Editor’s note: Veterans Day is a holiday to recognize all who served in the armed forces of the U.S., saluting their sacrifice, willingness to serve and love of country. Formerly called Armistice Day to recognize those who served in World War I, it officially changed to Veterans Day in 1954.
Healing Hands in History’s War Zones
Allentown Hospital-trained Anna Mae Hays was Army’s first female brigadier general
Anna Mae McCabe didn’t think twice about signing on as an Army nurse in May 1942, five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In those days, she recalled, “It was to give and do what you could for your country.” Stories about those serving their country filled the newspapers and Hays wanted to do the same. Her older brother was a Marine.
Her service was to be for the duration of the war, plus six months after. Little did she know at the time that her career in the Army would last nearly three decades.
Hays, born Anna Mae McCabe to Salvation Army officers in Buffalo, N.Y., moved to Allentown when she was 12. She was a graduate of Allentown High School and Allentown Hospital School of Nursing and in 1970 was the first woman to achieve the rank of brigadier general in the Army. Allentown Hospital, which opened in 1899, was the original building block for what is now Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN). The site is now Lehigh Valley Hospital–17th Street.
Hays seemed destined to become a nurse from an early age. In her Washington Post obituary, it was noted she “dreamed of becoming a nurse since she was a young girl, wrapping bandages around the legs of a kitchen table where her parents frequently invited the infirm to dinner.”
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In remarks at the time of her promotion to general, Hays recalled that the stars that signified her new rank “reflect the dedicated, selfless and often heroic efforts of Army nurses throughout the world since 1901 in time of peace and war.”
When she retired from the Army at the end of August 1971 as Chief of the Army Nurse Corps, her experiences included service in field hospitals in India during World War II and in South Korea during the Korean War. During the Vietnam War, she traveled to Vietnam several times to assess the state of nursing there. In that time, she oversaw formation of new training programs and a dramatic increase in the number of nurses deployed overseas.
She met her future husband, William A. Hays, while they were both working at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. They were married from 1956 until his death in 1962 and she didn’t remarry.
During her service, she succeeded in pushing through changes to benefit women, including maternity leave for married female officers. She received the Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit, among other awards.
“When we celebrate Veterans Day at LVHN, it’s with gratitude for the service of all, including people such as Anna Mae Hays,” says Brian A. Nester, DO, MBA, LVHN’s President and Chief Executive Officer and a former Army National Guardsman. “We salute and thank all veterans for their service, especially those among our ranks today as LVHN colleagues.”
Hays’ legacy includes Allentown’s newest elementary school, named for her in 2021. She died in a Washington, D.C. retirement home in January 2018 at age 97 from complications from a heart attack. She was buried with full military honors in Grandview Cemetery, Allentown.
Her amazing career and service to her country have been detailed in many places, including an oral history from the Army Heritage Center Foundation. Below are excerpts from parts of that oral history, compiled in 1983.
Hays’ History Nuggets
“It was to give and do what you could for your country.” Anna Mae Hays, on enlisting as an Army nurse in 1942.
World War II service in Asia
Amoebic dysentery, dengue fever and malaria were constant companions for the doctors and nurses working in the dirt-floored 20th General Hospital near Burma (now Myanmar). The first year saw mainly malaria patients, but the second saw more combat casualties, including those under Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, whose rugged troops were famously known as Merrill’s Marauders.
“They presented many medical problems to the physicians,” Hays recalls of military casualties. “I can definitely recall how the patients would come to us in the operating room in need of emergency surgery, full of caked mud, and how it would have to be scraped off their bodies prior to surgery. Also, many were filled with lice, not only in the hair on their head but in the pubic area. Sometimes we just didn’t have time to clean them. We had to operate on them immediately. I can vividly remember the many amputations of extremities due to gas gangrene.”
Inchon and the Korean War
In September 1950, Hays was an operating room supervisor in one of the first field hospitals to be set up after the invasion into South Korea. About 15 days after Marines landed at Inchon, Hays and her fellow nurses and doctors used landing craft to go ashore.
“We went into the first building we saw, and someone said, ‘The nurses can sleep here.’ And it was filled with excreta [feces and urine]. I remember taking my shovel, cleaning out these excreta and putting down my canvas bedding roll,” Hays recalls. “We didn’t have a soft bedding roll like you have today. And we stayed there a night or two. By that time, the forward party had found an old school to use for our hospital and we set up the hospital wards, operating room, etc.”
The jungles of India stood in stark contrast to Korea. “ If you would ask me what are the first things you can remember about Korea, I would say its cold weather, odor and its stark nakedness. It had nothing. And, when I compare Korea with my experiences in World War II, I think of Korea as even worse than the jungle in World War II, because of the lack of supplies, lack of warmth, etc., in the operating room. We had some evacuation of combat casualties to our hospital via helicopter but not the mass evacuation which occurred in Vietnam. Most patients arrived by ambulance or train.”
Hays visited Vietnam in 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1971, the last two as Chief of the Army Nurse Corps.
“Even in those early days, I was impressed with our nurses for their magnificent contributions in the care of those who were wounded or ill with disease, because at that time there was a high incidence of malaria, diarrhea infestations, typhus and so forth,” Hays recalls.
“I had nothing but the greatest of admiration for the Army nurses who were serving in Vietnam and thought that their great monuments will certainly lie in the hearts of their grateful patients.”
She liked Ike
Hays reported for duty as head ER nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. in May 1956. In June, President Dwight Eisenhower, who had just been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, was hospitalized there for several weeks for surgery for a small bowel obstruction. Hays was selected to serve as one of three private nurses for him and formed a close bond with Ike that lasted until his death in 1969.