethnicity, age, religion, location, length of service, and branch of service.

In addition to the readings, before class students should examine select Additional Online Resources and prepare notes on their observations for the in-class discussion. These resources provide further personal perspectives through women’s diaries, letters, photographs, and oral histories, which allow students to practice evaluating, interpreting, and comparing primary sources. Students should choose one resource to explore from the personal writings section, and one resource from the oral history section in order to widen their perspectives on women’s experiences during the war. Bernice McCormack’s diary discusses her time in West and North Africa with the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) during the conclusion of the Allied North African Campaign. Sammie Rice was one of the first African American members of the ANC to serve abroad during World War II. The letters and personal photographs in the Rice papers relay her experiences serving in Morocco, Liberia, and Northern Africa. The Annie Pozyck papers also contain letters and photographs, in addition to an oral history. Pozyck served in the ANC in the United States, Australia, and the Philippines. The students should listen to one of the oral histories provided: the Prudence Burrell clips, the Isabelle V. Cook clips, or the Dorothy Rhoades clips. Burrell was an African American Lieutenant in the ANC who served abroad in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines during the war. Lieutenant Cook was also stationed abroad with the ANC, but she spent three years traveling in Africa, Italy, and France. Alternatively, Rhoades served as a Commander in the Navy Nurse Corps and stayed in the United States during her term of service. Students should also review the photograph section, which contains personal snapshots from several different military nurses and demonstrates the women’s personal moments, what interested them, and what they wanted to remember.

Class Resources
  • Jackson, Kathi. They Called Them Angels: American Military Nurses of World War II. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing, 2000, Intro. and Chaps. 1, 2, 3, 8, 10, and 11.
  • Litoff, Judy Barrett and David C. Smith. We’re in This War, Too: World War II Letters from American Women in Uniform. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994, Intro. and Chaps. 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6.
  • Weatherford, Doris. American Women and World War II. New York, NY: Facts on File, 1990, Chap. 1.
  • Yellin, Emily. Our Mother’s War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II. New York, NY: Free Press, 2004, Chap. 6.
Additional Online Resources
Discussion Questions
  1. Why did women say they enlisted in the military as nurses? How do their reasons compare to the themes military recruitment materials presented to women? Explain.
  2. How did the nurses see their role in the war? How did the women’s perceptions of their own roles and experiences vary depending on different factors such as their race, class, ethnicity, etc.?
  3. Did the experiences of nurses in the armed forces meet their initial expectations? Were they satisfied with their experiences? Explain.
  4. How are the nurses’ personal photos similar and different from recruitment images? Do you think the recruitment images influenced military nurses’ photos? Explain.
  5. How has comparing nurses’ stories, recruitment materials, and propaganda changed your perception of the past? Elaborate and give examples.
  6. How does listening to a woman tell her story, rather than reading the transcript of an oral history or reading any history book, influence your interpretations, opinions, and feelings about her story and history in general?
  7. Do you think that examining different primary sources to learn about what nurses experienced (i.e. propaganda, oral histories, diaries, or letters) changes how you tell the story of the past? Are all of these sources equally reliable? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each source? What sources would you choose to tell the stories of nurses in World War II?
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