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Pearl Harbor Nurses: The Women Who Cared For The Wounded

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When Japanese forces attacked American bases at Pearl Harbor the morning of December 7, 1941, the United States was reeling in shock. Amid the chaos, however, were individuals helping the wounded servicemen. Keep reading to learn about some of the Pearl Harbor nurses who sprang into action on that Day of Infamy.

Pearl Harbor Nurses & Their Stories

Annie G. Fox

pearl harbor nursesCountless stories of heroism surfaced after the Pearl Harbor attacks, including that of First Lieutenant Annie G. Fox (Army Nurse Corps), who received a Bronze Star for her courageous actions. The Bronze Star, when awarded for bravery, it is the fourth-highest combat award of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Lt. Fox was the Station Hospital’s Head Nurse at Hickam Field. The 30-bed hospital opened in November 1941, with six nurses. Fox joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1918, at the end of WWI. Although she was no stranger to military service, the Japanese attack landed her in combat for the first time. The 47-year-old quickly took control of the situation as bombs fell on the base.

Accounts of the Pearl Harbor attack by hospital staff detailed a terrifying situation. Enemy airplanes flew so close and low to the ground that the nurses could see the pilots talking to each other. Then, the Pearl Harbor nurses heard explosions and plumes of black smoke after each airplane dive. Casualties flooded into the hospital within just minutes of the first bombing. Hospital staff jumped into action as the incessant sounds of torpedoes, bombs, machine guns and anti-aircraft guns choked the air.

As the attack progressed, bombs even fell around the hospital itself. The smoke and fumes became so horrible that the hospital workers put on gas masks and helmets as they tended to the wounded. The wounded patients suffered from serious shrapnel wounds in the abdomen, chest, face, head, arms and legs.

As Head Nurse, Lt. Fox coordinated the hospital’s response to the assault and rallied the nurses. The wives of officers and NCOs reported to the hospital to provide assistance. Then, Lt. Fox organized the civilian volunteers to fashion hundreds of hospital dressings and help with patient care. Lt. Fox herself participated in surgery, administering anesthesia. Afterward, she, along with the other nurses, tended to the wounded.

In recognition of her efforts, Lt. Fox became the first woman in American history to receive the Purple Heart medal on October 26, 1942. Part of her citation read:

During the attack, Lieutenant Fox in an exemplary manner, performed her duties as head nurse of the Station Hospital… [She] worked ceaselessly with coolness and efficiency and her fine example of calmness, courage, and leadership was of great benefit to the morale of all with whom she came in contact.

Four other Army nurses also received recognition for their performance during the attack. Captain Helena Clearwater, First Lieutenant Elizabeth A. Pesut, Second Lieutenant Elma L. Asson, and Second Lieutenant Rosalie L. Swenson each received the Legion of Merit “for extraordinary fidelity and essential service.”

Though at the time the Purple Heart award was most commonly awarded to service members wounded by enemy forces, it was occasionally awarded for any “singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service.” The Purple Heart Award criteria changed in 1942 to remain limited to wounds sustained as a result of enemy action. On October 6, 1944, Lt. Fox was awarded the Bronze Star Medal in replacement for her Purple Heart, which was rescinded. The Report of Decorations Board cited the same acts of heroism as for the Purple Heart.

The Army Nurse Corps had fewer than 1,000 nurses on December 7, 1941. Furthermore, just 82 U.S. Army nurses were stationed in Hawaii serving at three Army medical facilities that day. By the end of WWII, more than 59,000 American nurses had served in the Army Nurse Corps. Nurses worked closer to the front lines than in any prior conflict, providing invaluable service at great personal risk. Nurses received 1,619 medals, citations, and commendations during the war, including 16 medals awarded posthumously to women who died as a result of enemy fire.

Lt. Fox and her fellow Pearl Harbor nurses exemplified the courage and dedication of all who served.

Teresa Stauffer Foster

pearl harbor nursesTeresa Stauffer Foster was walking through a garden near Hawaii’s Tripler Hospital on a calm Sunday morning when a low-flying plane approached. The pilot waved in her direction, and the U.S. Army nurse waved back. Foster didn’t realize it at the time, but within minutes, that plane was one of the many Japanese bombers that pulverized U.S. battleships and aircraft.

“You hear stories about Pearl Harbor, and they’re all about the men. You hear very few stories about the women,” said Winnie Woll, Foster’s daughter.

Woll is named after two of her mother’s best friends from Pearl Harbor, who were also nurses. She now gives lectures to disseminate the stories of how they were truly pioneers of their time, having joined the services before the Women’s Army Corps and the Navy’s Women’s Reserve program (WAVES) were established in 1942.

When Woll’s mother joined, stringent rules existed for the women who wished to enlist.

“The women had to be single. The minute they were married, they were out the door,” Woll said, noting that the need for more nurses eventually led to a rule change. “In 1943, that was the first time you could marry and still legally be in the military — until you had your first child. Then you’re out again.”

Foster was sent to Pearl Harbor six months before the attacks. On the fateful morning of December 7, she was walking with other nurses who had finished their shifts when that plane flew past. The nurses immediately began helping patients who were carted in, often marking their foreheads with lipstick to help with triage. “If it was somebody they couldn’t save, they had to put them off to the side and go on and work with whoever they could,” Woll remembered.

Harriet Moore Holmes

pearl harbor nursesU.S. Army Nurse Corps 2nd Lt. Harriet Moore and two friends weighed the option of being stationed for two years in the Philippines or two years at Pearl Harbor.

The decision was easy. So, on Nov. 9, 1941, the 22-year-old Moore arrived for duty as a registered nurse assigned to the maternity ward at Tripler General Hospital near Hickam Field in Hawaii.

“We thought we were having a two-year (holiday-style) tour of duty at taxpayer expense,” Harriet Moore Holmes said in an interview. “We were looking forward to it immensely.”

Less than a month later, on Dec. 7, the Pennsylvania native’s notions of a leisurely tour of duty had vanished.

There were 82 Army nurses working at three medical facilities in Hawaii on the day of the attack. None are known to have died that day, but more than 200 nurses died during WWII, according to Army Nurse Corps.

On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, Holmes and her roommate, Marguerite Oberson, were expecting a half-day off from duty — which only came on Sundays. Saturday nights were reserved for dances. Moore and a friend stayed out late the night before at a dance in the Hickam Field officers club. Her supervisor woke her just after 7:55 a.m. and told her the base was under attack.

“I could see the black smoke streaming up from Pearl Harbor just over the hills and just then a Japanese pilot flew low over the hospital,” she recalled. “He waved at us. We felt lucky he didn’t want to bomb a hospital.”

Most of the enlisted men in Hickam Field were sleeping in their barracks during the attack and many burned to death in their bunks, Holmes said. Tripler General took the brunt of burn victims and those needing surgery. Nurses at Schofield Hospital and Hickam Field, as at Tripler, all faced supply shortages. The attack lasted until 9:45 a.m.

“My first three patients suffered burns over most of their bodies and shortly died,” Holmes said. “When I tried to swab one’s with alcohol for an IV, his entire forearm skin came off. As I recall, my next three patients survived.”

Sometime during that Day of Infamy, her roommate received news that her fiancé, a B-17 pilot, had gotten his plane airborne but was shot down and killed during the attack.

“She was very shook up when she found out he was killed, but she kept right on working,” Holmes said.

The calm response and skill of the nurses contributed to low post-injury mortality rates during WWII, and 1,619 medals, citations and commendations were awarded, according to an Army Nurse Corps.

In the weeks after the attack and declaration of war by the United States against Germany and Japan, the hospital staff worked in nearly complete darkness at night. In fear of another attack, black curtains were hung over windows at night and the lights were kept low. Corpsmen held flashlights so the nurses could work on patients, Holmes said.

“Sometimes we even had to hold blue paper over the lights, and it was hard to work with light like that. But we got used to it,” she said.

But Holmes recalled that not everything was bleak.

One day during her rounds, she noticed a “tall, lanky fellow from Tennessee.”

“I asked him where he was hurt and he said, ‘Ma’am, if you were shot where I was shot, you wouldn’t care none,'” Holmes said, putting her hand over her mouth. “I shouldn’t have told you that. But it was funny and we were all thankful to have someone around with a sense of humor.”

After her tour extended from two to three and a half years, Holmes received orders to report to Guam in 1945 and left Pearl Harbor. She took a short leave to Florida before heading to Guam, and during that trip, the war ended and she never saw Guam.

Ann Danyo Willgrube

pearl harbor nursesAnn Danyo Willgrube joined the Navy Nurse Corps in 1940. She was an operating room nurse on the newly commissioned hospital ship USS Solace when the war started.

However, Willgrube never shared details about her military life with her family. Her brother, Joe Danyo, was eight years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed and didn’t even know his sister had been there until the late 1950s.

While cleaning out her house in the mid-1980s, he discovered a letter describing her experience on December 7, 1941. The letter was dated December 1, 1981 — almost exactly 40 years after the Pearl Harbor attack.

It was addressed to a high school student who was doing a report on Pearl Harbor and had discovered she was there during the attack. The teen wanted to hear her story, so it was then — in 1981 — that she finally decided to tell it.

In the letter, Willgrube wrote about being “the envy of all the nurses” because she was assigned to the Solace — a cushy assignment — only 18 months after enlisting. The ship arrived in Pearl Harbor in late October 1941 and was docked at Ford Island near several of the battleships. All was going well until 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, when Willgrube was jolted awake by what she first thought was a boiler explosion.

“The ship shook, and everyone ran out on deck to see what happened. I looked out the porthole in my room and saw smoke pouring out of the [USS] Arizona,” Willgrube wrote.

The Solace’s nurses worked tirelessly that day to care for more than 130 patients brought aboard, 70% of whom included burn victims. The nurses were too busy to worry about the noise of the guns, the planes flying overhead and the shaking of the ship.

The surprise attack destroyed the Arizona, the Oklahoma and the Utah, and also damaged several other U.S. ships and aircraft. More than 2,400 people were killed, half of whom had been on the Arizona, which still sits at the bottom of Pearl Harbor to this day.

“We never had disaster drills, yet when we realized that we were actually at war, every person on board that ship seemed to know instinctively what to do,” Willgrube said. “It simply proves how important discipline in the military is. It not only saves lives but wins wars, too.”

Willgrube was one of the first women to become a Navy shellback, one of many firsts for her over the years.

“When I entered the Navy, nurses had no specific rank but enjoyed the privileges of officers. In 1942, we received relative rank, and in 1947, we were classified as Nurse Corps with the same rank and privileges as the other officers,” she wrote.

After 27 years of service, she retired as a commander and married retired Medical Services Corps Cmdr. Wayne Willgrube, who was also aboard the Solace during the Pearl Harbor attacks.

Myrtle Watson

pearl harbor nursesMyrtle Watson, a 28-year-old Army nurse, was assigned to the orthopedic ward of Schofield Barracks Hospital at Pearl Harbor.

“I was the only nurse on that ward and we didn’t have a doctor to make rounds because there were no treatments — just essential medications given on weekends,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘I hope nothing unusual happens today that I can’t handle by myself’ because I was going to be on my own.”

It was football season in Honolulu — and most of the casualties Watson was accustomed to treating derived from sports injuries and other minor accidents. That Sunday morning, Dec. 7, was a routine one; her assignment was to push patients’ beds out onto the hospital’s wrap-around porch, where they could watch the inter-regimental football game.

“And as we were in the process of moving the patients, we heard planes approaching — a lot of planes,” she said. “And no one had any inkling of exactly what was happening. But as the planes kept coming, we were standing out there on the porch, waving to the pilots, thinking it was one of our units on maneuvers. But around that time, we realized that the hospital was being strafed, that the plaster was falling off the walls and the patients that were out on the porch were saying, ‘Get us inside!'”

Although Watson had had no previous emergency medical training, she acted instinctively. She helped her patients out of their beds and onto the floor, where she surrounded them with mattresses. When she went back outside to see what was happening, she narrowly dodged a bullet herself.

“Someone called to me, ‘Look out!’ and pushed me out of the doorway,” she said. “And a bullet went right in the frame of the doorway where I had been standing. One of the patients later dug it out and gave it to me.”

Watson said the chaotic scene included massive casualties piled one on top of another — some alive, others dead — all arriving at the hospital, which had few medics or nurses on duty and severely limited supplies. For three days straight, Watson worked around the clock. At night, except for a dim flashlight, she was forced to work in the dark to avoid possible detection by the enemy. Ms. Watson says one patient in particular stands out in her memory.

“I very distinctly remember one young sergeant from Wheeler Air Force Base — good looking youngster — and I could see from his eyes he was trying to get my attention,” she said. “And he was bleeding so profusely I didn’t know how to check the wounds, he was so bandaged up from the operating room, across his abdomen and chest. The mattresses were very thin and I put a basin under there; it was dripping through the mattress. I asked him what I could do for him. And he beckoned across the ward, he wanted me to go see his buddy. Even with life-threatening injuries they were more concerned about their buddies than themselves. Well, while I was checking his dressings and seeing what I could do to check the bleeding, he looked down at my hands. Well, on the night of December 6, I had given myself a manicure and put some light nail polish on. He could only speak in little more than a whisper and I held my ear to his mouth. And he said, ‘Who ever heard of a lieutenant wearing nail polish in the middle of a war?’ I did what I could for him and went across to see his buddy. And when I went back to him, he had stopped breathing. And I cried, it just seemed so unfair.”

Lt. Watson remained at Pearl Harbor for several months before being transferred to another base. She recalled that the 9/11 terrorist attacks brought back the memories of December 7, 1941 vividly in her mind.