VALLEY CITY, N.D. — Ethelyn Smedshammer Paulson knew in her teens that she wanted to be a nurse, but the opportunity presented itself more quickly than she thought.

In fact, the day after finishing high school in 1945, she joined the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps.

“I graduated on a Friday, and I packed up Saturday,” said Paulson, now 92, speaking from her apartment home in Valley City.

Created just after the midpoint of World War II, the Corps was meant to ease a serious nursing shortage brought on by nurses heading overseas to serve.

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The cadet nurses staffed U.S. hospitals during the war and cared for the wounded when they came home.

Allison Veselka, assistant curator at the Barnes County Historical Society Museum, manages an exhibit called “Women at War.” It documents the service of area women, including former cadets Paulson and Rebecca Knecht Lutz, also of Valley City.

Veselka said the Cadet Nurse Corps was a military organization, with its members undergoing training, doing calisthenics, wearing uniforms and even having their own marching music.

Still, they were not considered military veterans.

That, however, could change, as the U.S. Congress considers legislation to view cadet nurses as "honorary" veterans, allowing them to receive service medals and burial benefits.

“I honestly hope it happens because they deserve it,” Veselka said.

Allison Veselka talks about the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps and the display dedicated to honoring those women and others at the Barnes County Historical Society Museum in Valley City, N.D. David Samson / The Forum
Allison Veselka talks about the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps and the display dedicated to honoring those women and others at the Barnes County Historical Society Museum in Valley City, N.D. David Samson / The Forum

'The girl with a future'

The Corps mostly recruited women from high school age to early 30s with ad slogans such as, “The girl with a future: Be a Cadet Nurse.”

More than 180,000 women nationwide answered the call, receiving training at one of the more than 1,100 schools that took part. “The government paid for their tuition, so that was a huge draw,” Veselka said.

The day Paulson left her family’s farmstead in Litchville, N.D., she moved with fellow cadets into a dormitory-type building on the campus of Mercy Hospital in Valley City.

“There was four to a room, and there wasn’t much storage so we could only bring a suitcase and a paper sack,” she said with a chuckle.

North Dakota members of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps are seen in a photograph displayed at the Barnes County Historical Society Museum in Valley City, N.D. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota members of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps are seen in a photograph displayed at the Barnes County Historical Society Museum in Valley City, N.D. David Samson / The Forum

They quickly became busy with their training, getting little time off for fun. The Catholic nuns who supervised them were very strict, Paulson said.

“The doors locked at 9, and you had to be in. We couldn’t go to a movie and see the end of the movie, even,” she said.

When the nursing students began working with patients, they would receive tips of handkerchiefs or money if a patient thought they did a good job.

After graduating from the Corps, Paulson ended up caring for several relatives when they became ill, but she never pursued a profession in nursing. Instead, she got married and moved to the family farm.

“My husband needed me at home, and he didn’t want me to work,” Paulson said, laughing.

Artifacts from Ethelyn Smedshammer Paulson's time in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps are displayed at the Barnes County Historical Society Museum in Valley City, N.D. David Samson / The Forum
Artifacts from Ethelyn Smedshammer Paulson's time in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps are displayed at the Barnes County Historical Society Museum in Valley City, N.D. David Samson / The Forum

'Almost too late'

Paulson isn’t sure the honorary veteran designation is necessary, she said, because the Corps' time was so long ago.

She and her fellow graduates from Valley City and the surrounding area used to get together several times each summer. “Now, over half of them have passed away,” Paulson said.

It’s not known how many former cadet nurses are still alive, nationwide. The program ran from 1943 to 1948.

The proposed legislation would give the women honorable discharges and honorarily bestow the title of "veteran."

While they would receive a service medal and burial benefits, they would not be eligible for disability benefits, health care or other veterans' benefits.

Wes Anderson, curator at the Barnes County Historical Society Museum, considers the cadet nurses “the real Wonder Women,” and wishes the honors had come sooner.

“For them to get an opportunity to finally be recognized at last, it’s almost too late,” Anderson said.

Anyone interested in learning more about the women of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps and their role during World War II can find their testimonies here.