On a day in the 1940s, at the height of World War II, a small boat was chugging its way up India’s Brahmaputra River. Among its passengers was a young U.S. Army nurse.
She had already traveled the Pacific on a troop transport with 7,000 men for 43 days and across the Indian subcontinent- then under British rule- on a narrow railroad. And now she was about to arrive at her destination, a military base hospital at the ancient city of Assam, to be used primarily by U.S. Army engineers working on the Ledo (later Stillwell) Road into Burma. She was about as far away as possible from her home in Allentown, Pa.
Recalling it many years later, that nurse, now General Anna Mae McCabe Hays, retired chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and the first woman to receive the rank of General in the U.S. Army, described it with a trace of wonder in her voice. “It was a strange mix of fear and excitement. For someone who had never really been away from home it was like an adventure.”
Her service in World War II was to be only part of Hay’s adventuresome life. She was later to serve as a nurse under fire in Korea, become personal duty nurse to President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s following his ileitis attack, and be promoted to Brigadier General in 1970. Today she lives in Arlington, Virginia.
Hay’s sense of duty and service came early in life. Her parents, Daniel J. and Mattie McCabe, were officers in the Salvation Army. She came with them and her brother Daniel and sister Katherine as a child from Buffalo, New York to Allentown in 1932.
Growing up, Hays had personal contact with the want and hunger of those Depression years. “I can still remember seeing the long lines of unemployed men and women who came to get bread and soup. It was a common sight at the time.”
It was this desire to serve others that led Hays to think about a career in nursing. Always an exceptional student, in 1939 she entered the Allentown Hospital School of Nursing. In 1941 Hays graduated as the school’s first honor student. “That,” she recalled, “was the year we went to war.”
In the wave of patriotism that swept the country following Pearl Harbor, Hays responded like many others. “In May of 1942 I went down to the Allentown Police Station, it was on Linden Street between 6th and 7th Streets, I think” she says. It was there that Hays was sworn in as second lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps Reserve.
After a trip to Philadelphia on the Liberty Bell Line trolley, Hays went to nurse headquarters and was assigned to training at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. She remembered it as “one of the hottest and dustiest places I had ever been.” Like her fellow nurses, she assumed that Europe, where the war with Germany was going on, would be her destination. But the Army had other plans for her. “At the last moment I was told I was going to India.” Hays said.
For the next 2 ½ years Hays was to serve at Assam. Along with finding a cobra under her bed one morning, she talked with General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell and Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander for Southeast Asia. When her term of service was up, Hays returned to Allentown and was there when the war ended.
After thinking briefly about becoming an airline stewardess, which in those days required a nursing degree, she decided to re-enlist in the Army. Hays was working in a military hospital when the Korean War broke out in 1950.
Hays was among the first nurses that went into Korea. Supplies were scarce and conditions were rough. “We had no water. It was so cold we wore whatever clothing we could. And because there was almost no firewood it was almost impossible to keep warm.” She would often spend many hours at a time in the operating room getting only three hours of sleep a night.
With the end of the Korean War, Hays returned to the U.S. She was nursing supervisor at Walter Reed Army Hospital in June, 1956 when word came of President Eisenhower’s ileitis attack. Hays was one of three Army nurses assigned to him following his surgery.
“I felt highly honored that a graduate of the Allentown Hospital School of Nursing had been chosen for this position.” Hays said. She described Eisenhower as a model patient. After they left the White House, Hays was invited several times to the Eisenhower’s Gettysburg Farm.
It was in the early 1960s that she met and married William A. Hays, who directed the Sheltered Workshops in Washington D.C. He passed away in 1963. By then Hays was assistant chief of the Army Nurse Corps and helping to establish a medical program for the U.S. role in the Vietnam conflict. In 1967 she was made chief of the corps.
It was on June 11, 1970 that General William C. Westmoreland, then Army Chief of Staff, placed a general’s stars on Hays. On August 11, 1971, a little over a year later, Hays retired. Since that time she has lived a relatively quiet life speaking about military life. In 2012, at Lehigh County’s bicentennial she was named one of the county’s outstanding citizens of the 20th century. “I have no regrets about my life in the Army,” Hays says. “If I had it to do over again I would do it longer.”