Recalling Their Moment in History: Nursing alumnae remember their service during World War II

Prior to World War II, the United States faced a shortage of qualified nurses both at home and abroad. Entering the war in December 1941 greatly escalated the need for nurses and turned an already desperate situation dire. Nurse availability in United States hospitals and clinics became a significant problem, as did the need for health care professionals in the growing number of war zones where American soldiers were fighting. Bishop Clarkson Memorial School of Nursing students answered the call to serve and help alleviate the nation’s critical need for nursing professionals—ultimately becoming an integral part of U.S. history.

The United States’ response to the shortage was significant and collaborative, and assistance came from many U.S. organizations and government entities. On July 29, 1940, the American Nurses Association formed the Nursing Council on National Defense. Some of the group’s responsibilities included conducting surveys of nursing resources and requesting federal aid to assist with nursing education. In support of these goals, the Office of War Information put forth an extreme effort in 1942 by creating primetime radio advertisements that encouraged young women to join the nursing profession. Individual efforts from politicians, like Ohio Congressional representative and nursing advocate Frances P. Bolton, led to both houses of Congress unanimously passing H.R. 2326 on March 29, 1943. The new bill created and funded a nurses training program that would meet the accelerated need for skilled health care providers.

The program focused on educating and supplying nurses for civilian hospitals, the armed forces and industries that supplied war needs. The Division of Nurse Education was founded to supervise the new program, and it was placed within the United States Public Health Service (USPHS). On June 15, 1943, the program was renamed the United States Cadet Nurse Corps (CNC), and the Surgeon General, Thomas Parran, Jr., named Lucile Petry, RN, as its program director.

Parran established regulations that defined the qualifications allowing individuals to participate in the CNC program. Nurse training schools were evaluated based on the National League of Nursing Education standards, and Parran stipulated that the typical 36-month instruction time should decrease to a 30-month accelerated learning experience. All accredited nursing schools were eligible to join the cause, including Bishop Clarkson Memorial School of Nursing in Omaha, Neb.  

The institution’s participation in the CNC was nearly over before it began. Eugene McAuliffe, a Union Pacific executive and Executive Vice President of Clarkson Hospital, did not initially support the government’s intervention into health care. He believed that enough nursing graduates were already joining the armed services. Ultimately, he and hospital administration left the decision to participate in the CNC up to Superintendent of Nursing Cecelia Meister. Thanks to the strong support from nursing leaders across the country and the high participation rates at many other schools, Meister adopted the program alongside several other Nebraska schools.

Bishop Clarkson Memorial School of Nursing initiated the CNC program in 1945 with great success. Approximately 80 percent of the inaugural class joined the program, and many of those alumnae are now in their mid-90s. One alumna, Ardis Chudomelka Scheffel (’45), spoke fondly about her time in the CNC. She also recalled classmate Erma Johnson Kelly (’45), stating that Kelly would offer more insight into the program.

Kelly heard about the CNC through the news, and the program’s stipend contributed to her enrollment decision. Unlike other enlisted women, her family supported her decision to become a Cadet Nurse because of the experiences the program offered. “We were never told that we were going to have to train or drill,” she said. “We were told that the last six months of our training were to be given to the government, and that we would work in military hospitals.”

The CNC participants were issued two different uniforms: one for summer and one for winter. The summer uniform was comprised of a gray and white-striped suit with a raincoat. Kelly fondly remembers the winter uniform. “It had a gray fitted coat on the top and a skirt for the bottom,” she said. “There was a hat that went with it, but it was hard to wear. A purse was also given, gray, that went over the shoulder.” Both seasonal outfits were topped with a gray beret. The uniforms’ details included intentional design decisions that attracted young women to join the CNC. Kelly appreciated how each uniform included the Maltese Cross, the symbol of Bishop Clarkson Memorial School of Nursing, on its left sleeve. “The Cross was already part of Clarkson Hospital, and we got to wear it on our white uniform when we graduated, although it was not on our blue student uniform,” she said.

Another favorite element Kelly fondly recalled were the unique benefits that came with the Cadet Nurse attire. “You could get into the movies for free when in uniform,” she said. She also noted that the trains were loaded with troops and other travelers at the time making seating difficult but “if you had on your uniform, you were more apt to get a seat.”

When it was time to complete their Cadet Nurse obligation, hospital leadership chose 12 Cadet Nurses to stay in Omaha to work in local hospitals. The remaining Cadet Nurses traveled to Fitzsimmons Hospital in Denver. “I was one who stayed home and was assigned as head of the medical-surgical floor at Clarkson Hospital,” Kelly said. “Interestingly, Patricia Perry was in our class as just another student and did well. She worked alongside us and then went on to achieve so much.”  

Overall, Scheffel and Kelly reflect on their time as Cadet Nurses with appreciation and joy. The unique opportunity allowed young women to serve and seal their place in history as they answered the call to help the United States through a difficult, trying time. When asked if she would volunteer again, Kelly responded with an enthusiastic, “Oh yeah!” Her reply epitomizes the caring spirit and passion all Clarkson College alumni embody and live out today.