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Red Cross Nurses


On this date in 1914, war had just erupted throughout Europe. North Dakotans were just as eager as the rest of the country to stay out of the conflict, but when the US made the decision to enter the Great War, North Dakotans lent a hand both at home and abroad.

They volunteered for military service, bought over $65 million worth of bonds, made bandages, conserved food and nearly three hundred North Dakotans answered the call for Red Cross nurses. In fact, North Dakota sent 20% of its trained nursing staff into Red Cross service during World War One; a higher percentage than any other state in the union.

For these professionally trained, single women between the ages of 25 and 40, the Red Cross nursing service provided a chance to fully participate in the war effort, put their professional training to use and experience a bit of excitement. As one nurse from Grand Forks explained, "[It] was a bit of the Viking spirit in me, for I had a love for the strange and unheard of adventures in seeing foreign countries."

Although most were eager to put their training to use in France, the majority of volunteers were sent to domestic naval hospitals or training camps. For the 40% who served overseas, it was an experience of a lifetime, but one that came with its fair share of hardships. The reality of the dangers they faced became apparent even before reaching the shores of France. The intense German submarine activity on the Atlantic coast kept everyone on high alert. As Jenny Mahoney recalled, "While passing thru the zone where the submarines had been especially active, we were called each morning at three A.M. and remained at our boat stations with life belts adjusted until six A.M."

Once in Europe, the nurses were continuously surrounded by the horrors of war. Leila Halverson of Grand Forks wrote of the seemingly endless shelling of Paris and the long hours spent in underground shelters. The intensity of battlefield medical care also took its toll. On this date in 1918, Lillian Blackwell's 300-bed hospital admitted 1,100 wounded men in one night. Within the span of a week, the number grew to 8,000! Miss Blackwell penned in her diary, "Patients, patients - simply pouring in and lying all over the hillsides under the trees." But of all the dangers nurses faced, disease was arguably the deadliest. Three nurses from North Dakota died overseas in the line of duty due to complications from the flu. Yet their sacrifices did not go unnoticed. Gene Gunderson explained, "the soldiers could not bury our girls in the rough boxes given the men... it was touching to see them line the crude interior with cheese cloth, even making little pillows. They brought wild flowers and placed them in the dead hands that had meant to minister to them."

Dakota Datebook written by Christina Sunwall


"North Dakota History: Modernizing North Dakota 1914-1929: Leila Halverson Goes to War." State Historical Society of North Dakota. http://history.nd.gov/textbook/unit5_3_halverson_intro.html

Peterson, Susan C. and Beverly Jensen. "The Red Cross Call to Serve: The Western Response from North Dakota Nurses." The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Aug 1990), pp. 321-340

Robinson, Elwyn B. History of North Dakota. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.