Georgia McKearly set her sights on becoming a nurse when she was 4-years old and having her tonsils removed in the hospital. She admired the nurses who tended to her and never forgot them.
That early aspiration led her to the US Naval Medical Service Corps, where she served for 30 years, retiring in 1975 as one of just two female captains. Her military service spanned 30 years and three wars—World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. And she was one of the first Navy nurses to become a physical therapist, working closely with soldiers who had gunshot wounds, paralyses, and amputations.
Serving in Navy hospitals throughout the country “was a wonderful experience," she says. "You knew you were helping people.”
Georgia Mae McKearly was born August 24, 1919, in Crosby, Minn., an only child named after both of her parents. Her father, George, was a tall man who worked as a train conductor. He’d met Georgia’s mother, Mae St. Pierre, when he worked with her brother on the Soo Line railroad in Minnesota.
When she was in third grade, her family moved to Chicago, where she attended Catholic schools. During the Depression, the McKearlys watched their money closely. Georgia recalls finding her mother crying in the pantry after she had to turn down her daughter’s request for 15 cents to rent bicycles with her friends. After that, Georgia says, “I never said I needed anything.”
As she was starting high school, her father began experiencing intermittent neurological symptoms, at one point even falling off a boxcar onto the platform. His doctors in Chicago believed he had Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). From then on, the railroad company limited his assignments, and her mother started working at a department store on State Street to support the family.
After high school graduation in 1937, Georgia earned her nurse’s license in three years and went to work at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, while going to night school at Loyola for her nursing education degree, which she completed in 1944.
That August, she volunteered for the Navy Nurse Corps Reserves and was soon assigned to Great Lakes Naval Hospital. In the early days, between shifts, the nurses would go out onto the lawn behind the nurses’ quarters for military training.There, a Marine taught them how to march and salute.“We never went to a real school for that at that time,” Georgia explains.
As the Allies gained momentum, they liberated many prisoners of war from Bataan, many of whom returned home severely wounded. Georgia went to work in the diet kitchen with five other nurses, catering to the needs of sailors and Marines whose jaws had been disfigured. She soon became a supervisor.
When the Navy advertised a pioneering physical therapy certification course, she applied, but didn’t hear anything back.Instead, she received orders to transfer, along with 45 other nurses, to another naval hospital in San Diego.
The train ride from Chicago to San Diego took three days; the Navy nurses got a car to themselves.When they arrived, they moved into the nurses’ quarters in Balboa Park. “There were eight of us in double-decker bunks in this one big room,” she recalls.The San Diego Zoo was close by, and the nurses used to wake up to the sounds of cheetahs.
Georgia loved to connect with her patients, and the soldiers often livened up her shifts with friendly pranks. Once, some of her patients smuggled in a small white rabbit and “just laughed like it was the funniest thing they ever saw” as it jumped all over the nurses’ station.
She knew she would miss them when she was no longer serving. It was 1946, and the war was winding down; as a reservist, she knew she was about to be “ushered out” of the Navy.
But then Georgia received a letter: the Navy had chosen her to participate in the physical therapy training program at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond.She would no longer be a reservist, and she would be expected to remain in the service for at least the next three years.
Georgia was especially excited about pursuing physical therapy because it would give her the opportunity to work individually with patients.“At that time, physical therapy was just kind of coming into its own in the United States,” she explains. Even though the war was over, there was still a lot of work to do to rehabilitate the soldiers.
That September, she went to Richmond, Va. with 17 other Navy nurses for training. After nine months of accelerated coursework and three months of practical experience, Georgia became a certified physical therapist and was stationed in various naval hospitals, where she would do specialty work during the week and then weekend duty as a regular nurse: “Didn’t make any difference which ward; you were supposed to be capable of doing anything.”Over the next ten years, she bounced between major hospitals, serving at Bethesda, Great Lakes, Camp Pendleton, and St. Albans before returning to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego.
Back in Balboa once again, she was in charge of the physical therapy department, and worked in the Navy's first purpose-built therapeutic rehabilitation pool. “For a couple of years, you usually saw me in a bathing suit,” she says.
Then, the rules changed: if specialized nurses wanted to continue working in physical therapy and not go back to solely general nursing, they would have to transfer from the Nurse Corps to the Medical Service Corps, which was not permitted at the time. Fortunately, on June 21, 1956, Congress passed Public Law 606, a special, temporary authorization for active duty nurses to apply to transfer.Georgia, along with four other physical therapists and two occupational therapists in San Diego, made the jump in 1957.
While still in the service, she struck up a lasting friendship with Margaret Chase Smith, a trailblazing moderate Republican senator who had competed against Barry Goldwater for the Republican nomination in 1964. Chase Smith was known as the "mother of the WAVES" for her support of women in the Navy.
The two women first met over the 1968 Christmas holidays, when the senator traveled out to greet the returning crewmembers of the USS Pueblo, who were being treated at the San Diego naval hospital after months of imprisonment in North Korea. While she was there, the senator needed physical therapy for her hip, and Georgia coached her through exercises. The two “hit it off,” and the friendship would last for years — the senator would always let Georgia know when she was in the area, and Georgia and her mother would visit the senator in Washington, D.C. and Maine.
Given her service in both the Nurse Corps and the Medical Service Corps, "Capt. McKearly chartered a very unique Navy career," writes André Sobocinski, a historian at the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. By the time she left the Navy in 1975 to care for her sick mother, Georgia had attained the rank of Captain. After retirement, she stayed in touch with former colleagues, even as she traveled the world.
Today, Georgia lives in San Diego. “I have felt fulfilled, throughout my life,” she says. “It was never boring, I’ll tell you that…it was all worthwhile.”