World War II cadet nurse on honor flight

Published 3:00 pm Saturday, May 30, 2009

When the Southeastern Minnesota Honor Flight went to Washington, D.C., on May 2 to visit the nation’s World War II Memorial, there were 83 men and one woman on the primary roster. And that one woman was Constance “Connie” Benson of Albert Lea.

Her eligibility for this flight as a World War II veteran was based on her service in the 1940s as a part of a still little-known part of the nation’s war effort known as the U.S. Cadet Nurses Corps.

She grew up on what’s now a century farm on State Highway 251 between Corning and Lansing in Mower County. Back then her last name was Anderson.

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“The last time anyone called me Constance was in high school,” she said.

After graduating from Austin High School in 1940, she spent a year in teacher training and then taught a year in the La Bar School north of her home place in Mower County.

Her family wanted Connie to continue on as a rural school teacher; she had a different occupation in mind. Thus, in June 1942, she became a student nurse at the Kahler School of Nursing in Rochester.

Because of a shortage of nurses during World War II for both the military services and the nation’s hospitals, the U.S. Public Health Service organized the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps.

On July 1, 1943, she became a cadet nurse. This in turn provided her with free tuition and a monthly salary.

“We stayed in dorms and had uniforms,” she said.

The Rochester part of this educational program had more than 600 cadet nurses, which is verified with several news articles Benson has saved. She added that there were also six-week training sessions at the University of Minnesota Hospital, Anchor Hospital in St. Paul and several other Twin Cities medical facilities.

By the time this cadet nurse graduated and became a registered nurse on July 7, 1945, the war was coming to a close and the need for nurses had diminished. Thus, her hopes of becoming a nurse in the U.S. Navy faded away, and she soon became a surgical nurse Rochester’s Colonial Hospital, a part of the Kahler operations.

While growing up, she became acquainted with Clifford Benson, who lived on a farm near Blooming Prairie. They also attended the same church, Red Oak Grove Lutheran Church. During World War II, Benson served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. His unit, the Second Division, was involved in a series of brutal island battles across the Pacific Ocean.

After he came home and was discharged from military service, they renewed their friendship and were married in December 1945.

Her husband farmed and later sold insurance in Albert Lea as the American Family agent. They had six sons, including a set of twins.

Her husband died in 1979.

She continued her nursing career in both Austin and Albert Lea.

“I loved every part of nursing,” she said.

Benson has lived in Albert Lea since 1972 and retired from nursing in 1989. She has five sons (one son died two years ago), 14 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

About two years ago she heard about the Honor Flight program and decided to make an application. Earlier this year Benson was informed that she would be on the May flight.