Last September, Senator Bruce Tarr presented certificates from the State House to 91-year-old Manchester-by-the-Sea resident Shirley Wilkinson for her service in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps during World War II.
Nine months later, last week, a bill sponsored by Tarr and signed into law by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker proclaimed July 1 of every year as “US Cadet Nurse Corps Day.” The bill will also grant permission for American flags and plaques to be installed at gravesites of these women to honor their service during wartime.
Created by Congress in 1943, the USCNC was successful in halting an impending collapse of the nation’s health system. The country’s supply of nurses was desperately low following World War I and the prospect of World War II further exacerbated the crisis. So, 180,000 young women were recruited, enrolled, and trained by the USCNC to address the shortage.
As part of this program, Wilkinson trained and served at Beverly Hospital, rising quickly to become a department supervisor just one year later, at age 18. (Wasn’t that a bit young? Sen. Tarr asked her. “Not really,” she replied.) At the time, Tarr announced he would seek the legislation that was formalized last week. Tarr said that he and the other representatives who backed the bill wanted to give long-deserved official recognition to Massachusetts nurses who served during the war:
“The State House is our capital building and there are far too few markers or monuments to the impact that women have had on our society. I think it’s important that we change that; many of these surviving veterans are now in their 80’s and 90’s we just can’t thank them enough.”
Dr. Barbara Poremba, Director of the Friends of the United States Cadet Nurse Corps WWII and Professor Emeritus of Nursing at Salem State University, noted that these nurses were members of the US uniformed service and provided 80 percent of all military and civilian nursing care in the nation.
It remains the only WWII corps that has not yet been given veteran status.
“We have made history in Massachusetts. No longer are these women hidden figures. People should know what these young women did when their country needed them most,” said Poremba. “Let this be a springboard for our nation’s nurses.”
The placement of a plaque in Nurses Hall is fitting, said Poremba, noting that 900 uniformed nurses assembled at the State House in 1944 to begin their initiation into the corps. Each swore an oath to serve “for the duration of the war” not knowing when it would end.
The war may have ended soon thereafter, but after nearly 80 years, the end of these women’s invisibility has only just begun.