Updated: Dec 1, 2021
By Christal Oliver Speer IR #637679
Icelandic Roots Volunteer on the Genealogy and Media Teams
It was 1943 and various posters began appearing in store windows plus advertisements in newspapers and magazines across the United States. “Enlist in a Proud Profession!” and “Serve your Country in the war job with a future.” These attracted the attention of young women, many of whom had brothers or boyfriends already serving in the military. They were eager to have a part in serving their country, too.
When the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there were not nearly enough nurses in the military for the need ahead. The Army and Navy recruited only registered nurses and because nurses were pulled from their civilian jobs, hospitals and clinics across the United States had a critical shortage of nurses. Frances Bolton, the representative from Ohio, saw the need and introduced a bill in Congress. The Bolton Act of 1943 appropriated $160 million in federal funds to nursing schools and created the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps. Just two years later, 85% of all nursing students in the country were Cadet Nurses.
Nursing schools throughout the U.S. were informed of the Cadet Nurse Corps program. Schools needed to be accredited, affiliated with a hospital, and have adequate staff and facilities. At the time, there were 1,300 nursing schools in the U.S., and 1,125 chose to participate. The federal government gave nursing schools money to help them meet the standards. This meant that these schools were able to offer a quality education in nursing.
The program was open to all women between the ages of 17 and 35. Applicants were required to be in good health and a graduate of an accredited high school or in college. To be accepted into the program, there were written and oral exams, plus a physical. The cadets came from locations across the U.S. and from all economic backgrounds and races. It allowed young women to serve their country in uniform while being protected by law against discrimination because of race or religion. For minority women, this was a good way to gain an education and serve their country.
3,000 African-American women joined.
350 Japanese-American women qualified, leaving the internment camps behind.
40 Native-American women representing 25 tribes went through the training.
Cadet nurses trained first in the hospital that accepted them into their program. During the course of their training, cadet nurses later served in one of the following areas: Army, Navy, or Veterans hospitals, Indian Health Service, or Public Health hospitals. Tuition, fees, room, and board were FREE. The normal Registered Nurse program of 36 months was packed into 30 months. Students were in classes for four months, then began working in the hospital wards, 12 hours a day, and sometimes longer when needed, as they continued to develop nursing skills.
Students were paid a stipend for their time working in the hospital as cadet nurses:
$15 per month to begin, then
$20 per month, and ending with
$30 per month for the last 6 months (about $450 per month in today’s economy)
There were 124,000 nurses who graduated from the program out of 188,000 who enrolled. Long hours and heavy workloads caused some to become too sick to continue, while others just couldn’t make passing grades.
There were beneficial side effects of the program. Public health historians credit the program with creating a more academic approach to nursing. Previously, nurses’ training resembled apprenticeship-style training. The federal government’s investment in nursing schools had a long-term positive impact on nursing education and the previously all-white schools became integrated.
Each cadet nurse was issued one or more Admission Cards. The Admission Card(s) for each cadet nurse is attached to their page in Icelandic Roots under the Education Event and tells where they received their training.
Several Icelandic young women received their training at the Grand Forks Deaconess Hospital in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Above is a photo of Pearl May (Morrison) Gunderson (#701055). After graduation, May worked as the Pembina County Health Nurse and later as a nurse in a hospital for many years. She kept a large scrapbook of photos and newspaper clippings regarding the Cadet Nurses. Her daughter Becky kindly shared many of these items with IR member Kathy Thorlakson who, in turn, shared them with me for this project. I want to especially thank these ladies and other IR volunteers who sent in photos and names of Cadet Nurses for me to research.
Pictured above are three Icelandic girls in the Cadet Nurse program: twin sisters Leona and Lena Bjarnason with their friend Doris Bjornson. Doris was the very first in her district to enroll in the program. (Leona #628993, Lena #62899, Doris #145302)
The Bolton Act also provided postgraduate study for nurses who qualified. Evelyn Olafson (#575087) had already become an R.N. in 1930. Her Admission Card above indicates that she was admitted to a four-month postgraduate study program at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis for training to become a Head Nurse.
We have found Admission Cards and information on 26 cadet nurses of Icelandic descent, but there must be many more.
Above is Ingebjorg Jonina Heigaard (#17429182). She trained as a cadet nurse at the Ancker Hospital School of Nursing in St Paul, Minnesota, and worked as a nurse for many years at the Borg Pioneer Memorial Home in Mountain, North Dakota.
Above is Verna Valgerdur Johnson. After graduating as an R.N. from the Ancker Hospital School of Nursing, Verna worked at Ancker Hospital.
Above is Carol Ellen Hanks (#662019) who took her cadet nurse training at the L.D.S. Hospital School of Nursing in Spanish Fork, Utah. She went on to earn Bachelor's and Master's degrees in nursing from Brigham Young University. After working as a nurse for several years, Carol taught nursing at Utah Technical College and at the BYU College of Nursing.
We know that our Icelandic ancestors were brave and intrepid, leaving behind homes and family in Iceland and settling in North America, then reinventing themselves to meet the needs of the 1900s. One cadet nurse especially caught my attention by exemplifying someone who was not afraid to change countries and move to states far removed from one another.
Petrina Louise Sigurdsson (#212650) was born in the Icelandic community of Morden, Manitoba, Canada. At age 16, she left her parents behind and began living in the United States. In April 1945, she filed her intent to become a U.S. citizen while living in Oakland, California. Then, five months later Petrina was admitted to the Cadet Nurse Corps, training at the Wesley Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Chicago, Illinois. Just six months before she graduated as an R.N., Petrina signed an Oath of Allegiance in Chicago and became a citizen of the United States. She later moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota where she died at the age of 93. She never forgot her Icelandic roots and sang an Icelandic lullaby to her children and grandchildren.
Patriotism was often a family affair. Several of the cadet nurses had brothers and even sisters in the U.S. military. After the war ended, many of the nurses went on to marry a veteran of World War II.
Above left is Leola Magnusson, R.N. (#4456568) of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps.
Above middle is her brother Marvin Magnusson (#4456554) of the U.S. Army.
Above right is Leola’s twin sister Viola Magnusson (#4456575) of the U.S. Marine Corps.
These photos are from “The Icelandic Canadian,” page 150.
Here are two proud parents! In the above family portrait taken during World War II, son Vernon Johnson (#1451734) served in the U.S. Navy while daughter Norma Kristin Johnson (#1451583) was a U.S. Cadet Nurse. Their father Arni Johnson was a World War I veteran.
Many cadet nurses remained friends for life. Here’s a photo of a patriotic display at the Pembina County Historical Museum near Cavalier, North Dakota. Leola Magnusson is on the left holding a photo of her graduating class. Leola became a nursing supervisor in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Norma Johnson is on the right. That’s her cadet uniform between the two ladies. Norma was a director of nursing in several hospitals before she retired.
A happy group of cadet nurses who graduated in 1945 from the Deaconess Hospital School of Nursing in Grand Forks, ND. Leola Magnusson is seated in the front row, second from left.
The above photo is of Lillian Isabel Olafson (#695207) who trained with the cadet nurses at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing. She was employed by the State of Iowa as a Public Health Nurse Supervisor. Lillian is a first cousin of Robert Olafson—the father of Sunna Olafson Furstenau.