All but forgotten: Cadet nurses reflect on service during WWII
Elizabeth Yeznach remembers the advertisements seeking women between the ages of 17 and 34 to work in nursing, highlighting the job as a way to be of "immediate, vital service to your country."
"They spent a tremendous amount of money making it known," Yeznach, 92, said during a recent interview in her Gales Ferry home.
She was among the 180,000-plus women who signed up to be part of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, a federal program established to address a nursing shortage on the homefront during World War II. By 1945, they were providing 80 percent of the nursing care in U.S. hospitals.
In 1943, Congresswoman Frances P. Bolton, a Republican from Ohio, introduced a bill to establish a government program to provide grants to nursing schools to train more nurses to serve in military and civilian hospitals, health agencies and war-related industries.
Kathleen Kingsley, 91, of Norwich, intended to become an English teacher but decided to go into nursing when the war broke out during her second year of high school. After graduating high school, she became a cadet nurse and worked at St. Raphael Hospital in New Haven. The three-year training was paid for by the government, and the women were given a monthly stipend.
Throughout the years there've been efforts to recognize cadet nurses as veterans. Yeznach has testified before Congress in support of such efforts. Reasons for the denial have included that cadet nurses were not federal government employees, but rather received federal scholarships and were allowed to resign at any time. Some civilians who participated in World Wars I and II are eligible for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, such as the Women Airforce Service Pilots, known as WASPs.
The 75th anniversary of Cadet Nurse Corps will be celebrated at a ceremony on Nov. 10 at the Waterford Country School.
The women have kept memorabilia from that time — pictures of them in their uniforms, their nurse pins, diplomas. They doubt many today know what they did, or their part in supporting the war effort. They say they weren't ever officially recognized for what they did, nor did they expect to be.
"They forgot about us. We did it because it was our duty, and we willingly did what we had to do," said Emily Wildes, 94, of Groton.
"We weren't out on the front. My life wasn't in danger. We never thought of being veterans," Kingsley said.
Then she got out her cadet nurse membership card, crinkled and worn from age, and began to read the pledge on the back:
"In consideration of the training payments and other benefits that are provided to me as member of the US Cadet Nurse Corps, I agree I will be available for military or other federal governmental or essential civilian services for the duration of the war."
Elizabeth Patterson, 93, of Waterford said the lack of recognition doesn't bother her. "We would've been doing it anyways," she said.
'A lot of responsibility'
Between school and work, the women had little time off. Their training was well rounded. They staffed the hospitals, rotating between various units such as the medical and surgical floors.
"We took care of the whole patient," Yeznach said. "We weren't specialists in any one area."
The majority of their patients were civilians. Yeznach worked at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, where the largest ward comprised eight patients.
"When you went into a room with eight patients, you had all kinds of diagnoses. Some who were orthopedic, others who were medical. You were responsible for the housekeeping of the unit, as well. So when you had a discharge, you cleaned the unit and prepared it for the next patient," she said.
During the day, there were a couple of registered nurses and a head nurse but "by the second or third shift, we were it," Kingsley said, adding there was a hospital supervisor also working during those shifts.
"We had a lot of responsibility. Back then you didn't think much of it. They were training you to do these things and you were well supervised," she said.
They remember the patients
They had to adhere to strict rules. During the first couple of months, when the women were known as "probies," they had a curfew of 9 p.m. and mandatory study periods. After the probationary period, they could stay out until 10 p.m. One of Kingsley's friends from Norwich was attending Yale University at the time and invited her to a dance. She told him what time she would have to be home.
"He couldn't believe it. I didn't go to the dance," she said, laughing.
The medicine and equipment available to them was rudimentary compared to today. Penicillin was just becoming popular. Wildes recalled going to New Haven to receive training on how to use breathing machines to care for patients with polio. She also was trained how to treat patients with communicable diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis. Patterson, who roomed with Wildes, said they used ink pens and pads of paper to do their charting.
Some of the women still remember their patients at the time. Yeznach took care of those injured in the July 6, 1944, Hartford circus fire, one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history. The long-term care required and the severity of the injuries were challenging, but it was also a challenge dealing with their families.
"You needed to offer support for them and explanations of what was happening as best as you could," she said.
Kingsley recalled a young boy, maybe 1 year old, who had a tumor of the kidney, for which there was no cure. His mother would bring him a box of Cheerios. Kingsley still can picture him eating Cheerios in his crib.
"That was a heartbreaker when he died. But we knew it was coming. That's one of the things you have to put up with," she said.
Editor's Note: The class ring pictured with this article belongs to Kathleen Kingsley. That detail was incorrect in an earlier version.
If You Go
What: Ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps
When: 2 p.m. Nov. 10
Where: Waterford Country School
RSVP by Nov. 6 by calling (860) 536-1133.