Nursing on the home front in WWII

Robert Houk • Nov 4, 2018 at 2:22 PM

As the youngest of seven children growing up on her family’s farm in Cocke County, Agnes Lowe knew she would be a nurse someday.

“We weren’t destitute, but if we didn’t grow it, we didn’t have it,” Lowe said.

One of her siblings was a nurse and Lowe wanted to follow in her older sister’s footsteps.

“She was 10 years older me, and was a nurse at Fort Sanders Hospital in Knoxville,” Lowe said.

It was about this time that her father contracted tuberculosis, and was sent to a sanitarium in Texas. When he returned home, Lowe said her sister was there to care for him until he died a few months later. Lowe was 12 years old and more certain than ever she had made the right career choice

World War II solidified her path to becoming a nurse. A number of nurses, including her sister, joined the military to help the war effort. This created a shortage of nurses on the home front.

Lowe, who recently turned 93, wanted to help fill the void. After working six months as a typist at Oak Ridge (where the government was secretly working on the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear bomb), she joined the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps in 1943.

“A lot of nurse recruits were not as well off as others,” she said. “Some didn’t have decent clothes to wear.”

Lowe said she was already planning a career in nursing, and had been accepted to study at Fort Sanders Hospital when she entered the nurse cadet program. The corps, which was a civilian program that required participants to enlist in military service once their training was complete, paid cadets $115 a month to help cover the cost of their uniforms and books.

The last six months of their training were to be spent in an Army or a Veterans Administration hospital. Lowe said she chose the Mountain Home VA facility in Johnson City to complete her nursing education.

It was there she got to know her first husband, Finley Penick, a Navy veteran who died after five years of marriage in a traffic accident.

“There were 30 of us (cadets) who stayed at Mountain Home during our senior year,” she said.”Many of us met our husbands there.”

The days were often long and hard for nurse cadets. She and her colleagues of the corps, which is marking the 75th anniversary of its creation this year, were responsible for nearly three-fourths of nursing care on the home front.

Lowe returned to Fort Sanders Hospital after her stint at the VA to complete her cadet service. The war ended before her graduation, and Lowe was no longer obligated to join a branch of the military service, as her sister had done a few years before when she enlisted in the Navy.

“We are not considered veterans, but we were a part of the war effort,” she said.

Lowe stayed in nursing and continued to work in nursing for more than 40 years. Some of that time was spent as a private duty nurse when her husband was killed, leaving her with two small children — ages 2 and 4 — to support.

Lowe later remarried and put her nursing experience to use at the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital, Mountain Home. She retired from the VA in 1986 after working there for 22 years.

“I saw many veterans of World War II during my time at Mountain Home,” Lowe said.

She also used her nursing skills to care for her husband, Bill Lowe, in their home before his death.

“I love nursing — I really do,” Lowe, who lives at Brookdale Assisted Living in Johnson City, said recently. “It’s been a big part of my life.”

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