Nurses & Volunteers


LIFE Magazine cover, January 1942

During World War II, the image of the nurse had made a stark shift from an angelic aide to persevering, strong woman.  Army, Navy, and flight nurses faced death every day and were constantly required to enforce physical and mental toughness.  In fact, intense training became necessary to survive, in which nurses had to prove their physical fitness amidst harsh and violent climates.

The increased toughness of the nurse, and the harshness of her work environment, was getting little publicity in the United States due to the massive recruiting efforts being made by the government.   In fact, because of this increased harshness, recruiting nurses was a continual problem throughout the war.  There was a large shortage of nurses even before the United States entered the war, and by 1944, the United States needed 66,000 nurses for the military and 300,000 for civilian and volunteer work. 

One of the main reasons for low numbers was the need for women to become registered nurses at their own expense, whereas men were drafted and trained for free.  This led to the proposal of the Bolton Bill, sponsored by Representative Frances Bolton of Ohio, which enacted financial assistance for nursing education; it was passed by Congress in May of 1943, setting a precedent of federal aid for education.  In response, the Red Cross also created an 80-hour course for volunteer aides to give women more confidence in their ability.

During his State of the Union address on January 6th, 1945, President Roosevelt called to amend the Selective Service Act to induct nurses into the Armed Forces since the voluntary system was not providing enough numbers.  Passing this amendment would allow women to be drafted into the war.  A Gallup poll revealed that 78% of people believed there was a shortage of nurses and 73% of them approved of a draft.  With that, the Nurses Selective Service Act was passed by the House in March of 1945, but by May, the war in Europe was over and the impact of the bill had died down, never reaching a Senate vote.


At the height of the United States' involvement in WWII, the country needed nurses more than ever, calling upon both young women to get a nursing education and fight and retired nurses to re-enter the workforce. This article comes before Frances Bolton's bill for federal funding toward nursing education was passed.


At a time when a shortage of nurses was the highest concern for the country's safety and success in WWII, an abundance of aides and volunteers -- nearly 100,00 women -- came forward, unpaid, and performed routine duties in hospitals.