WASHINGTON — Anna Mae Hays, an Army nurse who served in a mud-caked jungle hospital in World War II, guided the Army Nurse Corps through the bloodiest years of the Vietnam War, and became the first female general in American military history, died Jan. 7 at a retirement home in Washington, D.C. She was 97.
The cause was complications from a heart attack, said a niece, Doris Kressly.
The daughter of Salvation Army officers, General Hays had dreamed of becoming a nurse since she was a young girl, wrapping bandages around the legs of a kitchen table where her parents frequently invited the infirm to dinner. She went on, in Vietnam, to oversee a 4,500-person nursing corps whose robust use of antibiotics, whole-blood transfusions, and speedy helicopter evacuations was unforeseen when she began assisting doctors at a dirt-floored hospital in Ledo, India, in January 1943.
Working in a malaria-infested stretch of the China-Burma-India theater, she treated gangrenous construction workers who were building a new roadway that supplied the Chinese military in its war against Japan, as well as lice-infested members of the special-operations Army unit known as Merrill’s Marauders.
General Hays treated some of the earliest casualties of the Korean War, helping establish the first military hospital in Inchon, and as chief of the Army Nurse Corps from 1967 until her retirement four years later, she helped bolster its ranks during the conflict in Vietnam.
As part of an effort to expand scholarship opportunities and educational requirements for Army nurses, General Hays ‘‘persuaded the Army that nursing was important enough to spend money on — a hard sell at that time,’’ said Sanders Marble, senior historian in the Army’s Office of Medical History.
General Hays resisted a close association with feminism — ‘‘Let’s not talk about this,’’ she told The New York Times in 1970, when asked about the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. But she nonetheless became a symbol of unprecedented female advancement on June 11, 1970, when she was promoted to the one-star rank of brigadier general.
Until three years earlier, the rank had been barred to her by law. Legislation under President Lyndon B. Johnson opened up the possibility of a female general — the first ‘‘in the Western world since Joan of Arc,’’ General William Westmoreland said — and in 1970 President Richard M. Nixon made good on the new rules, selecting for promotion General Hays and Elizabeth P. Hoisington, chief of the Women’s Army Corps.
Whether by virtue of alphabetic order, seniority or a simple twist of fate, General Hays received her rank first, just a few minutes earlier than Hoisington. In a Pentagon ceremony attended by the wife of one of General Hays’s former patients, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Westmoreland gave her the rank’s silver star insignia and what Time magazine described as ‘‘a brassy kiss’’ on the lips.
It was, the Army chief of staff joked, all part of ‘‘a new protocol for congratulating lady generals.’’
One day after she was promoted to general, she found herself at the hairdresser’s next to Westmoreland’s wife, Kitsy, Westmoreland later said. ‘‘I wish you’d get married again,’’ Kitsy said. When General Hays asked why, she replied: ‘‘I just want some man to know what it’s like to be married to a general.’’