The push to recognize the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps as veterans

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Marge Batey

It was June 1944, the country was at war, and Marge Batey was gradu­ating from St. Patrick’s Academy in Sidney, Nebraska. The boys from her high school class were heading into the military, off to the battle­fields of World War II. Batey was heading to the Sacred Heart School of Nursing in Spokane.

It was part of your patri­o­tism,” Batey says. The guys went off to the army, and we went off to nursing. I enrolled in the school of nursing two weeks after I gradu­ated from high school, and that’s the way the guys enrolled in the army.”

Batey, now 93, was able to join the ranks of nurses thanks to the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, a program created in 1943 to address a critical shortage of nurses. With the high demand for medical personnel to care for soldiers overseas, civilian hospi­tals were closing wards, and sick people all over the U.S. couldn’t get the care they needed. About 17,000 nursing positions in civilian hospi­tals were vacant, according to the U.S. Public Health Service.

Credit: Providence Archives, Seattle

Batey was one of about 120,000 women — nurses were all women in those days — who received accel­er­ated nursing training during the five years the Cadet Nurse Corps existed. The federal govern­ment provided schol­ar­ships and finan­cial support for the student nurses in exchange for a pledge to serve the country as nurses for the duration of the war. By 1945, Cadet Nurses were providing 80% of the nursing care in U.S. hospitals.

It was a monumental effort — one that the American Hospital Associ­a­tion later credited with helping to prevent the collapse of civilian nursing care. But veterans of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps have never been recog­nized for their service to the country. The cadet nurses remain the only uniformed corps members from World War II not to be recog­nized as veterans.

With the youngest of these nurses in their late 80s, there is a sense of urgency. The American Nurses Associ­a­tion has joined 53 other national organi­za­tions in calling on Congress to recog­nize the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, stating that, As the average age of these nurses increases, it is imper­a­tive that we recog­nize these brave women before it is too late.”

Bills to recog­nize Cadet Nurses have been intro­duced in the past, but none have passed. This year, the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps Service Recog­ni­tion Act was again intro­duced in Congress and this summer was added as an amend­ment to the National Defense Autho­riza­tion Act in the U.S. House of Repre­sen­ta­tives, with a unani­mous vote. The amend­ment would provide honorary veteran status to former Cadet Nurses, including an honor­able discharge, medal privi­leges and burial benefits for cemeteries admin­is­tered under the U.S. Depart­ment of Veterans Affairs. Excluded are pension, health benefits, or other privi­leges afforded to former active duty service members, including burial privi­leges in Arlington National Cemetery.

Nursing groups like the ANA are hopeful that as an amend­ment to a critical piece of legis­la­tion, Cadet Nurses will finally get recog­ni­tion for their role in the war effort.

Cadet Nurse Corps recruitment poster

The U.S. Surgeon General during World War II, Thomas Parran Jr., told the U.S. House Committee on Military Affairs in 1945 that we cannot measure what the loss to the country would have been if civilian nursing service had collapsed, any more than we could measure the cost of failure on the Normandy beachheads.”

Presi­dent Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Nurse Training Act, also known as the Bolton Act after Repre­sen­ta­tive Frances P. Bolton of Ohio, in July 1943. Creation of the Cadet Nurse Corps was consid­ered essen­tial not only because the service needed more nurses but also because compe­ti­tion was fierce. With so many men overseas, women were filling better-paying jobs in war indus­tries, which were also short on workers.

The country’s nursing shortage must be attacked as a produc­tion problem. As essen­tial to the war as are planes, guns, and ships, the nurse is a guardian of the national health and the welfare of our fighting men,” wrote Lucile Petry, RN, director of the U.S. Public Health Service’s Division of Nurse Educa­tion, in the November 1943 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

A broad recruit­ment campaign included posters, newsreels, newspaper and magazine adver­tising, and radio announce­ments telling nurses they could get a free profes­sional educa­tion with a future.”

At that time, most of the nursing educa­tion in the U.S. was provided by hospital schools. To partic­i­pate in the Cadet Nurse Corps, the schools had to be accred­ited and had to conform to minimum standards. Ultimately, 1,125 of the nation’s 1,300 nursing schools signed up to partic­i­pate. The U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps was also the nation’s first integrated uniformed U.S. service corps, with a non-discrim­i­na­tion clause written in the act that created it.

Batey arrived in Spokane two weeks after her high school gradu­a­tion, with a sense of patri­o­tism and grati­tude for the oppor­tu­nity the Cadet Nurse Corps gave her; without the finan­cial support, she simply couldn’t afford to go to nursing school.

We had limited means,” Batey says. We didn’t have the finances for me to go to school.”

In June 1943, the Sacred Heart School of Nursing had organized a Step-Up Victory Program” in affil­i­a­tion with Gonzaga Univer­sity. St. Luke’s and Deaconess’ schools of nursing had joined the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps program as well, and by May of the following year, 379 women from the three schools had been inducted into the corps.

Credit: Providence Archives, Seattle.

At their induc­tion, Batey and the other nurses raised their right hands and pledged: I will keep my body strong, my mind alert, and my heart stead­fast; I will be kind, tolerant, and under­standing. Above all, I will dedicate myself now and forever to the triumph of life over death. As a Cadet Nurse, I pledge to my country my service in essen­tial nursing for the duration of the war.”

Batey eventu­ally moved into the Nurse’s Home” in an old clinic building on the Sacred Heart campus. The home housed 75 students, with a stern house mother named Mrs. O’Reilly and a swimming pool out back. You were completely immersed in what you were doing,” Batey says. You lived there, you worked there, you ate there, you played there.”

The Cadet Nurses received an accel­er­ated course of training — 30 months instead of the customary 36 — to graduate nurses more quickly. Most impor­tantly, the federal govern­ment covered the costs of tuition, room and board, a monthly stipend and U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps uniforms — smart, gray numbers with silver buttons, the Cadet Nurse Corps insignia on the sleeve, and a matching beret with the insignia of the Public Health Service.

By September 1945, nearly 85% of the nursing students in the country were Cadet Nurses.

The U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps continued support for nursing students after the war, shutting down in 1948. Ultimately, nearly 120,000 nurses served honor­ably, providing health care for service members and civil­ians during World War II. Nursing educa­tion changed because of the training standards and courses of study required by the Cadet Nurse Corp. With the ongoing shortage of medical personnel, Cadet Nurses worked at a higher level than before the war and demon­strated that they were well capable of taking on additional responsibilities.

“We provided a service that was very much essential. It wasn’t just nice — it was essential.”
— Marge Batey

Batey went on to have a distin­guished career in nursing. In her final months of nursing training, she was placed at Eastern State Hospital, and Batey went on to serve as a psychi­atric nurse with the Veteran’s Admin­is­tra­tion, and to get her bachelor’s degree, a master’s in psychi­atric nursing and a doctorate in sociology. For the last 37 years of her career, she was a member of the faculty at the Univer­sity of Washington School of Nursing where, among many other things, she set up the school’s Office for Research Facil­i­ta­tion. She was inducted into the WSNA Hall of Fame in 2004.

My profes­sional career would not have been possible without the Cadet Nurse Corps,” Batey says. For me person­ally, it opened a door.”

Batey had hoped the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps Service Recog­ni­tion Act would pass in 2018, the 75th anniver­sary of the Corps’ creation. She now holds out hope that the Cadet Nurses will this year get the recog­ni­tion they have long been waiting for.

It has no money attached to it — all it has, is recog­ni­tion,” Batey says. We provided a service that was very much essen­tial. It wasn’t just nice — it was essential.”