Mary Helen Abbott Leisey
Nursing During WWII

When I entered Nursing School in September 1942, WWII was already in progress. Many of our staff physicians had already left our hospital to join Medical Armed Forces in all parts of the world.

Our hospital was also lacking many of our recent nurse graduates who were now qualified Registered Nurses, who joined the Navy or Army Nurse Corps in many parts of the world. The move of doctors and nurses from our hospital put more pressure on us, the probationary nurses.

Many of the necessary procedures that were normally performed by physicians or graduate Registered Nurses became our responsibility to learn the procedures. Nervous but determined, we learned.

The US Government recognized the shortage of staff in all hospitals, so in 1943 the US Cadet Nurse Corps was established, whereby the Government would pay student nurses to be educated if they committed to join one of the US medical services, the Army or Navy Nurse Corps, when they graduated from an accredited Nursing School program and passed their State Board Exams.

In the beginning of my senior year as a student nurse, I was assigned to go to the Deshon Army Hospital in Butler, PA, in western PA, where we cared for the wounded service personnel who had fought in the European Theatre of War. Their injuries were many and severe. Many were in complete body casts.

The new drug at the time to prevent infection was Penicillin, to be administered every four hours. Consequently, we had to cut some of the cast away to make new areas where we could give prescribed injections of penicilin. The patients were so grateful for all the care that we could administer to them; they were friendly and cooperative. Our nursing supervisors were RN's from Europe, quite patient and helpful.

Weekly, we had to march in full street uniform to pass in review before the Officers and Medical Staff at the hospital. In honesty, I enjoyed that part of our responsibilities because in High School, I had been a Drum Majorette for our Drum and Bugle Corps. I just missed the music! We, the student nurses, also had baseball teams which we and some patients could enjoy. Better yet, the service men and women patients were permitted to sit on the top of the roof of the hospital, if they were capable of sitting in a wheel chair or in a bed, along with hospital personnel to care for them while the parade was in progress.

We student nurses were encouraged to participate in activities in the areas of the hospital when not on duty, or have responsibilities in the hospital - I personally liked the idea of learning to fly which I did in a small plane, great thrills! No, I am not a pilot, but don't we all have memories of some of the daredevil things we once tried?

In September, 1945, I returned home and then back to Penn State with my Marine husband, Al Leisey. We were secretly married February 1945. The following month I took my State Board Exams, passed them, and was set to move on in my career.

My concerns now were, "how do we educate families to be able to continue to care for the wounded men and women who were returning home?"

After joining the American Red Cross in State College, I spoke to them about wanting to teach Home Nursing to the local residents about the care and nurturing of returning servicemen and women. I also admitted that I felt a need for more education in Home Health Care for the many varieties of problems that returning servicemen and women will have, to not only include the injured, but the need to address mental health problems that would certainly follow the returning veterans home, especially those who were in combat duty. Participating in war, the servicemen and women are more likely to be affected mentally by what they have witnessed or what their responsibilities were to win the war.

Consequently, they sent me to a class in Williamsport, PA and I came back armed with more ideas and confidence. So let's get started!! Approaching top personnel at Penn State with my concerns for follow up healthcare for the Veterans at Penn State and in the town of State College, we were granted a room on campus along with equipment needed. My confidence was up and I now felt that we could be instrumental in addressing the problem of follow up care. There was no fee attached for the space, or for the necessary equipment. This program proved to be a success for the returnees and their families, all in gratitude to Penn State personnel and for we, the caregivers who passed our knowledge and input on to family caregivers.

At this time, in 1945, Penn State was the Pennsylvania State College, on its way to growth and becoming Pennsylvania State University, which has always cared about our war veterans. An example: Trailer Village along the side of College Avenue in 1945-1950s.


P.S. FYI - There is a beautiful established Women's War Memorial at the gate of Arlington Cemetery in Washington, DC. Our oldest daughter, also an RN, entered my name and info soon after the building was completed. The pictures and info are updated every six months; a complete story of women in the service including the US Cadet Nurse Corps.