In early 1944, as World War II stretched into its fifth year, more than 900 nurses passed through the Massachusetts Statehouse.
They were there to be sworn in to the U.S Cadet Nurse Corps, joining almost 125,000 young women from across the country in easing a shortage of nurses stateside and caring for wounded soldiers and seamen returning from the war.
By 1945, cadet nurses were providing 80% of the country's nursing care. Without them, the American hospital system would have collapsed. Yet their service has long been underappreciated and unrecognized.
"The commitment, care and labor of these women, who averaged just 19 years of age, gave life, hope and care to others," said Massachusetts Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr. "They have earned our respect and they deserve our thanks."
The Gloucester Republican was one of the key sponsors behind a push to honor the state's cadet nurses. Earlier this month, those efforts paid off with the passage of a bill designating every July 1 as "United States Cadet Nurse Corps Day" in Massachusetts. The measure also requires the installation of a Statehouse plaque, the first formal recognition of the Corps in a government building anywhere in the country.
It is a fitting honor, especially today, as a new generation of nurses sacrifices mightily to stem the coronavirus pandemic.
"Our recent health crisis makes it much clearer to see and appreciate the contributions that these nurse cadets made during wartime to our state, to the nation and ultimately to the world," Tarr said. "Official recognition to honor these women is long overdue."
It is certainly overdue on the federal level. A bill that would grant honorary veteran status to Corps nurses — now in their 80s and 90s — has languished for years on Capitol Hill. The modest measure provides no financial or health care benefits, nor does it allow for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. It would, however, allow for those who served in the Corps to receive honorary medals and burial benefits. It is the least the nation can do to honor a group of women who volunteered for service in a time of crisis.
"No longer are these women hidden figures," Barbara Poremba, a retired professor of nursing at Salem State University and director of the Friends of the United States Cadet Nurse Corps, said of the Massachusetts volunteers. "People should know what these young women did when their country needed them most."
It's time for Congress to follow the lead of the Massachusetts Legislature and give the Corps its due.