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Emergency Response - Red Cross


  • Allen EW. “The Boston aides can take it.” The Red Cross Courier 9 (January 1943): 9+. Courtesy of Red CrossFULL TEXT
  • Robeson HA. Summary of Volunteer Special Services Participation in Cocoanut Grove Fire, Boston, Massachusetts, November 28, 1942. Unpublished report. [Boston]: American National Red Cross, n.d. Courtesy of American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts. FULL TEXT
The attack on Pearl Harbor had been a wake-up call for organizations like the Red Cross. In the year following, the Red Cross had developed its own disaster emergency plans, and these plans were first tested in the real-life Cocoanut Grove fire.  The Cocoanut Grove Fire Boston Massachusetts November 28, 1942. Red Cross Official Report of Relief Operations (1943) and the Report of the Cocoanut Grove Fire November 28, 1942 (December 29, 1942) by Joseph R. Hamlen, Chairman, Boston Metropolitan Chapter of the American Red Cross provide the best accounts of the Red Cross’s contributions to the fire’s disaster relief.

Upon notification of the fire at the Cocoanut Grove night club, the chairman of the Boston Chapter’s Disaster Relief and Preparedness Committee called the fire department to ask what was needed. The reply was “ambulances”. Chapter headquarters then mobilized efforts to send all of their ambulances and auxiliary station wagons, fully equipped with stretchers, blankets and first aid kits. The Motor Corps of Boston and adjacent chapters sent 39 ambulances to the scene and transported the living and the dead to hospitals and morgues. Ambulances ran until 3 am on Sunday.

Mobile canteens were sent to the site of the fire to supply hot coffee and food to rescue workers. Additional canteens were sent to the hospitals and morgues, where they served the hundreds of relatives and friends who stood in line for blocks to get word of missing persons.

Boston nurses were recruited and assigned by the Boston Committee on Red Cross Nursing Service, and were provided on a volunteer basis for the first seven days. Later the Nursing Service assigned nurses to relieve, on a pay basis, those who had volunteered.  At the height of the nursing activity, December 9, 1942, there were 80 nurses employed by the Red Cross. Between December 4th  and 19th, the average number of nurses employed per day was 63.  During the first two and a half months, 558 nurses were assigned by the American Red Cross at an approximate cost of $15,000. In all, the Red Cross supplied 260 volunteer nurse’s aides to the Boston City Hospital and Massachusetts General. 115 additional nurses were employed by the Red Cross to supplement nursing staffs.  All of the hospitals waived the customary charge for nurse’s board in the case of the nurses assigned by the Red Cross.  

The report of the Chair of the Volunteer Nurses Aide Corps said in her report of the disaster:  “Nurses aides worked in emergency wards, operating rooms and disaster wards. They tagged the dead, mopped the floors of the emergency wards which were covered with burned clothes, pieces of skin and bits of hair. They continuously put fresh covers on the stretcher carts. On the wards, they made clothes lists, forced fluids, put cold compresses on burned eyelids, held arms and legs while intravenous injections were applied, made beds, gave mouth care, and put the wards in order. In the kitchens, the Aides washed and sterilized dishes, tubes, glasses and pitchers.”

The Committee on Registration and information secured names and addresses of the dead and injured. One or more Committee members were assigned to each of the hospitals. When it was decided that the identification of the dead would be done at the morgues and not at the hospitals, Committee members went there as well. It was estimated that over 1000 inquiries from relatives and friends came into the Red Cross Chapter house. Thirty social workers visited families of the deceased in the Boston area, followed by visits to the families of the injured. By 2 a.m. on November 30 1942, “all known dead and injured had been visited with a few exceptions; where no one was at home or addresses were faulty”.

At Red Cross headquarters, workers handled a multitude of tasks: volunteer social workers, staff assistants, and others answered inquiries; transportation and advice were given to families searching for family or loved ones; workers helped arrange for burials, and found nurse-housekeepers for new orphans; and furloughs were secured for servicemen and women. Within twenty-four hours all affected families in the Boston Metropolitan Chapter area were personally contacted by volunteer trained disaster relief workers offering condolences and Red Cross assistance.

As part of the Red Cross’s disaster emergency preparation plans, the Boston chapter had 250 units of dry blood plasma on hand. Although area hospitals had their own supplies of dried or frozen blood plasma stored, additional supplies were needed by Boston City and Carney hospitals and by the Office of Civil Defense (O.C.D). The Boston chapter supplied a total of 225 units to the hospitals, and the Washington D.C. office flew in 600 units for the O.C.D. Physicians credited the plasma with saving about 150 lives. 3789 people responded in one week to an appeal by the Blood Donor Center for more donors. Beyond the immediate medical and nursing care needs, the Red Cross found many other ways to care for the survivors and their families.  The stories below are but a few of the many ways the Red Cross helped. 
  • They paid all the costs of three nurses and the living expenses for a badly burned Coast Guardsman and his parents, who needed to be near him. 
  • One of the musicians had lost his overcoat, tuxedo and musical instruments, so he could not look for employment in anther orchestra.  Assured that his lungs were strong enough to play again, the Red Cross replaced all four items.
  • A woman who worked in the club was the sole provider for herself and her young daughter. Knowing that the woman would be hospitalized for many months, the Red Cross set aside money for her continued nursing care and for living expenses for herself and her daughter.
The Boston chapter asked the National Headquarters to set a budget $42,000 for a Cocoanut Grove rehabilitation program, which would cover medical and nursing care, including special needs; food, clothing, and maintenance; the emergency program; telegraph an d telephone services and salaries. 

The Red Cross’s competence, training and preparedness proved to be invaluable to both the immediate and long-term recovery.

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