By Cate Lineberry
Every Memorial Day since I was a child, I’ve thought of my 22-year-old cousin who was killed while bravely serving in Vietnam in May 1969.
I’ve also reflected on the many other courageous men who gave their lives for our country and the more than 150 women who have been killed since 9/11.
Until I started researching my book “The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines,” however, I never knew just how many women had died in the line of duty since they were first allowed to serve with the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901 and the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908.
Though they were not granted any rank within the military, at least 359 military nurses gave their lives during World War I. The first two female nurses to be killed, Edith Ayres and Helen Wood, died on May 20, 1917, when one of their ship’s guns exploded during a practice drill on its way to France. Most of the other nurses who died during the war contracted influenza while caring for patients during the worldwide epidemic.
Because of the contributions of women during the war, the Army granted nurses relative rank in 1920, which allowed them to wear insignia. Despite the risks these women took to serve, however, their pay remained half that of men of equal rank. The Navy did not award nurses relative rank until 1942.
During World War II, more than 500 military women died in service. While illnesses and aircraft or vehicle accidents took the lives of most, 16 were killed by enemy fire, including 6 who lost their lives during enemy bombing in Anzio, Italy, in February 1944. Another 6 nurses, along with five medical officers, were killed in April 1945 when a Japanese suicide plane attacked the hospital ship Comfort while it transported wounded to Okinawa.
Though these women courageously died for their country, it wasn’t until June 1944 that the Army granted nurses temporary commissions, which included full pay and benefits for those serving in grades second lieutenant through major. In 1947 the Army-Navy Nurse Act finally provided permanent commissioned officer status to women in these grades.
The deaths of women serving in the military, of course, weren’t limited to the two world wars.
During the Korean War, seventeen military nurses died. Another 8 women died while serving in Vietnam, with one death from enemy fire, and 16 died during Operation Desert Storm.
All of these numbers only include the women who officially served with the military after 1901. Before that, countless women served as unofficial nurses, cooks, laundresses, and spies, and an unknown number gave their lives.
Jemima Warner was one such woman. She was killed by an enemy bullet during the siege of Quebec on Dec. 11, 1775, while working as a cook for her deceased husband’s Pennsylvania battalion.
At least two of the four hundred or so women disguised as men who fought in the Civil War were killed at Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg.
When the country was overwhelmed by the number of sick soldiers during the Spanish-American war, twenty-one of the 1,400 contract nurses hired to care for these men died from diseases.
Though the total number of women who lost their lives in war is quite small compared to the hundreds of thousands of American men who were killed, their sacrifices were no less.
Now that the Pentagon has lifted the ban on women serving in combat, the number of women dying for this country will no doubt continue to rise in the coming years.
This Memorial Day I pay tribute to all of the brave men—and women—who gave their lives for our country, from its earliest days to today.
Cate Lineberry is author of “The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines.” She has been a staff writer and Europe editor for National Geographic magazine and Web editor for Smithsonian magazine.