In another rendition of History: What They Don’t Teach You In School, we look at World War II, the Army Nurse Corps, and Americans being super nice to Nazis since forever. 

A quick recap: The Second World War saw the rise of fascism meet the rise of its anti (sort of), and while the United States took its sweet time getting involved, Pearl Harbor changed all of that. U.S. soldiers were soon shipped out to fight Hitler and his cronies, and German prisoners of war were shipped in and detained at 600 camps across the country. It’s estimated that there were more than 371,000 German POWs in the States between 1942 and 1946. But while American soldiers were fighting racist Nazis overseas, Black nurses in the US Army were fighting racism at home. 

(This would usually be the place where we’d insert a nice big image of said Black nurses serving in the POW camps, but, goshdarnit, there just doesn’t seem to be many of those for some reason.)

Let’s back up a bit. During WWI, Black nurses were rejected by the Army Nurse Corps because they didn’t have the required membership from the American Nurses Association who didn’t allow Black people to join at the time. By WWII, less than a hundred nurses were finally allowed in -- thanks to a lot of pressure from civil rights groups -- only to end up at segregated Army bases where they were not allowed to treat white GIs. Top that off with the allegations that there was too much fraternizing going on between the white American nurses and the German POWs, and guess what the military decided to do here.

U.S. National Archives

We fixed it for accuracy.

It would probably come to no one’s surprise that the German prisoners were treated better than the Black nurses assigned to take care of them. These POWs themselves were shocked to learn about the racial hierarchy in America and presumably started chanting “One of us!” every time a white guard or officer addressed them. Because the white people sure were friendly toward them while they were being served by Black people calling them “Sir” and taking care of their boo-boos.

As the war escalated and thousands of injured U.S. soldiers started coming back home, the government urgently called for more nurses to join the Army Nurse Corps. There were almost 10,000 applications from Black nurses who wanted to join, but no. The U.S. wanted white nurses to care for their boys exclusively. Yes, Roosevelt and many, many Americans would rather have let their soldiers die from injuries than assign Black nurses to help save their lives. This is usually where we’d add a joke of some sort, but … *sigh*.

It was only in the final year of the war that the government gave in and allowed Black nurses to leave the POW camps and attend to U.S. soldiers in Army hospitals because America sure loves dragging its feet with progress. Still, there were only 500 Black nurses serving in the Army Nurse Corps by the end of the war, alongside 40,000 white nurses. Yay for (micro)change.

Follow Zanandi on Twitter.

Top Image: Chris Albert/Smithsonian Magazine

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