Remembering American War Nurses on Memorial Day

Most people in the U.S. view Memorial Day as part of a three-day weekend that kicks off the summer, but it was originally intended as a day to remember those who died in military service. Long before women were officially allowed to become soldiers, they were doing hard jobs in the armed forces and sometimes giving their lives for the cause. Most of them were nurses. Here are just a few of them!


Ellen May Tower of Byron, Michigan volunteered to be a nurse in the Spanish-American War of 1898. She started working in Montauk, NY, where the Army quarantined returning soldiers, including Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Soon the Army transferred her to Puerto Rico, where the camps were short-handed, under-equipped, and not prepared for tropical disease. Tower worked night and day for almost three months before contracting typhoid fever, which claimed her life. More than 1500 women worked as nurses in the Spanish American War, and at least twenty-two died of disease. Tower was the first woman to receive a military funeral in her own state.


In World War One, the U.S. Navy was undermanned, and the vague language of the Naval Act of 1916 didn’t stipulate that volunteers needed to be male. Newly enlisted women, including some African Americans, became not only nurses, but also radio operators, couriers, mechanics, truck drivers, cryptographers, and yeomen. Navy nurses worked long hours dealing with horrible injuries while living in cramped conditions with water shortages. Hundreds of them died of Spanish flu, including Hannah Lora Burden from Indiana.

This was before women were allowed to vote in the United States. Women’s work and sacrifices in WWI helped push the nineteenth amendment through. President Woodrow Wilson said to the Senate: “…Are we alone to ask and take the utmost that our women can give, service and sacrifice of every kind, and still say we do not see what title that gives them to stand by our sides in the guidance of the affairs of their nations and ours? We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”


2nd Lieutenant Ellen Ainsworth, from Wisconsin, was a surgical nurse in World War II. When a shell hit the hospital in Anzio, Italy, while she was on duty, she stayed calm and moved patients to safety. The official Army report read: “…by her disregard for her own safety and her calm assurance she instilled confidence in her assistants and her patients, thereby preventing serious panic and injury. Her courage under fire and her selfless devotion to duty were an inspiration to all who witnessed her actions.” She died of wounds six days later, at the age of 26. The Army awarded her both the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.



Captain Mary Therese Klinker served as a flight nurse in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. She was looking after a few hundred Vietnamese orphans on a plane that crashed near Saigon. After the initial impact, witnesses saw Klinker run to administer CPR to another passenger. She died in a subsequent explosion, though the crash had many survivors. Klinker was 27.



In the U.S., most people respect those in the armed forces and their families, even if they fight in unpopular wars. I especially respect women who served as nurses. They probably weren’t raised to think they should be brave and heroic, nobody would have objected to their staying home, and they signed up for terrible jobs anyway because they knew they could make a difference.

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

5 replies on “Remembering American War Nurses on Memorial Day”

Very interesting. Two other women in the US military I’ve found while reading about:

Dr Mary Edwards Walker:

she volunteered with the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War and served as a female surgeon. She was captured by Confederate forces after crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians and arrested as a spy. She was sent as a prisoner of war to Richmond, Virginia until released in a prisoner exchange.

After the war she was approved for the United States military’s highest decoration for bravery, the Medal of Honor, for her efforts during the war. She is the only woman to receive the medal and one of only eight civilians to receive it. Her medal was later rescinded based on an Army determination and then restored in 1977. After the war she was a writer and lecturer supporting the women’s suffrage movement until her death in 1919.

And Dr Anita Newcomb McGee:

McGee’s organizing ability led to her appointment as the only woman Acting Assistant Surgeon in the United States Army on August 29, 1898, and she was placed in charge of the Army’s nurses under the Army Surgeon General’s Department. After this brief war ended, McGee pursued the establishment of a permanent nursing corps, which became a reality with the Army Nurse Corps, after passage of the Army Reorganization Act legislation, which she helped draft. In 1900 she left her position with the Army, but continued leading the Society of Spanish-American War Nurses, a group she had founded in 1898.

With the threat of war between Russia and Japan looming, McGee led a group of nine volunteer nurses to Japan in 1904, establishing a field hospital for the Imperial Japanese Army.

Dr. McGee’s son died in infancy of meningitis, and as he was dying she wrote to the leading brain researchers at the time, offering his brain as a research specimen. Her letters about this are currently on display in the Wellcome Institute in London.

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