Resources–Historical Frequently Asked Questions

Who was the first woman to serve in the US Military?
Women did not officially serve in the US military until the Army and Navy Nurse Corps were established in 1901 and 1908 respectively. Prior to that time, women served with the armed forces as contract and volunteer nurses. cooks and laundresses and even in disguise as soldiers. For example, during the American Revolution Deborah Samson enlisted in the Continental Army as Robert Shurtliff and served as an enlisted soldier for approximately one year. Hundreds of women disguised themselves as men and served in the Union and Confederate Armies during the Civil War. By the turn of the century, however, this course of action was no longer available to women. The armed forces, wanting to make certain that only healthy men were accepted in the service, began conducting thorough physical examinations of all potential recruits.


Has a woman ever been awarded the Medal of Honor?
Dr. Mary E. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor for her service as a contract surgeon in the Union Army during the Civil War. She is the only woman who has received the nation's highest military award. The medal was awarded for her work as a physician on the battlefield and in military hospitals without regard to her own health and safety. When the criteria for awarding the medal changed in 1917, Dr. Walker’s medal was rescinded along with 900 others. In 1977, due to the persistent efforts of the Walker family, the Army Board of Corrections reviewed the case and reversed the 1917 decision, thus restoring the Medal of Honor to Dr. Walker.


Who was the first military woman killed in action?
Although women have served in the US Armed Forces only since 1901, women served on the battlefield with the armed services from the time of the American Revolution. On Dec. 11, 1775, Jemima Warner was killed by an enemy bullet during the siege of Quebec. Mrs. Warner had originally accompanied her husband, PVT James Warner of Thompson’s Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion to Canada because she feared that he would become sick on the campaign trail and she wanted to nurse him. When PVT Warner eventually died in the wilderness en route to Quebec, Mrs. Warner buried him and stayed with the battalion as a cook. The first female members of the military killed in the line of duty were World War I Army nurses Edith Ayres and Helen Wood. Nurse Ayres and Nurse Wood (nurses held no rank during World War I) were killed on May 20, 1917, while with Base Hospital #12 aboard the USS Mongolia en route to France. The ship’s crew fired the deck guns during a practice drill, and one of the guns exploded, spewing shell fragments across the deck and killing Nurse Ayres and her friend Nurse Helen Wood.


How many women have died in past wars?
Although research is still ongoing, we believe that at least 359 servicewomen died during World War I, the vast majority from the influenza epidemic that swept around the world, killing millions of people. Approximately 543 military women died in the line of duty during World War II, including 16 from enemy fire, and others from a variety of causes including aircraft and vehicle accidents and illness. Seventeen military nurses died during the Korean War, most from aircraft crashes. Eight military women died while serving in Vietnam, one from enemy fire, and 16 died during Operation Desert Storm.


When did women first become POWs and how many military women have been held as POWs?
The first woman POW was Civil War Army contract surgeon Dr. Mary E. Walker, who was captured on April 10, 1864, when she took a wrong turn while trying to get to a sick patient. The Confederates imprisoned her in the military prison in Richmond, VA, known as "Castle Thunder". She was released on Aug. 12, 1864, in exchange for a Confederate major. The next time military women were captured by the enemy was during World War II, when 67 Army nurses and 11 Navy nurses captured in the Philippines were held by the Japanese for nearly three years, and five Navy nurses captured on the island of Guam were held as POWs for four months. One Army flight nurse was aboard an aircraft that was shot down behind enemy lines in Germany in 1944. She was held as a POW for four months. More recently, a female Army doctor and an enlisted woman were held as POWs in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, and three enlisted women were captured during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, one of whom died in captivity of injuries sustained in a vehicle accident prior to capture.


Who was the first woman General Officer?
Anna Mae Hays, Chief of the Army Nurse Corps, became a brigadier general on June 11, 1970. Minutes later, Elizabeth P. Hoisington, Director of the Women’s Army Corps, received her shoulder stars. In 1971, the Air Force promoted the director of Air Force women, Jeanne M. Holm, to brigadier general. A few months later, Ann E. Hoefly, the Chief of the Air Force Nurse Corps, became the fourth woman general. In 1972, Alene B. Duerk, Chief of the Navy Nurse Corps, received a spot promotion to become the first female rear admiral (lower half), the Navy’s equivalent to brigadier general. The Navy promoted a female line officer, Fran McKee, to flag rank in 1976. RADM McKee thus became the first Navy woman who was not a nurse to achieve star rank. Two years later in 1978, the Marine Corps promoted its Director of Information and former Director of Women Marines, Margaret Brewer, to brigadier general. Director of Information and Technology, Chief Information Officer Vivien Crae was promoted to rear admiral by the Coast Guard in 2000.


If you didn’t find the answer to your question here, please check out our other web resources including Statistics on Women in the Military, our timeline Highlights in the History of Military Women and our Historical Articles located on the Resources page. You can also read brief overviews of different eras to learn more about the history of women serving in America's defense. If your question pertains to the Memorial itself or to our registration process, please visit our main FAQ page. You may also use the Google search located below to search the content of www.womensmemorial.org.

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