Brigadier General Anna McCabe Hays, RN, MSN

Profiles in Nursing

Brigadier General Anna McCabe Hays, RN, MSN

Trailblazer for women in the military

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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When Anna Mae McCabe Hays joined the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) in May 1942, no Army nurse could hold a rank higher than colonel and nurses’ ranks were considered temporary or “relative.”

When she retired almost 30 years later, she had become not only the first nurse but also the first American woman ever promoted to the rank of general.

World War II
- Snakes and monsoons

As the daughter of two Salvation Army officers, service was in Hays’ blood. She enrolled in nursing school immediately after graduating from high school and received her nursing diploma in 1941.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hays, like many other young Americans of her time, decided to offer her nursing skills in the service of her country. She enlisted in the ANC and was assigned to the 20th General Hospital.

From 1943 to 1945, she was stationed in Ledo in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. She served as an operating room nurse in very primitive jungle conditions while dealing with hazards like poisonous snakes and monsoon conditions.

Despite these trials, Hays chose to remain in the ANC after the end of the war, attaining the rank of captain in early 1947. Three months later, Congress finally authorized permanent commissions for ANC officers up to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Korean War
- "Even worse than the jungle"

Hays’ service in the immediate postwar years was no less hectic than her time in India, but less dangerous and comparatively luxurious. That changed in 1950, when she was mobilized to join the 4th Field Hospital for Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s daring amphibious assault on the port city of Inchon, Korea.

Despite substantial technological improvements since the Second World War, including medevac helicopters, whole blood and antibiotics, Hays found her service in Korea no less difficult than her previous experience in Ledo. “I think of Korea as even worse than the jungle,” she said later, “… because of the lack of supplies, lack of warmth in the operating room.”  

Walter Reed
- The president's nurse

Hays returned to the U.S. in 1952 and in 1956 was appointed head nurse of the ER at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. That summer, she was one of the nurses selected to care for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would remain her friend for the rest of his life.

In 1958, Hays earned her B.S. in nursing education from Columbia University Teacher’s College. In 1962, she became one of the first two nurses to complete the U.S. Army Management School, the first time nurses had attended a military school outside the Army Medical Department. She went on to earn her MSN from the Catholic University of America in 1968.

Vietnam Era
- Only five nurses allowed

Hays was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1962 and full colonel in July 1967. At that time, U.S. law permitted no more than five active duty nurses to hold that rank at once, one of the many restrictions on military nurses that were finally rescinded later that year.

That September, she was sworn in as the 13th chief of the Army Nurse Corps, having served as assistant chief since 1963. With the U.S. then embroiled in the Vietnam War, Hays focused on addressing the Army’s 2,000-nurse shortfall with  a new recruitment drive.   

Mission Accomplished
- A general promotion

Training programs, including an Army-sponsored anesthesiology graduate program, led to more qualified nurses. Thanks to Hays’ efforts, the number of Army nurses with bachelor’s degrees increased from 11 percent to 42 percent.

In June 1970, she attained the highest honor of her military career when she was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, the first woman ever to become a general officer in the U.S. military.

Hays retired in September 1971, but the impact of her career and her tenure as chief of the ANC has continued long after her departure from active service. Not only did she make lasting improvements in the education and quality of Army nurses, she helped to redefine the limits of what women can achieve in our nation’s armed forces.   

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