Posted in History, My Novels, Research, WWII

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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