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Nurses in the Korean War: New Roles for a Traditional Profession

Women's History Month Feature Article

Although the Korean War is not as well known among Americans as World War II or even Vietnam, it ranks as one of the bloodiest chapters in American military history.  Many of the 102,000 men wounded in the “Forgotten Victory” owe their survival to the brave, highly skilled nurses who risked their lives to bring emergency medicine closer to the battlefield than ever before.  Whether they served in the MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units, on the hospital ships in the hostile waters surrounding Korea, or as flight nurses on evacuation aircraft, these women were vital to the war effort.

As the nation commemorates the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended formal hostilities on the Korean peninsula, we pause to remember the critical role of women in the Korean War.  Just two years before the North Koreans invaded South Korea, on June 12, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Public Law 625 which opened the door for women who wanted to serve their country in peacetime, establishing a permanent place for women in all branches of the military, primarily in nursing and non-professional jobs. 

"When President Truman ordered troops into South Korea, within a few days the Army Nurse Corps was also there. When General MacArthur landed at Inchon, Army Nurse Corps officers also went ashore on the very same day of the invasion."

Women’s integration into the Armed Forces had grown during World War II when there were shortages of qualified males.  From the earliest days of World War II, they had contributed at all levels.  They had been POWs; they had been wounded; they flew planes, planned strategies, nursed the casualties and died for their country.  The basic training regimen for women during World War II included full-kit (i.e., four-pound helmets, combat boots, 30-pound packs, mess kit and gas mask), 20-mile hikes, poison gas and lethal chemical identification; small arms training, and basic combat survival skills, such as navigating obstacle courses under enemy fire, digging fox holes, and dismantling or detonating incendiary devices.  This rigorous training prepared them to serve in a myriad of roles, ranging from airplane pilots and mechanics, to control tower operators, truck drivers, aerial gunnery teachers, logistics chiefs, cryptographers and intelligence officers.  After World War II the country shifted its focus from war to peacetime and the military began to downsize.  At the same time, societal norms governing the role of women reverted to pre-War attitudes.  This role-reversal was not lost on the military which implemented policies that channeled women into non-professional positions and subjected them to classes in etiquette and make-up. 

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, there were just 22,000 women in uniform.  The military rushed to draft, call up and recruit needed manpower.  When these efforts came up short, the services asked American women to leave their homes and jobs and families and serve their country in its time of need…just as in previous wars.  This time, however, they were steered into clerical and administrative positions, so-called “pink-collar” jobs:  All that is, except the nurses.

When President Truman ordered troops into South Korea, within a few days the Army Nurse Corps was also there.  When General MacArthur landed at Inchon, Army Nurse Corps officers also went ashore on the very same day of the invasion.  The 13 Army nurses of the 1st MASH and those of the 4th Field Hospital made the landing and by the end of 1950 over 200 Army Nurse Corps officers were in Korea.

One of these brave nurses was Anna Mae Hays.  Commissioned in the Army Nurse Corps in 1942, she served in a hospital unit during World War II. When War broke out in Korea, she mobilized with the 4th Field Hospital in 1950 and participated in the Inchon Landing.  The hospital unit cared for more than 25,000 patients during the next 10 months, one night receiving 700 wounded men.  On June 11, 1970, she because the first woman in military history to attain general officer rank.   On March 12, 2013 she was inducted into the U.S. Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame

Captain Lillian Kinkela Keil, a member of the Air Force Nurse Corps and one of the most decorated women in the US military, was another who served her country in a nurse’s uniform.   She flew over 200 air evacuation missions during WW II as well as 25 trans-Atlantic crossings.  She returned to civilian flying after the war, but when the Korean War broke out she re-enlisted and flew several hundred more missions as a flight nurse.   

Anna Mae Hays and Lillian Kinkela Keil are just two of the thousands of military nurses who were on active duty when the Korean War ended on July 27, 1953.  More than 700 Army nurses served in the MASH units; more than 4,000 Navy nurses served on hospital ships; dozens of Air Force nurses served on MEDEVAC aircraft.  Seventeen military nurses died during the Korean War, mostly from aircraft crashes.   

In this Women’s History Month, the Department of Defense 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee honors the heroism of nurses who put the well-being of the wounded above their own safety, whether on the battlefield, on hospital ships or in evacuation aircraft, saving thousands of lives that might otherwise have been lost; and we say “thank you” to the thousands of nurses who served in hospitals in Japan where the wounded were taken for treatment.  In their own way, all of these nurses set a new standard for what had been a traditional profession.

For more information, see Women in the Armed Services

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