Angels of the 168th Station

In another of our series of articles for Black History month we examine the story of the 63 African American nurses stationed at the 168th Station Military Hospital in Appleton near Warrington – the first African American nurses from the US Nursing Corps to be assigned anywhere in Europe.

At the start of the Second World War the United States had less than 2,000 Army and Navy nurses which was obviously not nearly enough to support the massive military operation they were mounting on multiple fronts. To remedy this shortage the U.S. Army Nurse Corp began a huge recruitment drive in co-operation with the Red Cross.

While the recruitment drive was designed to be quick and effective the Corps maintained their strict entry requirements, only accepting unmarried women aged between 22 and 30 who had civilian nursing training.  There was, however, one additional and largely unspoken requirement – U.S. Army Nursing Corps recruits had to be white.

Thousands of trained black nurses in America,wanting to serve their country, filled out applications to enlist in the US Army Nurse Corps and they all received the same letter in response:

“Your application to the Army Nurse Corps cannot be given favorable consideration as there are no provisions in Army regulations for the appointment of colored nurses in the Corps.”

Even appeals to the American Nursing Association fell on deaf ears as the Association didn’t accept black nurses as members, but the rival National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) challenged the rejection letters. With the Association’s support, in addition to political pressure from civil rights groups and the media, 56 black nurses were finally admitted into the US Army Nurse Corps in 1941.

Group portrait of attendees at the first convention of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, Boston, 1909

Some of this first cohort of nurses were sent to Louisiana and others to North Carolina, both bases in the more heavily segregated Southern United States. While stationed on these bases the nurses complained that they were routinely left out of meetings and social functions. They were forced to eat in segregated dining halls and trips to nearby towns were also degrading because many of the local establishments kept them in segregated areas, in some cases banning them from entering altogether.

By 1944 there were over 40,000 nurses in the U.S. Army Corps but less than 0.8% – only around 300 of them were black – . The 10,000 nurses assigned to the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) were even less diverse – there were only 63 African American Army Nurses in Europe and they were all assigned to a single location – the 168th Station Military Hospital in Appleton near Warrington.

Appleton Hall in Stretton

The 168th Station Military Hospital in Appleton Hall, Stretton had started off as an all-white hospital unit based in Iceland that had then been transferred to England, but in July 1944 it was selected by random from all the similarly sized hospital units in Britain to become the first Prisoner of War hospital in Europe to be staffed by African American nurses. These were the first female African-American military personnel to be stationed in Britain, arriving 6 months before their colleagues in the Women’s Army Corps.

The existing staff of the 168th Military Hospital were initially unimpressed, the Lieutenant in charge pleaded that African American nurses would need to be supervised by more experienced (i.e. white) nurses commenting that:

“I know this didn’t sit highly with any of us – white Medical officers and white enlisted men working with colored nurses”. 

Despite the objections of the existing staff on the 4th August the military authorities started transferring the first of the 731 American patients at the 168th unit elsewhere to make apace for  German Prisoners of War. Shortly afterwards, following a short 3 week training course, 63 African-American nurses arrived in Britain to serve at the medical unit. By the time the 1141 seriously wounded German Prisoners arrived in September there were only 2 members of the original nursing staff left – Chief Nurse Crouch and Operating Room Supervisor Truax both of whom had agreed to stay on to supervise the new recruits.

To many of the newly arrived nurses, their assignment was deeply troubling. They had volunteered to serve wounded American soldiers, not the enemy. It had taken decades for them to be admitted into the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, and to be given the task of caring for soldiers in Hitler’s army felt like a betrayal.

Yet in some ways these nurses fared better than their colleagues caring for Prisoners of War in the United States. Most of the Prisoners of War held in medical units in the US were lightly injured and so the nurses had little opportunity to demonstrate their nursing skills beyond the typical bedside duties and the occasional emergency appendectomy. The prisoners at the 168th station hospital, however, were seriously wounded and so the nurses of the 168th were able to bring their full training to bear.

The nurses also soon discovered that the Warrington area was not segregated and the Red Cross nursing clubs, restaurants and even schools that would have been barred to them in the United States were open to persons of colour in Britain. They were therefore able to enjoy more freedom than their colleagues in the states.

The 168th only remained a Prisoner of War hospital for around 4 months until December 1944 by which point the Nursing Director grudgingly reported:

“These negro nurses with constant guidance did very good work, and continued to give excellent care after Captain Crouch left the unit”.

By the end of the month the 168th Station Military Hospital had transferred the prisoners of war to 82nd General Hospital and its 1431 beds were occupied by American casualties.

The 63 African-American nurses stationed at Appleton represented around an eighth of the total number of nurses that served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during the Second World War. Although thousands of trained black nurses had applied, only around 500 were admitted to serve in the conflict. Overcoming discrimination and indifference these nurses demonstrated a determination to be a part of the U.S. Army Nurse Corp and serve their country.

Their efforts, and those of their African American colleagues in all branches of the American Army,  paid off in 1948 when President Truman issued an executive order de-segregating the American  military. Less than three years later in 1951 the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses was amalgamated into the American Nurses Association, finally extending its membership to all nurses regardless of race.

The information in this article was largely taken from ‘G.I. Nightingales: The Army Nurse Corps in World War II’ by Barbara Brooks Tomblin.