The Army’s highest award for noncombat valor, the Soldier’s Medal had been bestowed exclusively to men since its creation in 1927.
But in 1943, a female nurse who braved a raging fire to save her fellow Joes was given the award at the explicit order of then President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Edith Greenwood was a lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps in World War II, and in 1943 she was serving patients at a hospital on the massive California Arizona Maneuver Area.
The CAMA served as a practice stage for troops headed to the battle front in North Africa and stretched from Southeast California into Arizona and Nevada. Across this expanse of desert and mountains, troops practiced all aspects of deployed life.
The hospital where Greenwood worked had an attached kitchen where cooks prepared the meals for all the patients and staff. Greenwood oversaw a 15-bed ward near the kitchen.
On the morning of Apr. 17, 1943, a cooking stove exploded and started a fire in the ward. Greenwood tried to fight the flames but quickly realized the building was lost. So Greenwood and her assistant, Pvt. James F. Ford, grabbed the 15 patients and ferried them outside to safety.
With the flames racing through the wooden structure, the entire ward burned down in about 5 minutes. But thanks to the quick actions of Greenwood and Ford, all of the patients made it out alive.
When the story of the fire reached Roosevelt, he ordered that both Ford and Greenwood receive the Soldier’s Medal, the highest award that he or the military could recommend under the circumstances.
On Jun. 10, 1943, Greenwood became the first woman to receive the medal. She survived the war and died of old age in 1999. The synopsis of her medal citation is below:
By direction of the President of the United States, The Soldier’s Medal is awarded to Lieutenant Edith Ellen Greenwood, Army Nurse Corps, United States Army. At 0630 on April 17, 1943, a stove exploded in the 37th Station Hospital’s diet kitchen, setting fire to the nearby ward where Lieutenant Greenwood was responsible for overseeing the care of 15 patients. Greenwood sounded the alarm and attempted to extinguish the blaze, but the fire quickly spread, with reports indicating that the ward burned down within five minutes. Greenwood safely evacuated all of her patients with the assistance of a young ward attendant, Private James F. Ford. By direction of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, both Greenwood and Ford were awarded the Soldier’s Medal on June 10, 1943.