Anne Kakos holds a photo of herself as a
Cadet Nurse during World War II.
Seventy years ago, a spry 16-year old Anne Mandzak regularly climbed a hillside in Corning, where she scouted for warplanes. From a cabin, she reported by phone the planes' directions to the U.S. Army as part of the Aircraft Warning Service.
She was already taking high school courses to prepare for a career in nursing, which she'd been encouraged to do by the American Red Cross since as early as eighth grade.
"The war had just started. Germany was going against Czechoslovakia," said Ann Mandzak Kakos, now 86, and a retired school nurse teacher with the Yonkers Federation of Teachers.
At age 17, she enrolled in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps to study, train and perform nursing duties in civilian hospitals crippled by a shortage of nurses.
Many nurses were serving in the war overseas, forcing some hospital wards to close. Immunizations were cancelled. Hundreds of clinics were closed. Babies were delivered at home without medical assistance.
And then, along came 185,000 women like Kakos who, recruited by guidance officers, teachers and a savvy newspaper and radio campaign, enlisted in the Cadet Nurse Corps.
Following the passage in 1943 of an act named for Frances P. Bolton, an Ohio Congresswoman and public health advocate, the U.S. spent $65 million to educate and train nurse recruits; 124,000 completed their programs. Sixteen New York schools of nursing participated, including the State University of New York Plattsburgh.
After being accepted at the Robert Packer Hospital School of Nursing in 1943, Kakos was told the federal government would pay for her tuition, room and board if she enlisted in the U.S. Cadet Nurse program.
"I accepted the offer as I believed that I was enlisting in United States military service. We were given government-issued uniforms and were under rigid discipline. We pledged to remain in the Cadet Nurse Corps until the end of World War II hostilities. The cadet nurses replaced the registered nurses, who joined the Armed Services. This is why I believe that we should have the title of being called ‘United States veterans'," said Kakos. She signed up with her sister, Mary. "We finished together and never lost a day."
In the cold winters of Pennsylvania where she worked, Kakos wore a gray wool suit with a winter overcoat, the corps' nursing uniform. In the summer, she once worked 28 nights in a row, caring for 30 patients, including soldiers.
Some nurses went to school during the day and worked at night. The young nurses were pressed into work before they passed state boards.
"One-third of the nurses dropped out for health reasons and anxiety," said Kakos. "You have life and death in your hands all the time. Some got sick from polio, TB and working with communicable diseases." Nurses received a stipend, which was just enough to pay for personal needs such as nursing shoes, shampoo and stockings, Kakos said. "We were put under a lot of pressure. We didn't know anything about true life."
Kakos recalled standing at the bedside of a man with polio. He was 17 and she was 18. Nervous, she just looked at him and said, "Well?" He said, "Well?" She said "Well?" again. He smiled and said, "Three wells make a river." They burst out laughing and Kakos was at ease.
"The patients are the ones who teach you," she said.
Now, a soft-spoken, determined Kakos works to teach the country about the role the Cadet Nurse Corps played during wartime.
For the last 16 years, she has been campaigning for the Cadet Nurse Corps to be recognized as veterans. In 2009, Kakos traveled to Washington, D.C., to ask Congress to support the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps Equity Act. Since 1996, she has succeeded in getting Congresswoman Nita Lowey, D-Westchester/Rockland, to continue sponsoring HR 1718 that would honor the nurses as veterans.
Rep. Lowey's bill has been referred to the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Veteran Affairs. If both committees approve the bill, it is up to the House leadership to schedule a vote of the full House. If no action is taken by the 112th Congress, the bill will expire. Should that happen, Lowey, a NYSUT-endorsed candidate, has pledged to reintroduce the bill if re-elected.
"With few opportunities for women during the Second World War, the members of the Cadet Nurse Corps served our nation honorably at a time of great need," Lowey said. "Cadet nurses provided essential care to both American civilians and military veterans returning wounded from the front lines. Those who served in the Cadet Nurse Corps deserve full recognition and veterans' status."
Kakos followed different paths in a lifetime of nursing. She worked as a visiting nurse in Hell's Kitchen in New York City, a public health nurse in Yonkers, and then a school nurse teacher. She and her husband, Michael, a WWII Veteran of Foreign Wars, raised four children at their home.
Today her aging four-story home in Yonkers, where she raised her children, sits across the street from Longfellow Junior High School. The school, closed in 1986, stands roofless, vacant and vandalized.
Standing on her front stoop, Kakos points to a second-floor window without glass framing a room with no ceiling. "That used to be my school nurse office," she said.
"Anne Kakos' service to our country and subsequently to our schools and community is just another example of the dedication our members have for improving the lives of others," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue.
Kakos' goal now is to prevent the Nurse Corps from being neglected. "Despite their historic and patriotic contributions, the women of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps have been forgotten," said Kakos.
"I'd like to hold a flag and say I'm a U.S. veteran."