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This Day in History: Ann Bernatitus, Navy Nurse

On this day in 2003, Ann Agnes Bernatitus passes away. She is remembered for being the first person in the United States Navy to receive the Legion of Merit. Bernatitus served our country as a Navy Nurse in the months immediately following Pearl Harbor.

“I always wanted to be a nurse,” she explained. “There was nothing else for girls to do in those days but be a school teacher or a nurse.” She began her training in 1931, and she joined the Navy Nurse Corps in 1936.

She was serving in the Philippines by the summer of 1940. Her assignment in the Philippines had been a nice one—a “choice assignment for nurses looking for adventure on a two-year tour of duty,” as the National WWII Museum describes it. That would quickly change. Japanese bombers came for the Philippines within hours of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Bernatitus had been serving at the Naval Hospital in Canacao, but it was soon necessary to evacuate to Manila. Just a few weeks later, her team was evacuated—again—to Bataan. Mere days before Bataan fell, she was moved to the small island of Corregidor in Manila Bay.

Those weeks were challenging, to say the least.

Bernatitus had prior experience in operating rooms, so she was working with a surgical team during much of this time. “Casualties were heavy and the operating room was an extremely busy place,” she described. In one memorable eight-hour day, she saw 285 patients.

“Every operating table would be filled,” she said. “They would come in from the field all dirty. You did what you could. There were lice; I kept my hair covered all the time.”

Bernatitus was already in Corregidor when Bataan fell on April 9, 1942, but soon she’d have to leave Corregidor, too. She made her escape in the submarine USS Spearfish. She never really knew why she landed on that submarine with a handful of others.

“I don’t know how I was picked,” she said of that moment. “I remember the planes came in first to evacuate people. Two Navy PBYs took several Army nurses and 15 other passengers on April 29th. . . . We were called to the mess hall and told we were going to be leaving that night. They stressed that weight didn’t matter as much as size. All I had was a duffel bag.”

The trip aboard Spearfish was no picnic. The evacuees were traveling through enemy-infested waters for days on end. Bernatitus was sleeping in a “hot bunk”—as soon as one person wakes up, the next hops in. Each person gets an 8-hour turn to sleep.

Spearfish arrived in Australia after 17 days in the water. Throughout that time, Bernatitus had been officially listed in Navy Department records as “missing in action,” but, in the end, she was the only Navy nurse to escape the Philippines. Eleven others would instead be taken as prisoners of war.

Bernatitus wasn’t done serving our country yet. She was stationed stateside for a time, but she was back at sea by the time our Marines and soldiers invaded Okinawa in 1945. She was Chief of Nursing Service aboard USS Relief.

Bernatitus continued to serve, even after the war ended. She retired holding the rank of Captain on April 1, 1959.

Many years later, she was interviewed by J.K. Herman, a Navy historian. Herman began talking about General Douglas MacArthur and his work at Corregidor. “He was quite a legend,” Herman concluded. He must have chuckled at how Bernatitus responded.

“CAPT Bernatitus, the only nurse stationed in the Philippines to evade capture by the Japanese, looked me square in the eye and retorted, ‘Well, so am I, young man!’”

“I saw no reason to argue the point,” Herman concluded.

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