Lee's Summit Journal

Lee’s Summit Nurse Corps alums remember their days in 1940s

John Knox Village residents (from left) Melva Steen, OraLee Oleson and Jean New discuss their days in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, which operated from 1943 through 1948.
John Knox Village residents (from left) Melva Steen, OraLee Oleson and Jean New discuss their days in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, which operated from 1943 through 1948. Special to the Journal

Former members of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps got together during in August to discuss their time in the World War II era organization. Some of the subjects they touched on would seem foreign to nurses today: wearing white starched nurses’ uniforms, dealing with war-era supply shortages and feeling grateful for a free education.

Joy Cottrell, Jean New, OraLee Oleson and Melva Steen, all residents of John Knox Village in Lee’s Summit, joined the Corps as young women, earning a subsidy that paid for their nursing program tuition, books and uniforms as well as a small monthly stipend.

The Cadet Nurse Corps formed during World War II to ensure that the United States had enough nurses to care for its citizens at home and its soldiers overseas. Members of the Corps, which operated from 1943 through 1948, pledged to actively serve in essential civilian or federal government services until the end of the war. It was open to female high school graduates in good health from age 17 to 35.

As part of the Corps’ 75th anniversary year, the Lee’s Summit former Corps members were honored at a reception, hosted by the John Knox Village Retired Nurses Group.

“All the hospitals were desperate for nurses during the war,” said Cottrell, age 94. “They’d all gone into service.”

The women agreed that they were grateful to receive the subsidies and participate in the program that condensed the traditional 1940s nursing training from 36 months to 30 months. The monthly stipend, initially around $9 and approaching $30 by the program’s end, was also appreciated.

Steen, age 90, was just 17 when she joined the Cadet Nurse Corps. Despite her father’s reluctance to have his daughter enter the field, she wanted to go into nursing.

“I had my mother ask my father for a $150 check for room, board and tuition for one year,” she said. “When I enrolled, I found out about the government program and I sent his check back.”

Childhood illness as a result of ear-related health issues influenced 91-year-old New to go into medicine and join the Cadet Nurse Corps.

“I’d spent much of my childhood in the hospital,” New said, “and I wanted to be on the other side of the bed.”

Career choices for women were limited in the 1940s, said Oleson, 91. “Back in those days there wasn’t very much available for women except a secretary, a teacher or a nurse.”

When they learned of the Cadet Nurse Corps, Oleson and her parents agreed that it would be a good career opportunity.

Within the program, Cottrell said the student nurses were trained to deal with the medical shortages resulting from the war.

“We even repatched the gloves after they were washed,” Cottrell added. “We would blow them up to check for holes.”

The cadets’ education differed from today’s baccalaureate nursing programs with the Corps training focusing more on hands-on skills and less on medical theory, Steen said.

New added that the student nurses had increased responsibility during the war years due to the staffing shortages among medical professionals.

Away from the hospital, the student nurses lived in dorm-type residences, often with just one small bathroom per wing.

“Our rooms were white-glove inspected,” New said, adding that the cadet nurses also went through a daily uniform inspection.

After graduating from the program, all four of the women served in hospitals stateside, including both civilian and veterans’ facilities. Each of the four went on to successful careers in nursing with several earning additional degrees and teaching in training programs for nurses.

The women shared fond memories from their days in the Corps and their medical careers.

“I enjoyed all of it,” Oleson said, adding that they received a valuable education and were well-prepared for the medical field. “In school, we went through each rotation.”

Cottrell, who completed her training through Trinity Lutheran Hospital in Kansas City, remembered the days without air conditioning in the medical facility as well as an advantage this created for staff and patients.

“At Trinity, we had the windows wide open in the summer,” she said. “Pla-mor Ballroom was near the hospital and you could hear the live music. On night duty, you could waltz with the bedpans.”