The Many Roles of the American Red Cross During WWII

While researching WWII, I kept seeing the American Red Cross involved in a number of areas so I decided to look at what the organization did during that time. I found so much that it will take more than one post to cover everything.

First, a bit of background. The American Red Cross was founded in 1905 and charged with providing “volunteer aid in time of war to the sick and wounded of the armed forces” and with providing communications between the people and the military. The ARC was also to provide relief from suffering “caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods and other great national calamities.”

That’s a tall order. And it encompasses a wide range of activities. In this first post I’m going focus on some of the Red Cross activities in the medical field.

Red Cross Nurses

The American Red Cross trained and certified nurses for service in the military beginning before the First World War. World War II created a shortage of trained nurses in the United States as civilian nurses joined the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. More were needed as the casualties increased, not only overseas but also in the numerous military hospitals established across the country. On the home front the nurses trained by the Red Cross filled the vacancies caused by military service and took on the medical care of civilians. Also Red Cross Volunteer Nurses Aides and Volunteer Dietitian Aides provided assistance to both military and civilian hospitals. Again, the Red Cross trained these volunteers.

Blood and Plasma

Even before the U.S. entered the war, the American Red Cross began to collect blood and process it into liquid plasma to send to England where the fighting and bombing had created a shortage. Under the direction of Dr. Charles Drew, the African-American blood specialist, that effort succeeded. After that the military asked the Red Cross to set up a Blood Donor Service to collect blood donations and process the blood into dried blood plasma that could be more easily stored and shipped overseas. Dr. Drew headed this up and before the Japanese attack in December 1941 blood donation centers had been set up across the country including a number of mobile units. The dried blood plasma saved many lives on the battlefield and the program served as a model for post-war civilian blood collection.

Gray Lady Corps, Recreation in Hospitals and Additional Supplies to Hospitals

Nurses weren’t the only Red Cross presence in military hospitals. The Gray Ladies were Red Cross volunteers who provided whatever services the wounded men needed. They might play a game of cards or write a letter home, they might run an errand or simply listen to a lonely soldier. The Gray Ladies organized ward parties, set up art exhibits or brought in theatrical performances to hospitals where men were recovering from wounds. The Red Cross set up local councils in the cities where hospitals were located to provide supplies not available through the military. Requests from the hospital went to these local councils who worked with local businesses to provide things like musical instruments, sports equipment, furniture, magazines and newspapers.

In my next novel Kitty’s brother Milton, who was wounded in Normandy, is recovering in a state-side Army hospital where he encounters nurses (many trained by the Red Cross) and Gray Ladies who help him and other soldiers. He also helps with obtaining sports equipment from local businesses for rehabilitating the wounded. In A War Apart after Guy was wounded the medics started an IV before his surgery, most likely from the blood plasma produced by the Red Cross. So you see, my research often included the Red Cross in some way.

My next post will continue with services provided by the Red Cross during World War II.

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French War Brides

Years ago I was researching the idea of writing a novel about a French war bride from World War II. (A war bride is a woman who marries a soldier stationed overseas during a war.) In looking for memoirs I found most were written by English war brides. This made sense since the majority of foreign brides were from Great Britain where American troops were stationed for a number of years. The Americans landed in France in June 1944 so there was less time for the soldiers and the local French women to get to know each other.

I came across a book called “Des Amours de GI’s” by Hilary Kaiser published in 2004. Unfortunately this book was only available in French. I took French in high school and in college so I thought, “How hard could it be to translate this book?” I ordered “Des Amours de GI’s” and, when it came, I got out my French-English dictionary and went to work.

Needless to say, the translation went slowly, very slowly. What kept me going was my fascination with the content. Oral histories of French women who married American men in uniform filled the pages. Some of the stories went back to World War I but most were about relationships from World War II.

Hilary Kaiser did an amazing job interviewing French women who had married American servicemen and immigrated to the United States. Their stories not only involved how the couple met and became romantically involved but also the woman’s journey to the United States and how they settled into American life.

Thankfully, in 2007, Hilary Kaiser’s book was translated into English and made available as “French War Brides in America.” By this time I had translated less than half the French version. I gladly abandoned my translation exercise and read it in English. The same book has since been re-released in English both in paperback and e-book with the title French War Brides: Mademoiselle and the American Soldier.”

I did write a novel about a French girl and an American soldier who fell in love and married. The book has never been published but I still love the story…so maybe…someday…

The First Women in the Military

Today most of us know women who have served in the military and many who served overseas in combat. But how many of us know about the first women in the military? And how many know what our mothers and grandmothers did during WWII? Did they serve in the military? Red Cross? Defense industry? During World War II women’s lives changed. The vital role they played, both as civilians and in the military, impacted the outcome of the war and changed how American women viewed themselves.

Women filled the void left by men who either joined or were drafted into the military after Pearl Harbor. Factories converted to wartime production needed workers so, out of necessity, they hired women. Jobs formerly reserved for men opened up for women. Females worked in factories, hospitals, offices, and farms. And some of them joined the military. Of course, it took an act of Congress to allow women into the armed services, but with strong enemies across the Atlantic and Pacific the U. S. needed to utilize all its resources.

Before 1942 women who supported the military worked as civilians, except for Army Nurses. With Congressional authorization the Navy established the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services) and the Coast Guard SPARS (Semper Paratus – Always Ready) as part of the Department of the Navy. The Army chose to create two “auxiliary” units, the Womens Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and the Womens Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).  These women’s auxiliaries had separate command structures, they were paid less than men, and they had no military benefits like life insurance or veterans medical benefits.  With WAAC’s being sent overseas, the Army recognized the problems and in 1943 the Women’s Army Corps was authorized as an official part of the Regular Army. But the WASP never gained the same status and it was disbanded in December, 1944. Authorization for women in the WAC, WAVES, and SPARS only lasted for the “duration plus six months.” At that time these women’s’ military organizations ceased to exist.

After much political discussion the WAC was reinstated in 1947. Many today may not realize that women remained segregated from the regular Army until 1978. Yes, it was post Vietnam when the separate Women’s Army Corps was abolished and women were integrated into the regular Army.

In the 1940’s many across America opposed women serving in the military. Back then most believed that a woman’s place was in the home. Culturally it was difficult for both men and women to accept. Many female enlistees were accused of being immoral or gay. Some men refused to let their wives, girl friends, daughters or sisters join up. But other families supported and encouraged their young women to do their patriotic duty.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt threw her support behind the women who volunteered to serve. The media used advertising to promote images of  women in uniform and Hollywood made movies depicting beautiful starlets serving in the various branches of the armed forces. Thousands of women answered the call.

What was it like for those first female soldiers? Seeing women in uniform was a new experience for everyone. Young ladies donned newly designed, skirted uniforms, little green sear-sucker fatigue dresses for their rigorous physical training and twill jumpsuits or coveralls for heavier work. Girls left home for the first time and found themselves  living in open barracks with no privacy, not even in the shower. They learned to march in step, keeping the seams of their heavy cotton stockings straight. Long hikes carrying heavy packs toughened the most feminine. Failing inspections drew the dreaded gigs and led to extra hours of KP (Kitchen Police) duty. In basic training male instructors taught them military regulations and procedures until enough women were trained and available to take over. Many specialized training courses took place on college campuses where the military  commandeered both space and teachers. Others trained alongside the men. Unlike modern female soldiers, the WAC’s of WWII were considered non-combatants so they were not trained to shoot or handle weapons.

In researching my latest work-in-progress I read some memoirs that give  fascinating, first- hand accounts of WAC’s wartime experiences. “Call of Duty, A Montana Girl in World War II” by Grace Porter Miller, “Mollie’s War” by Mollie Weinstein Schaffer, and “One Woman’s War, Letters Home from the Women’s Army Corp 1944-1946” by Anne Bosanko Green give three diverse accounts of Army life during the war.

And to answer my other question, my mother did clerical work as a civilian at several military bases as she followed my father from one post to another. My dad and two of his three brothers served in the Army, while the third worked in a defense plant. My mother’s sisters also worked in defense plants. So no WAC’s or WAVES in my immediate family. But my sister’s mother-in-law served in the WAC’s. The woman was quite a character and I wish I had had the opportunity to talk to her about her military service and her experiences during World War II before she died.  The “Greatest Generation,” both men and women, are quickly dying off and they take with them the stories of their service to their country so many years ago.

Today’s female soldiers, as well as all American women who work outside the home, benefit from what these brave women did during World War II. They stepped up and proved that they were capable of doing almost any job. I believe that the women’s movement had its origins in the mothers who, after the war, told their daughters they could do any thing they wanted to do. The women of the Greatest Generation believed it because of what they did in helping to win the war.