World War II and the American Red Cross

Red Cross serving World War 2 soldiers coffee
The American Red Cross involvement in World War II preceded the entrance of the United States into the conflict. When hostilities began in Europe in 1939, the Red Cross became the chief provider of relief supplies for the civilian victims of conflict distributed by the Geneva-based International Red Cross Committee. In February 1941, the Red Cross responded to a request by the U.S. government to begin a Blood Donor Service to produce lifesaving plasma for the armed forces in anticipation of America’s entry into the war. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Red Cross quickly mobilized a volunteer and staff force to fulfill the mandates of its 1905 congressional charter requiring that the organization “furnish volunteer aid to the sick and wounded of armies in time of war” and to “act in matters of voluntary relief and in accord with the military and naval authorities as a medium of communication between the people of the United States of America and their Army and Navy.”

At home, millions of volunteers provided comfort and aid to members of the armed forces and their families, served in hospitals suffering from severe shortages of medical staff, produced emergency supplies for war victims, collected scrap, ran victory gardens, and maintained training programs in home nutrition, first aid, and water safety. Overseas, Red Cross workers served as field directors providing compassionate support for the troops they accompanied, operated clubs and clubmobiles for the armed forces, and were attached to military hospitals, hospital ships, and hospital trains.

At the peak of Red Cross wartime activity in 1945, 7.5 million volunteers along with 39,000 paid staff provided service to the military. Throughout the war years, the Red Cross served 16 million military personnel, including one million combat casualties. By the time World War II ended in September 1945, the American public had contributed over $784 million in support of the American Red Cross. Nearly every family in America contained a member who had either served as a Red Cross volunteer, made contributions of money or blood, or was a recipient of Red Cross services.

American Red Cross War-related Services

On the home front and behind the battle lines overseas, volunteers and paid, professional staff provided services in these categories:

Services to the Armed Forces (SAF) comprised of the Military and Naval Welfare Service, the Home Service, the Camp and Hospital Council Service, and, at the end of the war, Service to Veterans Hospitals.

Volunteer Special Services, a group of domestic programs carried on by volunteers through local Red Cross chapters.

Specialized War-time Services, such as the Blood Donor Program, Prisoners of War relief, civil defense, and foreign aid to civilian war victims overseas.

War-related aspects of ongoing Red Cross services, including Nursing, First Aid and Water Safety, Junior Red Cross, and College Red Cross Units.

These services are described below. Excerpts from the 1944 Red Cross Annual Report accompany some descriptions to convey a contemporary impression of the human dimensions of this extraordinary period in American Red Cross history.

War's End

The war’s conclusion hardly signaled the end to Red Cross activities in service to the military and the victims of war. Indeed, Red Cross workers swept across Europe alongside the victorious Allied troops and they accompanied occupation troops as they entered Japan. They improvised services for the liberated prisoners of war and civilian internees. They stood by restless troops waiting to return home. On the domestic scene, they gave comfort and guidance to thousands of returning servicemen and women at ports and train stations and at chapters on every step of their way home. Many others provided services to the sick and wounded who were evacuated to the United States, as the Red Cross prepared for a long-range peacetime program of service to veterans in hospitals.
Veterans coming in increasing numbers to their hometown chapters were asking: What does the GI Bill of Rights mean to me? Am I entitled to other government benefits? Who can answer my questions about insurance, medical care, veterans’ hospitals? Home Service workers were prepared with up-to-date answers to all such questions and many more.

During Wartime the Red Cross Stays on Duty at Home

Natural disasters at home occurred throughout the war years and the Red Cross did not waver from providing its customary services to the American public. For the period 1939-1946, 959,000 Americans received disaster relief, including those affected by the Coconut Grove fire in Boston that killed 492, the circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut that killed 168, and 1940 and 1944 hurricanes that struck the Eastern seaboard, killing a total of 96 on shore and 344 at sea. In addition to disaster services, the Red Cross supplied nurses to combat the polio epidemic that lasted into the 1950s and continued to train thousands of citizens in such vital areas as first aid, water safety, nutrition, and home nursing.

Red Cross Wartime Statistics at a Glance

Over the course of the war years, 86 Red Cross workers—52 women and 34 men—lost their lives as the result of their wartime service. These and other summary statistics are given in the table below.
Total contributions received during war years..............................................$784,992,995
Greatest number of chapters (1943 and 1944)..............................................3,757
Greatest number of adult members (1945)...................................................36,645,333
Greatest number of Junior Red Cross members (1945).................................19,905,400
Greatest number of volunteers (1945)..........................................................7,500,700
Greatest number of paid staff (1945)...........................................................39,032
Number of Red Cross certified nurses in service with the military...................71,000
Number of service personnel receiving Red Cross aid...................................16,113,000
Messages made between servicemen and families.......................................42,000,000
Families aided by the Home Service...........................................................1,700,000
Tons of supplies shipped overseas..............................................................300,460
Pints of blood collected for military use.......................................................13,400,000
Number of blood donors..............................................................................6,600,000
Number of foreign countries in which Red Cross operated..............................more than 50
American Red Cross war casualties–male...................................................34
American Red Cross war casualties–female................................................52

More Information

For more information about the American Red Cross during World War II see the following publications, all of which are out of print but available in most libraries:

Foster Rhea Dulles, The American Red Cross: A History. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1950.
A general history the American Red Cross from its beginnings to 1950.

Patrick F. Gilbo, The American Red Cross: The First Century. NY: Harper and Row, 1981.
An illustrated history of the first century of the American Red Cross, 1881-1981.

Charles Hurd, The Compact History of the American Red Cross. NY: Hawthorn Books, 1959.

George Korson, At His Side: The Story of the American Red Cross Overseas in World War II. NY: Coward-McCann, 1945.
Contact American Red Cross Historical Programs for more information about American Red Cross history.