Four Questions for Jo-Ann Power
"The women who joined the Corps during WWI were heroines we must continually honor"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
The WW1CC website is full of interesting pages, and incredible resources. As part of our series on what you can find there, we caught up with Jo-Ann Power, who created and curates a special page devoted entirely to the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in World War I. Jo-Ann is author of more than 60 novels, dozens of newspaper and magazine articles plus non-fiction, and she has won awards and acclaim during her decades’ old writing career. During the 1980s, she became interested in the thousands of women who volunteered to join the Army Nurse Corps. Few Americans had ever heard of them, but Jo-Ann found many primary resources at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. Believing these brave women deserved wider recognition, Jo-Ann spent weeks examining boxes crammed with unannotated photographs, tattered letters and old microfilms of newspaper articles. She turned that research into a novel, HEROIC MEASURES, which was published in 2013 (info here http://amzn.to/2i9r9ms). She also turned her vast knowledge into the amazing web page we have today. Today's Army Nurse Corps was created during the war, and their history is truly remarkable. Jo-Ann brings this story to life through a number of unique and innovative storytelling features.
Tell us about the US Army Nurse Corps web page on the WW1CC website. Where is it found? What will people see when they go there? Who manages it?
The Army Nurse Corps section of the WW1CC website is devoted to honoring those 22,000+ American women who volunteered to aid wounded, ill and dying soldiers during the Great War.
I am the curator for this section, a result of my decades of interest in the Corps and the fact that I volunteered early in 2013 to tell the story of these heroic women. Although I am not a nurse, I became interested in these brave women when I read about them in a brief article in early 1980s. I'd never heard of them, and I have found over the decades, that few other Americans have either! I am a novelist by profession, publishing more than 50 novels since 1991. Knowing that more people learn history by reading novels than reading history books, I thought the story of these nurses would make a marvelously heroic tale. (Please see: http://www.joannpower.com)
In the 1980s, I lived and worked in Washington D.C. and had worked with the staff of the National Archives and the Library of Congress to write my master's thesis. Taking the subway down to the Archives or the LOC, I asked the archivists to give me their records of WWI nurses and medical care.
What was delivered to me still makes me gasp: I was given cardboard boxes in which the archivists had literally dumped, willy nilly, letters, photos, newspaper clippings and odd bits such as postcards or hospital notes. I pieced these items together to get a "picture" of these women's existences. I also went to Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania where I received from those archivists the same uncategorized records.
Working in the past few years with historians at Fort Sam Houston Army Medical Museum in San Antonio and traveling to Cantigny Illinois to the First Division Museum there, I know that now the records of this period are not only well-preserved, but also more have been added.
I have also been to France where, with the devoted assistance of my husband Steve, we have traced the front lines of our AEF forces and marveled at their bravery and their tenacity. Those trips to France have also imbued me with a finer admiration for the women who followed the lines and cared for those who needed their expertise to survive the Spanish flu, gas attacks, machine gun fire, flares, fires and bombs.
The direct link to read about the Corps is: Army Nurse Corps Home - World War I Centennial.
The Army Nurse Corps has an incredible story! Tell us about the early history -- how did it get started, how big was it, who led it, what was their role, how were they accepted.
The Army Nurse Corps was started during the Spanish-American War, but was understaffed when Congress declared war on the Allies in April 1917. The challenge of the Surgeon General was to build the medical staff (doctors, nurses, dentists) to the size that might easily care for wounded soldiers.
General Pershing demanded the Government recruit a fighting force consisting of at least 1 million men initially and a total of 2 million by the second year of the war. Estimating the numbers of casualties from that size army and from the experience of the British and French armies, Pershing asked for a medical corps capable of caring for ten of thousands of soldiers.
To create that medical corps, hospital staffs in major American cities were asked to volunteer for overseas duty en masse. They would be grouped together for service abroad, benefitting from their previous knowledge of each other personally and professionally. Each hospital unit would be given a number and for the most part, would serve together abroad in the same unit for the duration of the war. Doctors could volunteer as officers.
Nurses volunteered together as a unit too. However, they held no rank, had no authority over others (including orderlies in their wards) and received half what an Army private made in salary. All volunteered for the duration of the war, no matter how long that would ultimately be.
All nurses went to Boot Camp, received uniforms, shoes, raincoats and boots. They sailed out of American harbors on refitted merchant marine ships or formerly captured German ships. Venturing into the Atlantic Ocean in the dead of night, without lights from shore or on ship, these brave women knew their vessels were hunted by German U-boats across the Atlantic to Europe.
Once in France, they disembarked taking rickety trains from St. Nazaire to the northeast where they lived in wooden barracks often without heat or running water. They washed their own clothes. (See the picture of them doing their laundry.) And often, they washed their hair in their own helmets! Women accepted for the Corps were ages 21 and above, and unmarried. None died in combat. Many died from disease and a few from accidents.
Your web page is interactive, and you ask for crowd-sourced help in telling the Nurse Corps story. What can people do to help out?
As you can see in the section called NURSES WE REMEMBER, I invite the American public to send me their biographies, photos and memorabilia about the women who served in the Corps during the war.
To have your ANC family member or friend on this site, please send your information including jpegs of photos and pertinent letters, to me at: [email protected]
I will happily post them for all of us to honor these brave women.
What do you want people to remember as they learn the story of the Army Nurse Corps in World War I? What connections & relevance does it have with today?
Too often we tell the story of wars focusing on battles won and lost. We focus on soldiers and casualty numbers. But we forget that women contributed greatly to the war efforts, not only at home but also abroad.
The women who volunteered in 1917 and 1918 were extraordinarily brave and very unique. In that era, most American women were not employed in professional capacities. Most had not ventured beyond their garden gates, or their home towns. Few had traveled abroad. Fewer still would consider going to a country where they did not speak the language and where they might suffer from cold, disease, despair and bombs.
The women who joined the Corps during this first world war were heroines we must continually honor for their spirit, their vigor, their dedication to serving the sick and dying and for their patriotism equal to the men they saved from disease, disability and death.