“The Two Nellies.” CAPT Nellie De Witt, Director of the Navy Nurse Corps, and Mary Martin, the original “ENS Nellie Forbush,” are presented a new type of compact by the Elgin American Company, 1947. BUMED Library and Archives
The “Navy nurse,” as a character, has appeared in many films going back to the silent era. (1) At times the Navy nurse is a nameless figure who garners a few seconds of screen glory, usually walking down a hospital corridor or, worse, standing behind Sidney Greenstreet while holding a thermometer. For this she will be listed in the credits as “Navy nurse,” “nurse,” or, simply, “eclipsed lady.” In some films, the Navy nurse resembles neither a health care provider nor a military officer. In The Navy versus the Night Monsters, actress Mamie Van Doren is a “Navy nurse” stationed at an unnamed island in the Pacific during an invasion of nocturnal plant monsters. Through liberties taken with an “artistic license,” Van Doren’s nurse is without rank, protocol, and proper military attire (imagine a Navy uniform regulation written by Russ Meyer). But I guess the real question is: Do the acid-spewing “Night Monsters” really care? Do viewers take note? Although few and far between, there are films in which the Navy nurse is a central figure complete with name, motivation, personality, and marquee status. In these films—often “inspired” by true events—the Navy nurse actually resembles a military officer. The nurse has rank, follows a chain-of-command, and can be seen rendering medical care. It is worth looking back at the Navy nurse in two of these films—"South Pacific" (1958), and "In Harm’s Way" (1965).
There’s Nothin’ like a…Navy Nurse
Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s South Pacific was originally a Broadway musical starring Mary Martin as Navy nurse “ENS Nellie Forbush” and Ezio Pinza as the mysterious French planter “Emile de Becque.” Based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, it was adapted for the stage in 1949 and made into a film in 1958. Both stage and film versions were directed by Joshua Logan.(2) The film version which starred Mitzi Gaynor (sister of actress Janet Gaynor) and Italian actor Rossano Brazzi as the leads, holds the distinction of being the only theatrical adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to have all songs intact.
In "South Pacific," ENS Forbush is stationed at an advanced Navy base in Espiritu Santo in 1943. Gaynor’s Forbush is an exuberant figure with heart and great sensitivity. She finds herself in love with Emile de Becque, who may be a Vichy-fascist. The commanding officer of the base, CAPT George Brackett (Russ Brown), knowing of her relationship with de Becque, asks Forbush to spy on him and find out his secret. In reality, de Becque is a man who came to the island to escape his past deeds in France. Brackett then recruits de Becque to join Marine raider LT Cable (John Kerr) on a dangerous reconnaissance mission to an island that could be Bougainville. When reunited, Forbush and de Becque declare their love for each other.
A few aspects of the film should be noted. Forbush interacts with enlisted SEABEES, most notably Luther Billis (Ray Walston). The real Nellie Forbush would be forbidden to “fraternize” with enlisted sailors like Billis, and vice versa. Female nurses were always segregated from the rest of Navy. Even if a sailor wanted to talk to a nurse in her private quarters he would need to be escorted by her chief nurse. The film credits list a total of 38 Navy nurses in the cast, but not one chief nurse. In addition, no commanding officer or executive officer of the base hospital is to be seen. Forbush reports directly to CAPT Brackett. With all the singing, dancing, and “washing men out of hair” to do there is very little time for middlemen! As the old Hollywood adage goes, one way of avoiding the red tape is to hire a good screenwriter.
For the “pride of Little Rock, AR,” the exotic world of Bali Ha’I and betel nuts must have been overwhelming. Like Forbush, many World War II nurses were products of small towns who joined the Navy not only to serve their country in a time of need but also as a means of seeing the world. World War II nurses were more often than not, independent spirits and adventure-seeking women looking to prove themselves and gain experiences from beyond the borders of their small towns. Like Forbush, some of them would have seen the Navy as a vehicle for romance. However, as a Navy nurse, ENS Forbush would have to abide by the official naval regulations of the day. She would not be allowed to marry Emile de Becque or have his child while on active duty.(3)
By regulation, nurses like Forbush were all unmarried women and graduates of accredited nursing schools with two years work experience at civilian hospitals. To be accepted into the Nurse Corps they needed to submit a letter of intent and three recommendations to the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
In the second half of South Pacific ENS Forbush makes her first appearance at the hospital. This hospital would have been either Navy Base Hospital 3 or 6; both were commissioned on Espiritu Santo in 1943. In addition to some battle casualties, her patient load would include many sailors and Marines with dengue, dysentery, or malaria. Following the nurse regulations of the day, ENS Forbush would rest the malarial case during their paroxysms of fever and chills.
During the cold stage she would apply blankets, hot water bottles, and offer hot beverages. As the hot stage developed, she would gradually remove the heat, apply tepid sponges, and an ice cap to the patient’s head, at the same time forcing him to drink cold fluids. Aches and pains were alleviated by placing pillows under the small of the back. Such procedures could be deemed anything but entertainment. In the movie, Forbush’s patient load is wholly ambulatory, and it is not clear why they are at the hospital. Aside from the medical care they presumably need, Forbush’s patients seem to want nothing more than to hear the nurse sing.
Light’em if You Got’em
This Otto Preminger-directed film, "In Harm’s Way," gets its title from a quote attributed to John Paul Jones: “I wish no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.” In Harm’s Way is the story of two naval officers—CAPT Rockwell Torrey (John Wayne) and CDR Paul Eddington, Jr. (Kirk Douglas)—who try to recuperate from, and retaliate for, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Patricia Neal plays the Navy nurse, and Torrey’s love interest, “LT Maggie Haynes.”
Navy nurse LT Haynes is on temporary assignment in Pearl Harbor. She is a woman who came to nursing and the Navy after her eight-year marriage ended in divorce. If ENS Forbush is the wide-eyed, inexperienced nurse, LT Haynes is her polar opposite—an experienced, world-smart woman who knows human behavior. When fellow nurse ENS Annalee Dorne asks her where the “nerve” came to call CAPT Torrey, Haynes coolly replies, “Annalee dear, past a certain age, men are apt to avoid making sudden moves where women are concerned. The women have to do the sudden moving, or else everybody stands still until it's too late. It gets late fast in these times. I like this man, and I want him to know it now.” And when she hears that ENS Dorne is going to the beach with CDR Eddington she cautions her and states that he is a man with dark secrets. Ultimately, ENS Dorne’s meeting with Eddington will end tragically.
CAPT Torrey first encounters LT Haynes at Naval Hospital Pearl Harbor; she supervises the x-ray of his fractured arm and then escorts him to a Navy physician’s office. They meet again at a party when she is dressed in civvies. When he states that he did not recognize her, Haynes replies, “I make a special effort not to look like a nurse.” Even so, the viewer can recognize her character as a Navy nurse. We see her wearing ward whites at the naval hospital while checking on patients, giving shots, and applying intravenous drips. She talks about nursing school and her decision to join the Navy. Later in the film, when Torrey is serving as a rear admiral, Haynes asks him, “How do admirals feel about nurses?” Torrey nonchalantly replies, “The same way captains do.”
Throughout the film CAPT Torrey and other officers refer to LT Haynes as “Maggie” and “Miss Haynes,” but never by rank. Although, considered part of the Navy establishment since 1920, and having what was deemed “relative rank,” Navy nurses were not considered official staff corps officers until 1947.(4) It would not have been uncommon for their fellow Navy personnel to refer to them by the title of “Miss” or “Nurse.”
Outside the hospital, LT Haynes is never without a cigarette. At a dinner party held at the house of Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda), every other Navy officer sitting at the table is smoking a pipe. Behind all this smoke is the unsettling fact that both John Wayne and Franchot Tone (Admiral Husband Kimmel) were fighting lung cancer during the shoot. After filming concluded, Wayne had his left lung removed; Tone died of the disease three years later. And whether or nor cigarette smoking was an indirect cause, actress Patricia Neal suffered from multiple strokes the year "In Harm’s Way" was released. It is even more unnerving to learn that she was pregnant at the time.(5)
The cigarette is arguably the most versatile prop ever to be used in film. All genres of film, from the days of D.W. Griffith to the present, from slapstick comedies to gritty war pictures, have leading characters who smoke. "In Harm’s Way" is “inspired” by the Navy in World II, and though not politically correct to say, cigarette smoking was once an integral part of Navy culture. Enlisted and officers—nurses included—smoked. In the wartime environment, smoking was believed to calm the nerves and enable the sailor to “focus.”(6) As far back as World War I, cigarettes were a part of ration packs. If one doubts the role of tobacco in the war they should look at the photographs of the day. One photograph at the Naval Historical Center, dated 1944, shows an “endless” human chain of sailors carrying boxes of Lucky Strike cigarettes onto the USS Missouri's forward main deck. The caption reads “An average of five cases of cigarettes is [sic] smoked during a tour at sea.” A BUMED photograph, circa 1944, shows two Navy nurses with cigarettes visiting a village in the Admiralties.
Movies are made to entertain, and make money. Some films transcend this mission and become works of art and timeless classics. In all cases, however, movies cannot be relied upon as the fountain of historical truth. "South Pacific" and "In Harm’s Way" certainly have their share of anachronistic and sensational scenes, but both can be considered successful films. They both entertain while delivering an impression of the historical fact. The characters of ENS Forbush and LT Haynes are substantive film figures; when you finish watching these movies you don’t forget they are “Navy nurses.” Even so, you cannot separate them from other depictions of Navy nurses. In war pictures, the Navy nurse is almost always used as the vehicle to the romantic sub-plot. The list of Navy nurse-protagonist love affairs is vast: Forbush and de Becque ("South Pacific"); Haynes and Torrey ("In Harm’s Way"); Abbott and Blair ("Hellcats of the Navy"); Willoughby and Momoyama ("Nobody’s Perfect"); Rafe/Danny and Johnson ("Pearl Harbor"); Jardian and Solomon ("Purple Hearts"); O’Hara and Dale ("Tell it to the Marines"); and Bingham and Peabody ("Torpedo Alley"). Regardless of this typecast, the Navy nurse has left a legacy; Navy nurses will always be a special part of film history as they are the Navy’s.
1. Produced in 1926, "Tell it to the Marines" is one of the first films to feature a character of a Navy nurse. This wonderful, but overlooked, silent film is the story of the “tougher than nails” Marine drill sergeant O'Hara (Lon Chaney) and his polar opposite, PVT “Skeets” Burns (William Haines). If Burns's lackadaisical approach to the military were not bad enough, he also makes advances on Navy nurse Nora Dale (Eleanor Boardman), whom SGT O'Hara secretly loves. Nurse Dale is oblivious to SGT O'Hara's feelings and is attracted to the handsome “Skeets.” But an indiscretion turns her against him, and it takes an expedition to China and a battle with a warlord's bandit brigade to sort things out among the nurse and her two Marines.
2. The book and musical hold unique distinction of having both been awarded Pulitzers.
3. In January 1945, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal repealed the marriage ban for women in the Navy. In 1970, the Navy finally ended the pregnancy ban.
4. The Naval Appropriations Act of 4 July 1920 recognized the Navy Nurse Corps as part of the “Navy Establishment.” In 1947, with the passage of the Army-Nurse Act (Public Law 36) the Navy Nurse Corps was acknowledged as an official staff. corps.
5. Despite this, Neal gave birth to a healthy daughter.
6. In a report to the Surgeon General of the Navy dated 1879, Medical Director Albert Gihon, USN, wrote that tobacco was a “pernicious, indefensible and wholly unnecessary habit.” He went on to state that it “impairs vision, blunts the memory and interferes with mental effort and application, ought, in my opinion as a sanitary officer, at whatever cost of vigilance, to be rigorously interdicted.”