This Day in History: The Nurses of Pearl Harbor
On this day in 1987, a World War II heroine passes away. Annie Fox is best known for her service at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack on that base. Then-First Lt. Fox was the newly appointed chief nurse at Hickam Field.
The nurses that day were in a unique position. For the first time in American history, Army nurses were at the front lines of battle—and they had to serve in this capacity, without any warning or preparation.
“We thought we were having a two-year (holiday-style) tour of duty at taxpayer expense,” one nurse, Harriet Moore Holmes, later reminisced. “We were looking forward to it immensely.”
Holmes had spent the night of Saturday, December 6, 1941, at a dance with friends. They’d been out late, and Holmes was sound asleep when the Japanese struck the next morning.
She couldn’t believe the scene when a supervisor woke her up.
“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 described. “He waved at us. We felt lucky he didn’t want to bomb a hospital.”
The nurses must have been astonished at the scenes that followed, but they resolutely went to work saving lives—as did Annie Fox at Hickam. Indeed, Fox would later receive a Purple Heart for her extraordinary service.
“[S]he administered anesthesia to patients during the heaviest part of the bombardment,” her citation stated, “assisted in dressing the wounded, taught civilian volunteer nurses to make dressings, and 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.”
The Purple Heart was later changed to a Bronze Star when the award criteria were adjusted to include only those who had been wounded.
But Fox wasn’t the only Army nurse who went above and beyond the call of duty that day. Second Lt. Anna Urda was a patient at Tripler General Hospital because of an infection in her right cheek. When the bombing started, she knew that she was a patient no more. She changed into her nurse’s uniform—but soon ran into her chief nurse.
Urda later described the encounter: “[A]s soon as [the chief nurse] looked at me she said, ‘Where do you think you're going with that red face?’ And I said, ‘On duty where ever you need me.’”
Meanwhile, Holmes’ roommate, 2nd Lt. Marguerite Oberson, would get very bad news. Her fiancé was a pilot. Miraculously, he’d gotten a plane in the air during the Japanese attack—but then he was shot down.
“She was very shook up when she found out he was killed, but she kept right on working,” Holmes said of her friend.
Nearby, 2nd Lt. Myrtle Watson was working at Schofield Hospital. It was a weekend, so she was the only nurse on her ward. Worse, the chaos and damage from the bombing was making it difficult for doctors and nurses to make their way to the hospital.
“There was no communication and we were so busy, we had no idea what had happened at Pearl Harbor, how bad it was there,” Watson later told a reporter. She worked nearly nonstop for three days, tending to the wounded and living on chocolate bars and coffee.
Her family still didn’t even know if she’d survived.
We often hear about the bravery of the men who served at Pearl Harbor, but women performed nobly that day, too—nor was it only the Army nurses. Navy nurses had their own heroic moments in the ships that were being attacked in the harbor.
Naturally, that is a story for another day.
A Nurse, a Purple Heart Medal, and the Pearl Harbor Attack (Off the Charts: The blog of the American Journal of Nursing)
Erica Warren, Army nurse recalls attack on Pearl Harbor (San Diego Union Tribune; Dec. 7, 2003)
Frederick N. Rasmussen, Myrtle M. Watson, eyewitness to Pearl Harbor attack (Baltimore Sun; Feb. 18, 2012)
Gwyneth R Milbrath, Grace Under Fire: The Army Nurses of Pearl Harbor, 1941 (US Army Med Dep J; Oct-Dec 2016)
Interview with Anna Urda Busby (Dec. 7,1984 ) (reprinted on the National Park Service website, HERE)
Katie Lange, The Pearl Harbor attack, as remembered by the nurses who were there (U.S. Army website; Dec. 2, 2016)
Pearl Harbor: Paradise Under Attack (Military Officers Association of America website; July 19, 2017)
The Heroic Nurses of Pearl Harbor (Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau website)
#VeteranOfTheDay Army Veteran Annie G. Fox (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website)