Eleanor Roosevelt: The Red Cross Uniform

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in her Red Cross uniform.

Eleanor Roosevelt begged to visit the soldiers in the Pacific.

The Red Cross Uniform Circa WWI

The American Red Cross, begun following the Civil War, had its antecedents in Europe even before the Civil War. Clara Barton had been a dynamo during the War, organizing projects for the Sanitary Commission and bringing aid to wounded soldiers. A decade later she convinced then-President Rutherford B. Hayes that the Red Cross also offered benefits for victims of natural disasters – floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. – not just for war-related events.

Red Cross uniforms were not uniform…

By the 19-teens, with The Great War (as it was named then) raging in Europe, and American men and women volunteering Over There, the Red Cross became an enormously popular outlet for thousands of women to make excellent use of some extra time on their hands. They sewed and knitted, rolled bandages, prepared “kit bags,” and sponsored hundreds of fund-raising activities.

…They came in various colors, styles and accessories.

Eleanor Roosevelt, a young Washington, DC matron, was one of those volunteers. She wore her “official” apron and cap, and made sandwiches and poured coffee for soldiers and sailors pouring into/out from the capital.

Interesting enough, there was nothing “uniform” about a basic Red Cross uniform. Every state, and every city and town had its own version. Some had pinafore aprons; some had bib-style aprons. Most were white with a Red Cross affixed. The red crosses had a range of sizes, and were positioned in a variety of locations: breast or pocket, sleeve or collar. All were worn over a woman’s own long A-line-style skirt and traditional shirt-waist blouse. The caps were just as non-uniform.

The Red Cross Uniform Circa WW II

Twenty five years after WWI, the uniform for women in the Red Cross had changed just as dramatically as the women themselves.

No long skirts. No aprons. The traditional cap disappeared.

WWII Red Cross uniforms were not “uniform” either.

But they were modern, and allowed for movement.

Now women wore a simple shirtwaist dress in gray or light blue.  Sometimes they wore a khaki skirt and jacket suit (sometimes blue or gray), with the hem around knee-level. With it went a simple white blouse. The hat sometimes resembled the French style of higher-crowned kepi-cap (like Charles deGaulle); sometimes it resembled the traditional GI cap.  Stockings and sensible shoes were mandatory. The symbol of the Red Cross could be affixed anywhere.

Mrs. Roosevelt: Traveler

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had already logged thousands of air miles by 1942. She had visited scores of US locations hard hit by the Depression. She visited mines and factories. She visited prisons and drought-destroyed farmlands and towns that had gone bust. Once the US entered the War however, all the projects of the New Deal, so dear to her heart, were put on a back burner.

Now, with the War raging in the Pacific, she begged her husband to let her go “to War.” President Franklin Roosevelt was iffy, but promised to run it by the high-brass. High brass in 1942 was old-school, and did not particularly respect/regard women in the military environment, except perhaps as nurses. They were respectful of Mrs. R., of course, and realized her abilities and political clout (both of which were considerable), but they were unanimously opposed. This was War. They could not guarantee her safety, let alone convenience or comfort. Ships could be torpedoed at any time; airplanes were shot down regularly. It would require a tremendous amount of time, staff and energy “looking after her.” She would be in the way. In short: A loud “NO”.

But Eleanor continued to beg, and FDR, as Commander-in-Chief, acquiesced. The brass grumbled, but they were overruled. Wearing the uniform of the Red Cross, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt went to war.

Admiral William Halsey:

Admiral “Bull” Halsey.

Nobody grumbled louder than Admiral William F. Halsey (1882-1959), now assigned as Mrs. Roosevelt’s host-brass. He was not nicknamed “Bull” for nothing. He was pugnacious, tough, uncompromising, with a temper to match. But he could deliver the goods. Eleanor Roosevelt was not pugnacious, and her temperament was even – but she was tough and uncompromising as well. And she could deliver the goods.

Admiral Halsey, within the first 24-hours of seeing Eleanor Roosevelt “at work,” did a complete turnaround.

The Military brass did a complete about-face.

Outspoken and irascible by nature, Halsey was a quick convert. In his memoirs, he wrote of the First Lady:

“Here is what [Eleanor Roosevelt] did in twelve hours: she inspected two Navy hospitals, took a boat to an officer’s rest home and had lunch there, returned and inspected an Army hospital, reviewed the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion (her son Jimmy had been its executive officer), made a speech at a service club, attended a reception, and was guest of honor at a dinner given by General Harmon.

When I say that she inspected those hospitals, I don’t mean that she shook hands with the chief medical officer, glanced into a sun room and left. I mean that she went into every ward, stopped at every bed, and spoke to every patient: What was his name? How did he feel? Was there anything he needed? Could she take a message home for him? I marveled at her hardihood, both physical and mental, she walked for miles, and she saw patients who were grievously and gruesomely wounded. But I marveled most at their expressions as she leaned over them. It was a sight I will never forget.”

Mrs. R. visited hundreds of wounded soldiers.

She not only visited every ward in the hospitals and the infirmaries, she visited the military bases and ships. She dutifully attended to the “politics” of war, appearing at the obligatory luncheons and dinners.   She kept a detailed notebook of names and families, dates and places, and diligently wrote personally to all their mothers and wives and sweethearts. All were heroes in her letters, which she knew would be saved and treasured for posterity. The men loved her. So did the brass, and they were not a bunch easily swayed.




About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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