The Incredible Story Of The U.S. Military’s First Female General
Anna Mae Hays served in 3 wars, pioneered women’s rights and saved countless lives.
Thirty years as a combat nurse gave Anna Mae Hays more than a few stories to tell. During the Korean War, she helped build the first military hospital in the city of Incheon, where US-led forces pummeled the North Korean army in 1950.
During WWII, she treated wounded soldiers in hospitals in India that were so primitive, the floors were made of dirt and jackals would run through the nurses’ quarters.
Anna Mae died on Jan. 7 in a nursing home in Washington D.C. at age 97. But as the first female general in the history of the U.S. Army, her incredible story is still being told.
The Buffalo, New York native might never have gone overseas. She was looking at a quiet life as a nurse until Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese in 1941. The savage bombing motivated Anna Mae to walk down to her local police station and enlist in the Army.
Not long after, Anna Mae was sent to Asia to aid the U.S. war effort. She worked in a ramshackle hospital in India, treating gangrenous construction workers who were building a road meant to help out the Chinese military, who, like the U.S., was fighting Japan.
The situation in the Asia theater of World War II was pretty grim — most of the nice hospitals and fancy medical gear were over in Europe.
In an oral history in 1983, Anna Mae described what it was like treating combat casualties in India: “The patients would come to us in the operating room in need of emergency surgery, full of caked mud… it would have to be scraped off their bodies prior to surgery… most everyone had bacillary or amoebic dysentery, dengue fever or malaria.”
During the Korean War in the early 1950s, Anna Mae served in a field hospital where the situation was even nastier. “I think of Korea as even worse than the jungle in World War II because of the lack of supplies, lack of warmth in the operating room,” Anna Mae said, according to WorkingNurse.com.
Anna Mae served in her third war a decade later—this time in Vietnam. There, she oversaw 4,500 Army Nurse Corps staff, monitoring medical installations during the worst years of conflict. She was so well known there that even General William Westmoreland, who directed the strategy of nearly half a million U.S. troops in Vietnam, counted Anna Mae as a personal friend.
Throughout her three-decade career, Anna Mae fought hard for women’s rights. She argued that married officers who got pregnant while serving shouldn’t be automatically discharged. That became official policy in 1970, which many considered a victory for military women.
Although she seemed to not want to be labeled a feminist, Anna Mae wasn’t a woman who was bossed around by men. In fact, men took their cues from her.
When her husband died, just six years after the two had gotten married, General Westmoreland’s wife, Kitsy, told Anna Mae: “I wish you would get married again. I want some man to learn what it’s like to be married to a general.”