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Fair Winds And Following Seas To The First Female General: Anna Mae Hays

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Anna Mae Hays, an Army nurse who served in a mud-caked jungle hospital in World War II, guided the Army Nurse Corps through the bloodiest years of the Vietnam War and became the first female general in American military history, died Jan. 7 at a retirement home in Washington, D.C. She was 97.

Working in a malaria-infested stretch of the China-Burma-India theater, she treated gangrenous construction workers who were building a new roadway that supplied the Chinese military in its war against Japan, as well as lice-infested members of the special-operations Army unit known as Merrill’s Marauders.

Most of her staff was sick with malaria, dysentery, or dengue fever, she later said in an Army oral history, and at one time she found herself hospitalized and spotted a cobra under her bed. She calmly asked a guard to shoot it, later explaining, “When one lives in the jungle, one can expect that sort of thing.”

Gen. Hays treated some of the earliest casualties of the Korean War, helping establish the first military hospital in Inchon, and as chief of the Army Nurse Corps from 1967 until her retirement four years later, she helped bolster its ranks during the conflict in Vietnam.

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Serving from World War II to Vietnman and being on the literal front lines of military medicine is a task that not many in human history could stomach. General Hays not only stomached it, but she thrived in it. Taking care of soldiers on those battlefields is no small tasks. Just looking at the names of the some of the places she served is breathtaking.

I don’t think that most Americans have any clue just how horrific war in the Pacific theatre really was. From jungle issues like malaria, trench foot, and on and on, to being completely frozen in parts of Korea, it takes otherworldy toughness. To be living in those conditions and providing care for the most seriously wounded takes those sacrifices and magnifies them to a whole new level.

For example, I once read a story about Marines in Korea. Things were so cold and desolate there that the Marines were having difficulty finding things to burn. This wasn’t in the days of dry packs and fart sacks. There wasn’t any “everlight” matches. If things got wet, they didn’t burn. The temperatures were so cold that rifles would freeze without the proper cold-weather lubricant. The MRE’s weren’t like today’s where they came with chemical heaters. They were canned. These cans would freeze. The Marines lacked fire so there was no real way for them to heat the MREs from frozen solid. Not only that, but the cans wouldn’t open because they were frozen to the core as well. Well, the Marines would line up their cans up on fence posts, use the cans as firing practice, and take the frozen chunks of food and put them in their mouths to thaw and swallow. -20 degrees and only eating frozen food. Unimaginable.

The Marines on watch couldn’t use their gloves and pull the trigger at the same time. After a while, Marines would slice holes in their gloves to slide their trigger fingers out of. Eventually, those fingers would freeze. The veterans of the Korean war would often times come home missing two or three fingers because they had to cut them off because they became so frozen.

General Hays was there as well. She was there; she was at the Island hopping campaigns; she was in Korea; she was at places that can only be described as hell on Earth. Because of all that, she became the first female general in US Military history. We all owe her a debt of gratitude. Til Valhalla, General Hays.