The Army’s First Black Nurses Were Relegated to Caring for Nazi Prisoners of War
Prohibited from treating white GIs, the women felt betrayed by the country they sought to serve
Elinor [Powell], like many other black nurses in the Army Nurse Corps, was tasked with caring for German POWs—men who represented Hitler’s racist regime of white supremacy. Though their presence is rarely discussed in American history, from 1942 to 1946, there were 371,683 German POWs scattered across the country in more than 600 camps. Some POWs remained until 1948.
For black nurses, the assignment to take care of German POWs—to tend to Nazis—was deeply unwelcome. To the African-American women who had endured the arduous process of being admitted into the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, this assignment felt like a betrayal. They volunteered to serve to help wounded American soldiers, not the enemy.
But with morale among black army nurses reaching record lows, the NACGN (National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses) approached First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for help, given her commitment to equal rights. And the meeting was a success.
In the final year of the war, black nurses were no longer assigned exclusively to POW camps. After a few months they were transferred to army hospitals for wounded American soldiers.
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