As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country in 2020, American Red Cross volunteers joined a new project to help stop the spread of COVID-19 by making face coverings for veteran and military hospitals and military bases across the world.
Similarly, more than 100 years ago, the United States found itself juggling the effects of World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic. The Production Corps of the Red Cross, one of the most popular volunteer units in Red Cross history, manufactured and provided millions of surgical dressings and articles of clothing for soldiers, veterans and refugees during its years of operation, also making gauze face coverings to prevent the spread of influenza.
THE PRODUCTION CORPS TRACES ITS ORIGINS BACK TO 1916, when the Women's Bureau of the Red Cross recruited women across the nation to make surgical dressings, hospital garments and refugee clothing for sister Red Cross societies and military hospitals in war-torn Europe.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the program expanded to meet the needs of U.S. service members. The Army and Navy regularly requested thousands of surgical dressings and what were referred to as "comfort" items — hand-knitted socks, sweaters, soap and razors. Between 1917 and 1919, more than 8 million women, along with many Junior Red Cross members, produced over 370 million relief articles for the Allied armed forces and civilians in Europe.
From 1919 to 1939, the Production Corps continued its work as a peacetime operation. Volunteers made thousands of comfort items and surgical dressings for hospitalized service men and veterans, as well as for soldiers at remote military outposts or Navy stations. In addition, these volunteers provided the same items for civilian hospitals and disaster relief responses.
DURING WORLD WAR II, THE PRODUCTION CORPS WAS THE MOST POPULAR UNIT with more than 3.5 million members spread across more than 3,000 local Red Cross chapters. Unlike other volunteer jobs, there was no prerequisite training, and recruitment and task assignments were accomplished quickly. The women, and in some cases men, who volunteered enjoyed the camaraderie. Workrooms were set up not only at chapter buildings, but also at schools, churches and other public or private facilities for their convenience. From 1939 to 1946, the volunteers of the Production Corps made:
- More than 63.5 million garments for civilians and the military
- More than 31.2 million kit bags with items like playing cards and soap
- Nearly 2.5 million surgical dressings
- More than 1.4 million infant garments
IN 1950, THE RED CROSS COMBINED THE PRODUCTION CORPS with the Community Service to Camps and Hospitals — which supplied recreation equipment to the armed forces — to create the new Production and Supply Service. By the late 1960s, these services phased out: War-time demands declined, and the introduction of synthetic textiles and advances in manufacturing sterile medical supplies eliminated the need to hand-make such items.
DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, RED CROSS VOLUNTEERS ALL OVER THE WORLD have sewn more than 130,000 face coverings for military installations, veterans’ hospitals and military families in need.
Last year in Bahrain, women joined together to make face coverings for the U.S. military community. With the demand extending beyond Bahrain, they also shipped them out to other installations all over Europe.
In Japan, the Red Cross answered the call for face coverings as well. Volunteers and employees filled requests made from the U.S. Naval Hospital in Okinawa and quarantined service members.
HOW YOU CAN HELP In the face of emergencies like COVID-19, the American Red Cross and global Red Cross Red Crescent network join together to ease people’s suffering. Find out how you can volunteer at redcross.org.
This story is part of a special historical series marking the 140th anniversary of the American Red Cross. Visit redcross.org/RedCross140 to learn more.