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Healing the Wounds of War

Featured Photo from Healing the Wounds of War

Meet five fascinating women who served as World War II nurses. These ladies, who are now residing together at Oakmonte Village at Lake Mary, share their rich history during and after the war.

hose who remember World War II are becoming more rare every day. Women who served the war effort are rarer still. To find five of these women all living together in our community is remarkable enough to be considered a national treasure, and just such a treasure exists at Oakmonte Village in Lake Mary.

As the five women, most in their 90s, meet for lunch, Florence Adler emphasizes the importance of the special gathering for Lake Mary Life: “I don’t want people forgetting about the Cadet Nurses of World War II.”

Spanning the country from New York to Missouri, Florence, Fay Cohn, Eileen Rodgers, Claire Kohl, and Juanita Mendez share more than a common address today. They all carry a shared experience of service and life during World War II. Florence, Fay, and Eileen served as Cadet Nurses for America’s soldiers sent home to heal. Claire was deployed as a registered nurse in the Air Force, while Juanita served as an RN in the States.

As the war effort took many of the nation’s healthcare workers overseas during the 1940s, America was faced with a nursing shortage here at home. The young women who stepped up to fill the critical void and care for wounded warfighters were called Cadet Nurses. In exchange for their work and the promise to serve overseas if necessary, the government agreed to subsidize the women’s education, room, and board an arrangement that would help many of these nurses go on to distinguished medical careers.

For some, like Juanita, nursing was a calling, something she always knew she wanted to do. For others, it came about by happenstance.

As a child, Florence wanted to be a dancer, but after slipping on ice and fracturing her tibia, she saw firsthand the value of a nurse. “And that’s what started my nursing career,” Florence says.

Similarly, Fay had alternative plans for herself as a child, but when her brother fell ill with double pneumonia, three private-duty nurses cared for him and inspired Fay to become a nurse herself.

“I knew a long time ago I was going to be a nurse,” she says.

Eileen wanted to go to art school to be an art teacher, but her parents couldn’t afford to send her, so she worked as a nurse’s aide during the summer. And for others, like Claire, nursing provided an escape from her small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania.

No matter the reason, the contribution of each of these women has made intangible impacts on the lives of thousands. And while each nurse had a distinct story to tell, there was one recurring and surprising theme as they recounted their experiences:

Nurses of the time were forbidden to marry or have children while serving.

But that didn’t stop some of them from building their personal lives while on duty. In fact, Florence fondly remembers the countless marriage proposals she received while working in the men’s ward an experience many of the women shared.

During their respective tenures, these Oakmonte residents worked with patients in a wide range of departments, from psychiatry to obstetrics, crossing paths with future lifelong friends, and, in some cases, soon-to-be husbands.

As Fay remembers it, “We used to have dances at the hospital, and I didn’t have a date, but that didn’t stop me from going. When I went down for the dance, an intern at the hospital introduced me to my [now] husband. Three dates later, he proposed.”

 

Likewise, Claire met her husband while serving as a second lieutenant in the Philippines.

“There wasn’t any combat going on [at the time],” Claire recalls. “The patients got the best care because we weren’t overloaded with casualties.” Because of her experience, Claire says she wishes all young girls could serve in the military at some point, adding, “I would be all for a draft!”

In many cases, the hospitals where these women worked became the setting for the most significant milestones in their lives, including their weddings. Florence is proud to share that she had the “most inexpensive” wedding, an intimate service at her hospital’s in-house chapel in New York.

“All my patients came in their wheelchairs, gurneys, crutches, and I didn’t pay a penny,” Florence explains with a reminiscing smile. “I had no money, anyway.” The monthly stipend for a cadet nurse was $20. And, per the industry’s tradition at the time, Florence’s marriage also meant her early (but temporary) retirement from the nursing profession.

Though she had no direct connection with the armed forces or its Cadet Nursing program, Juanita’s experience is in many ways the most militaristic. She worked at a teaching hospital in Jacksonville run by nuns. The nurses there were not allowed to wear jewelry, sport nail polish, socialize around town, or drink alcohol.

“We were almost like nuns ourselves,” Juanita says with a laugh. And yet, the experience exposed her to many different cultures and perspectives as nurses, doctors, and patients traveled to the teaching hospital from across the globe. “Not only were we exposed to medicine, but also our patients’ side of life. And you made a career for yourself [while] you made lasting friends from around the world.”

After marrying and leaving the service by decree many of the women started families and began new lives with their husbands.

“Once married or pregnant, we couldn’t even be in the reserves,” says Claire. “We have come a long way since then.”

One of these nurses, however, found a way to navigate the system and continue her career. After marriage, Eileen’s husband began medical school, so she received special permission from her boss to return to work after being discharged from the Cadet Nurses program for “medical reasons.”

“I got to be a nurse before he got to be a doctor!” jokes Eileen, adding, “[My husband] would go to school in the morning, then would come home and take care of the baby. That’s when I would go to work, and it worked out fine.”

But as the adage goes, when one door closes another opens. At least, that was the experience for Fay. When a fellow cadet nurse left to get married, Fay was made head nurse of the men’s surgical ward at the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis. “I did enjoy taking care of all the cute Jewish men,” Fay grins.

These nurses’ schedules, however, could be unforgiving, with some shifts lasting 16 hours. Florence recalls many times in which she was responsible for 65 to 70 patients per day in a 3,000-bed hospital.

For many of the nurses, their service didn’t stop when the war ended. In fact, many credit the Cadet Nursing program and the military for launching their careers. Eileen went on to work for an obstetrician and a rehabilitation hospital in Ohio, and Florence returned to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in mental health counseling from Empire State University. She wanted to continue into a master’s degree program, but Florence’s husband needed a surgical nurse in his podiatry practice, so Florence worked there for 10 years.

Fay, on the other hand, stayed home to raise her children, but once they were grown, she knew she wanted to return to school for a refresher course. Fay’s husband wasn’t sure about the plan, but after seeing how much good the course did for his wife, he agreed that Fay should work two days per week. Fay’s career is now carried on by her family, which includes three nurses.

Even today, the nurses report that neighbors at Oakmonte still seek their medical advice and expertise, recognizing them as valuable resources long after they have hung up their nursing uniforms.

Perhaps Florence said it best: “Once a nurse, always a nurse.”

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