LAKE MARY, Fla. – After the plates of salmon and asparagus are carted away, the cheesecake is served and the coffee sipped, three World War II nurses linger a little longer at the dining table.
The women, in their early 90s, sit close as they recall the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps training that shaped them and kick-started their careers, ultimately forging the strong connection they share.
“Well, being a nurse I think is a strong bond,” said Florence Adler, 91. “I mean we’ve gone through so many trials and tribulations taking care of all kinds of people with so many diagnoses and we understand each other.”
Adler feels especially close to Fay Cohn, 91, and Eileen Rodgers, 93, because of their involvement as World War II cadet nurses. She organized a luncheon for her friends to reminisce at the senior living community, where they live. She also invited two other residents: 83-year-old Claire Kohl, a former registered nurse for the U.S. Air Force in the mid-1950s, and 84-year-old Juanita Mendez, a onetime office nurse.
“During World War II, the homefront had a shortage of nurses,” Adler said. “People on the homefront didn’t have the proper care. If they joined the cadet corps, they would get free tuition and free room and board.”
Training lasted three years and students received a monthly $20 stipend, she said. In exchange, each woman committed to serve in a military hospital afterward, Adler said.
Rodgers started out in two Pennsylvania hospitals, one of them military.
“I did see some of the boys who came back with injuries and so forth,” she said. “Some of them were pretty badly injured and it was tough. Some of them were coming back with wounds that we hadn’t seen before.”
But she also recalls how patriotic her peers were. She saw her service in the cadet nurse corps as a way to give back to her country.
“We all were involved in what was going on,” she said.
Adler still has the yellowed slip of paper that reveals her high marks from the New York state licensing exam in 1948. Each of the World War II cadet nurses enjoyed a fruitful career after training. And each had different reasons for enrolling in the first place.
Rodgers originally planned to become an art teacher, but the nursing program was a better fit for her family financially.
“In those days, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to be,” she said. “Since I had two younger sisters, (my) mom and dad said they couldn’t really afford to send me back to art school.”
Firsthand experiences with good nursing care motivated the other two.
Cohn, who grew up in rural Missouri, said she made up her mind to become a nurse as young as 8 or 9 years old when her brother got pneumonia.
“And when I saw those nurses in those pretty white uniforms, that’s when I decided to be a nurse,” she said. Cohn trained at a St. Louis hospital.
Adler originally hoped to be a dancer and had performed at the Jewish Theater of New York, she said. But when she was 20, she fractured her tibia.
“I was in the hospital, and I said, right there and then, ‘I want to be a nurse,’ ” she said. “They were so kind and loving to all the people there.”
Adler, who grew up with her parents and seven siblings in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, trained in New York. She said her parents were reluctant to see her leave even though tuition was covered.
“My poor father said to me, ‘Florence, if you give up your job here, we’re going to have less money to come into the house,’ ” she said.
But she told him he’d be more proud of her if she became a nurse. She was right. Adler and the others reminisced last week about the time in their lives when everything was possible, when they learned much and gave to others.
“We’re a special breed, aren’t we?” she asked Cohn and Rodgers.