Nancy Friis-Hansen, of Scarborough, served in the Army as a nurse during and after World War II. For decades, female nurses like Friis-Hansen who helped win the Second World War have been largely overlooked. A new bill in Congress is seeking to remedy that.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

For Anna “Nancy” Friis-Hansen, her call to service in World War II was simple: The military needed nurses, so she stepped up.

“People always say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ That’s a very nice way of people saying that to you, but you don’t think (that) you were doing something extra special,” Friis-Hansen said. “Being a nurse and waiting on people for three or four years when you were in training alone was enough to make it feel as though you’re aiming for a goal, but you weren’t thinking of it as being something that’s special.”

A photo of Nancy Friis-Hansen, of Scarborough, when she served in the Army as a nurse during and after World War II. Photo courtesy of Nancy Friis-Hansen

The 102-year-old Springfield, Massachusetts, native and retired Army Nurse Corps member now lives in an assisted living facility in Scarborough. She easily recounts memories of her military nursing career, which spanned World War II and the Korean War. She’s also kept keepsakes from her service, including black-and-white photos labeled “Corkie,” a play on her maiden name, Corkum.

Friis-Hansen is one of thousands of women who served their country as nurses in World War II. They worked both overseas and at home caring for service members, many of whom were seriously injured in combat.

But for decades, the female nurses who helped win the Second World War have been largely overlooked. A new bill in Congress is seeking to remedy that.

The WWII Nurses Congressional Gold Medal Act would award women who served in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps during the war with the highest honor Congress can bestow upon civilians. The bill was introduced to the Senate in May and has been backed by U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. It is currently awaiting a hearing in the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.


Friis-Hansen is one of a dwindling number of World War II nurses still alive to receive the recognition. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates there were about 6,000 women World War II vets living in the U.S. as of September 2023.

Friis-Hansen joined the Nurse Corps straight out of nursing school in 1945 and served until 1953. 

A photo of Nancy Friis-Hansen during her service in the Army.

She trained at Fort Devens in Massachusetts, then was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where she worked as an orthopedic nurse. She later transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. After being discharged, she spent about five years in the Army Reserve.

“I was proud to wear the uniform,” Friis-Hansen said.

Women have served in various nursing capacities since the American Revolution, but it wasn’t until 1901 that Congress enshrined their role in the Army with the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps. Seven years later, Congress established the Navy Nurse Corps for female nurses.

More than 59,000 Army nurses and 14,000 Navy nurses had volunteered to serve by the end of World War II. They received more than 1,500 medals, citations and commendations during the war, including 16 medals awarded posthumously to nurses who died as a result of enemy fire.


In addition to nurses, women served in auxiliary, noncombat units in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard during the war. Congress awarded the Women Airforce Service Pilots with a gold medal in 2010.

Despite their contributions to the war effort, women could not serve as permanent, regular members of the armed forces (outside of wartime) in noncombat roles until 1948 – 75 years ago this year. Though women always served in combat zones, including those in nursing roles, it would take another 65 years before most women in the military were allowed to engage in combat.


Jim Siragusa remembers picking up the phone at his family home in West Springfield, Massachusetts, when he was 11 years old and a man on the other line introduced himself and asked to speak to his mother.

Siragusa, now a retired Lewiston High School and Central Maine Community College teacher, recognized the man’s last name.


“Are you Sweetie?” he asked the caller, referencing the nickname that his mother, Helen, gave to one of her former patients at St. Albans Naval Hospital in Long Island, New York, where she treated disabled and paralyzed service members during World War II and the Korean War.

At the time, Siragusa had no idea what the call meant to the Navy vet, a quadriplegic man who remained close friends with his mother after the war. He just knew that the man started crying.

Helen Siragusa joined the Navy Nurse Corps at the age of 22 in 1945 and spent about seven years in the service. Helen was stationed at St. Alban’s for about six years and served a short stint at the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point in North Carolina, where she met her husband, a Navy doctor. A New Jersey native, Helen would go on to raise her eight kids between Massachusetts and Winthrop, Maine, where she died last year at the age of 100.

The call from Sweetie is just one of many stories Jim Siragusa uses to paint the picture of his mom’s life. He grew up hearing her stories, but wouldn’t learn the extent of her wartime experiences until he and his sister, Sheila, sat down to transcribe them into a memoir in 2019.

“Navy Nurse: Memoir of a World War Two Veteran” tells the story of Helen Siragusa and her patients – men who called her “an angel.”

“When a bunch of guys like us wake up every morning, remembering that we’re never going to walk again, or maybe move again, in some cases, we start the day praying for hope,” Siragusa remembered another former patient telling him. “And we believe that your mom was the answer to our prayers, that God sent her to us to give us hope, and she did.”


Friis-Hansen also had a close relationship with her patients and fellow nurses. As she looks back at her time in the Army, she remembers the hardships of war, but she also reflects on good memories with her orthopedics patients – a group of men she calls “a good bunch.”

“They would plant mistletoe all around the office,” Friis-Hansen said of her patients’ Christmas traditions at Fort Bragg. “They were bored at that time, hoping to see the doctors kissing the nurses … or trying themselves.”

A photo of the first group of patients that Nancy Friis-Hansen, of Scarborough, cared for during World War II at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. Photo courtesy of Nancy Friis-Hansen

Both Helen Siragusa and Friis-Hansen are featured in the Military Women’s Memorial Registry, a searchable database preserving the stories of those who served. Despite their long military history, 90% of female veterans are not yet registered with the memorial, according to its website.

Navy veteran Joy Asuncion has dedicated years to getting female veterans the credit they are due. As the Maine State Ambassador for the Military Women’s Memorial, it is her mission to get veterans registered in the database and share information with veterans and their families. That’s why when she heard about the WWII Nurses Congressional Gold Medal Act, she immediately started spreading the news.

“I hope that everybody involved in the Senate, or congressional leaders, that they know how important (a Congressional Gold Medal) will be to those women, that generation and their families, for the service and sacrifice that they did for our country,” Asuncion said. “And this is just one way to thank them and to let them know they’re not forgotten for what they did.”

Nancy Friis-Hansen, left, and another nurse at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Photo courtesy of Nancy Friis-Hansen

She hopes now that she can get the word out to even more veterans and their families.

“I would love for families of women that are still living, whether they’re in Maine or not, World War II women that are still living and those that have passed away, I would love to be able to know who they are, because when this medal gets hopefully approved and everything, they need to be recognized, their names need to be known, and I think their families would appreciate it,” Asuncion said.

Helen Siragusa, like Friis-Hansen, was humble about her service, but would nevertheless be thrilled about a possible Congressional Gold Medal – one her son said he thinks she’s aware of.

“That would be a great posthumous honor for her, and one that I don’t think she’ll miss,” Jim Siragusa said. “I think she’s aware of it in my view, and it’s just wonderful for the family to see her recognized in that way.”

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