Anna Mae Hays, who began her military career as a nurse at a jungle outpost in India during WWII and ended up becoming the nation’s first female general, has passed away at the age of 97. During a career that spanned four decades and three wars she became known as a fierce advocate for the Army Nurse Corps and for female officers, in general, and was at least partly responsible for many improvements in the treatment of battlefield injuries.
Anna Mae Violet McCabe Hays was born on February 16, 1920 in Buffalo, NY, but she was raised in Allentown, PA. She was the middle of three children. Her parents were members of The Salvation Army. As a child, Hays displayed two interests and talents – music and nursing. She became adept at playing the French horn, the piano and the organ. Furthermore, she would pretend to treat wounds by wrapping bandages around the legs of their kitchen table.
After her high school graduation she wanted to attend the Julliard School of Music. Unfortunately, even though she had been an honor student, she failed to win a scholarship, and her parents could not afford to pay the tuition. Consequently, she turned to nursing.
In 1941 she graduated from the Allentown General School of Nursing, just in time to enlist in the Army Nurse Corps. Her first posting was in the jungles of India. As one can imagine, the conditions were extremely primitive. The buildings were constructed of bamboo and mud. The outpost was servicing Army special ops units and construction workers who were building a road to connect India and China. In addition to the Japanese, one had to deal with malaria, gangrene, dysentery, dengue fever, snakes and leeches. Normally, most everyone, staff included, was ill with something. Hays often told the story of the time she was sick and spotted a cobra under her bed. Rather than panicking, she calmly asked a guard to shoot it. Her explanation: “When one lives in the jungle, one can expect that sort of thing.”
Later, Hays served in both Korea and Viet Nam. She rose through the ranks, and by 1967 she had become the head of the Army Nurse Corps, a position she held until her retirement in 1971. Some of her accomplishments were as follows:
- During the Korean conflict she helped establish the first military hospital in Inchon. She characterized the conditions there as being equally as bad as those in India, if not worse, due to the extremely cold temperatures and chronic lack of adequate supplies.
- She was a staunch advocate of additional funding for the Nurse Corps, which, as Sanders Marble, senior historian in the Army’s Office of Medical History denoted, was a “hard sell at that time.”
- In 1970 she was responsible for establishing a policy of maternity leave for officers. Previously, pregnant officers were automatically discharged.
- She was responsible for developing, monitoring and improving various nurse educational and training programs, and was a strong advocate of increasing the number of overseas postings.
- Some of her other postings were head nurse at Fort Dix, NJ, obstetrics nurse supervisor at Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, PA, head nurse at Fort Myer, VA, and head nurse of the emergency room at Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland. It was at the latter posting where she met her husband, Dr. William Hays, who was on staff there. Moreover, in 1956, she had the privilege of treating then-President Dwight Eisenhower, who was recuperating from surgery for ileitis. They became lifelong friends. One humorous story that most of you will appreciate: The Morning Call of Allentown reported that one day Vice President Richard Nixon came to visit. Ike asked Hays if he should see him. Hays said no. Ike said okay. Then, Hays went out to Nixon in the hallway, shook his hand, and said “I’m sorry, but the president doesn’t feel he is able to see you.” Personally, given the relationship between Ike and Nixon, I believe the story.
During her distinguished career Hays continued her education. She earned a Bachelors Degree in nursing from Columbia University Teachers College in 1958 and a Masters Degree from Catholic University of America in 1968.
Besides her various military honors Hays was named to the Lehigh County’s Hall of Fame. In addition, Lehigh and Northampton counties honored her by naming the Coplay-Northampton Bridge after her.
The signature moment of her career occurred on June 11, 1970 when she became the US Army’s first female general. Her official presenter was Mamie Eisenhower. (For the record, a second female, Elizabeth Hoisington, was also promoted moments later the same day.) Oddly, until 1968 that rank had been barred to women by law. The president who signed off on the promotion – Richard Nixon.
Hays was a true trailblazer. Many others followed, and in 2008 General Ann Dunwoody became the first female four-star general.
Despite all the advances on behalf of female Army nurses and military nursing, in general, Hays did not consider herself to be a feminist, per se, and did not wanted to be identified as one. She was really proud of her time in the Army Nurse Corps and claimed that if she “had to do it all over again, [I] would do it longer.” According to the NY Times when asked how she wanted to be remembered, Hays replied “first of all, as the first woman general, but [also] as a very honest person, as a kind individual who did her best – and succeeded.”
Hays passed away on January 7, 2018. Rest in peace Anna. You were a true difference-maker and will be sorely missed.