FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- Aileen Cole, a graduate of Washington, D.C.'s Freedman Hospital School of Nursing, always considered herself a pioneer. As one of the first black Army Nursing Corps nurses, she was always eager to serve. She received her nursing certificate in 1917 after three years' study.
In October 1918, she and two other nurses were asked to help the American Red Cross check the Spanish Influenza pandemic among the coal miners of West Virginia at the end of World War I. Huge amounts of coal were needed to fuel the troop transports taking American Soldiers to France.
Ailing miners had actually died in large numbers. The nurses were met by the mayor of Charleston, W.Va., who advised that the outcome of the war depended on the miners and the Red Cross nurses. Cole was sent by rail to Bretz, W.Va., and went to work immediately. She regularly visited some 20 homes, taking temperatures and dispensing medications.
By Armistice Day in November 1918, she had also helped establish a field hospital at Cascade. Two days later, she received a letter from the director of field nursing of the American Red Cross, inquiring about her availability for service in the U.S. Army. The Army Surgeon General was reaching out to nurses all over the country.
She volunteered immediately, and was commissioned a first lieutenant for pay purposes in the Reserve Nurse Corps after a rigorous training course. She never considered the fact that she was making history when she took the oath of office on Nov. 29, 1918, as one of the first black nurses in the ANC. The corps was established in February 1901.
She was sent with eight other black nurses to Camp Sherman, Ohio, to nurse ailing Soldiers. At Camp Sherman, she encountered no bias or discrimination in assignments, although the black nurses occupied separate quarters. Her salary was about $50 per month. All the black nurses were discharged in August 1919.
She later remarked, "Each of us did contribute quietly and with dignity to the idea that justice demands professional quality for all qualified nurses."
Right after the war, she worked for two years at the Booker T. Washington Sanitarium in New York City as a night supervisor. During the next 34 years, she worked as a New York public health nurse.
In 1928, she married George Stewart. They subsequently became the parents of a daughter who later worked as a teacher and freelance writer in Seattle. The Stewarts moved to West Coast after she retired from the Public Health Service in 1956. She soon went to work as a general duty nurse at Seattle's Swedish Hospital.
At age 68, she received a Bachelor of Science degree in public health nursing from the University of Washington. She also volunteered with the Red Cross youth program. In the 1970s, before she died, she lived in a nursing home in Tacoma, Wash., still spry and proud of her Army and public service.