In Service of Mercy: Emma Byrne

As the month of November approaches, we have turned our attention towards those from Vanderburgh County who have served our nation in times of war.  This year is the 100th anniversary of U.S. entry into WWI.  Like our brothers and sisters across the country, Vanderburgh County mobilized to do its part.  One often overlooked area of contribution is the war service of women from Vanderburgh County.

The Clerk’s Office has historically been a entry point of contact for local residents and their government.  In the period before so much specialization and expansion of government offices the Clerk’s Office did work we wouldn’t think would be done at the local level.  One of those things was compiling registers of both male and female veterans of WWI.  Each of the women listed in the register has a compelling story to tell of service and sacrifice.

Upon U.S. entry to the war, a call went up to recruit nurses, specifically graduate nurses, into war service. “In May 1917, U.S. medical teams became the first American troops to arrive in the war zone, and many remained through mid-1919.  Over 22,000 professionally-trained female nurses were recruited by the American Red Cross to serve in the U.S. Army between 1917 and 1919 — and over 10,000 of these served near the Western Front. More than 1,500 nurses served in the U.S. Navy during this period, and several hundred worked for the American Red Cross. Additionally, a handful worked in American units of the British and French armies. The U.S. military rejected for overseas service nurses who were African Americans or immigrants, despite drafting men from these groups.” (Jones, Marian Moser; American Nurses in World War I: Under-Appreciated and Under Fire.)

Evansville had several nursing programs and hospitals that immediately volunteered their graduates, especially St. Mary’s Hospital and Walker Hospital, but also Hayden, Crescent, and Gilbert Sanatoriums and Boehne Camp Tuberculosis Hospital.

First to Enlist, First in France, Chief Nurse of the Army Nurse Corps, American Expeditionary Force


EMMA BYRNE was the first nurse from Evansville to enlist for the Army Nurse Corps. She came from a line of veterans with her grandfather being a well known local Civil War veteran.  She graduated from Nursing School at Gilbert Sanatorium in 1912 and was appointed City Nurse in 1915.  She focused on public health and tuberculosis prevention work.  One of her duties was operating a free clinic in the basement of the Old Courthouse on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 3-4:00 p.m. where where would treat men, women, and children.  It was through this work and home visits, along with her caring personality, that would garner Emma  the nickname “The Sunshine Nurse of the Poor.”

Emma received her deployment orders on June 1, 1917 when she was assigned to an Army hospital. In the Army, she was assigned a position as a surgical nurse.  She was first assigned to do surgical work at Camp Lee, Virginia.  Camp Lee was built in the Summer of 1917 as one of thirty two National Army Cantonments built to train the American Army to fight in France during World War I.

From there, Emma was transferred to the Embarkation Hospital at Camp Stewart, Virginia.  Her duties included  “the physical examination of embarkation troops; the sanitation of transports; the medical and surgical care of troops en voyage; the reception, treatment, classification, entrainment, and care of returning sick and wounded; the discipline and training of medical and sanitary personnel; the maintenance of records, and the making of inspections and reports of various sorts.”  Emma was promoted to Chief Nurse while at Camp Stewart.

After several months at Camp Stewart, she was transferred to U.S. Base Hospital Puerto Rico where she served for two months.  From there she was send to France to be the Chief Nurse of Replacement Unit No. 9, American Expeditionary Forces.  Several times she ran into Evansville men she knew from back home and they would speak of the comfort she gave them.  She even found herself face to face with her next door neighbor, Alelbert Stadler, at Ambulance Co. 362, 91st Division.

Emma spent the remainder of 1918 at Field Hospital No. 101 in Camp D’Auvours, France.  She treated men who had been wounded in combat and continued to do so until the war’s end.  The nurses stayed on post-war to aid wounded men in recovery.  Her total enlistment was 3 years.

Post-war, Emma Byrne became the head nurse at Boehne Camp Hospital where she treated men who were harmed by gas attacks during the war.  She advocated for them and raised money for them when the government stopped paying their disability benefits. She did her best to make sure they were treated with dignity.

Her philanthropic works continued as a founding member of the Women’s Rotary Club, the first such club in the nation.  There she focused on social issues, organizing Christmas parties for kids who’s families were staying at the Rescue Mission.  She also organized Christmas parties for veterans, continued her anti-tuberculosis work, and founded a girl’s mentorship program within the Juvenile Courts.

Emma was an American Legion-Funkhouser Post member.