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Remembering the Military Medical Heroes of Pearl Harbor

Image of Army Nurse Corps Maj. Annie G. Fox, in the newspaper. For her service at Pearl Harbor, Army Nurse Corps Maj. Annie G. Fox was the first woman to be awarded the Purple Heart, in 1942 (Courtesy of www.wartimeheritage.com).

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Every December 7, Americans and the U.S. military commemorate the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and recognize that "day of infamy" as the one that officially brought the United States into World War II.

For the Navy medical corps, Pearl Harbor offered the first large scale medical emergency in decades, according to André Sobocinski, a historian and publications manager for the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Falls Church, Virginia.

"The attacks on Pearl Harbor opened up a new era of surgical therapy and provided the first exposure to wartime issues of flash burns, compound fractures and shock," Sobocinski said.

On the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on America, we still honor the service men and women of the medical corps, who selflessly aided the hundreds of injured and burned causalities that day at military hospitals and triage sites around the harbor.

"From their first realization of an enemy attack, the doctors, dentists, nurses, and corpsmen were unexcelled in personal bravery, in determination, in resourcefulness, and in their capacity to put into practice previously formulated plans," the Naval History and Heritage Command wrote in its account of the attack.

"There was an overwhelming need to go into immediate action, retrieve the casualties, and provide medical services - to do what we were trained to do," said Sobocinski.

"They did this not knowing if a third attack was imminent."

The Attack and Its Aftermath

The surprise attack began at 7:55 a.m. in Hawaii and lasted one hour and 15 minutes. A total of 2,403 U.S. personnel died in the attack, including 68 civilians; another 1,178 were wounded; 159 U.S. aircraft were damaged; 169 were destroyed; 16 ships were damaged and three were destroyed, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Half of all the casualties were from the crew of the USS Arizona, a battleship that sank in Pearl Harbor with most its crew onboard.

The medical crews worked around the clock treating second- and third-degree burns, shock as well as shrapnel and machinegun wounds, and other injuries, Sobocinski said.

The medical teams worked in a patchwork of locations, including the "battle dressing stations and sick bays of the war ships; aboard the hospital ship Solace; at first-aid stations; at the dispensaries of the two naval air stations; the Marine Corps Air Station at Ewa; the Defense Battalions of the Fleet Marine Force; the Navy Yard, and the Section Base at Bishop's Point; at a 'field hospital' which was set up in the Officers' Club of the Navy Yard; and at the Mobile Base Hospital and the U.S. Naval Hospital at Pearl Harbor," according to the Naval History and Heritage Command's account.

"Nurses, physicians, and medical corpsmen triaged, stabilized, and transported those likely to survive, while staging the dead behind the building," according to a historical account from the Army Medical Department.

"The emergency room at Tripler Hospital was quickly flooded with patients from the battlefield, but the staff was able to sort patients appropriately to the wards, to the operating room, or provide comfort care as they died," according to the Army Medical Department's account.

And "at Schofield [Barracks] Hospital, collaboration between tireless doctors, nurses, and corpsmen was key to providing life-saving surgery and care."

Army nurse Myrtle M. Watson was the only nurse in the orthopedic ward at Schofield Hospital during the attack. As the bombing started, "she helped protect patients by piling mattresses around them for cover," according to an account from the Department of Veterans Affairs. "For three days, Watson continued working around the clock, with only a skeleton crew to assist" her and only a dim flashlight at night.

Heroes Rise

Despite the chaos and shock, medical personnel rose to the challenge and several later received valor awards to honor acts of personal courage and bravery.

As the Japanese bombs started raining down on the U.S. Navy's fleet at Pearl Harbor, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Hugh Alexander, the senior dentist aboard the USS Oklahoma, became trapped below deck in a compartment where the only means of escape were several portholes.

The ship, struck by several torpedoes, began to capsize. Alexander knew he could not fit through the portholes, but he looked around and found the thinnest men from among those trapped and helped them squeeze through the narrow openings to relative safety.

Alexander died in the Pearl Harbor attack and was honored posthumously with a Silver Star for valor in combat.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Hugh R. Alexander being awarded the Silver star Medal posthumously
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Hugh R. Alexander, the senior dentist aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attacks on Pearl Harbor, was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal for his actions on Dec. 7, 1941, recognizing his courage in saving some of his fellow shipmates’ lives. His memorabilia stand in the base chapel at Naval Air Station North Island, California, in April 2018, when he was awarded his posthumous award (Photo by: Navy Personal Specialist First Class Marissa Brown).

"Continuing his intrepid action until the end, Lieutenant Commander Alexander gallantly laid down his life in order that his shipmates might live," his Silver Star citation reads.

Navy Pharmacist Mate Second Class Ned Curtis of the USS Nevada was later honored with a Navy Cross for his actions that day. Curtis "braved the enemy bombing and strafing attacks to attend to a wounded officer," Sobocinski said. Curtis transported the officer to safety, but Curtis also suffered severe burns that required extended hospitalization.

Army Nurse Corps First Lt. Annie Fox was the head nurse at Hickam Field Hospital, which was near Pearl Harbor and converted to an evacuation hospital during the attack.

"Fox assembled the nurses and volunteers to help care for the wounded," according to the account published by the VA.

"She assisted doctors with surgical procedures while the battle outside continued. When the wounded began to arrive at an overwhelming rate, she administered pain medicine and prepped patients for transfer to other hospitals."

For her service at Pearl Harbor, Lt. Fox became the first woman to be awarded a Purple Heart in 1942. (Although in 1944 the commendation was replaced with a Bronze Star).

Navy Nurse Corps member Ann Danyo Willgrube was an operating room nurse on the newly commissioned hospital ship USS Solace when the attack began.

"The ship shook, and everyone ran out on deck to see what happened," she wrote in a letter her brother found as he cleaned her house in the 1980s, according to an Army article.

I looked out the porthole in my room and saw smoke pouring out of the [USS] Arizona," Willgrube wrote in the letter. "The next minute, our chief nurse burst into the room and told me to dress quickly and report to the quarterdeck for duty because the [Japanese] were bombing us."

Navy Nurse Corps Lt. Grace Lally, known as "Tugboat Annie" for her years of duty at sea, was the chief nurse aboard the Solace during the attack. Lally and her staff, including Willgrube, helped set up emergency wards for the wounded, a majority of whom were burn victims.

According to the Pearl Harbor Museum's account, the crew treated nearly 300 wounded servicemen. (This Department of Defense video tells more stories about the female military nurses of Pearl Harbor.)

As a hospital ship, the Solace did not come under fire and was one of the few ships to remain undamaged. But seeing its sister ships under attack, "hospital corpsmen boarded small boats and steamed into the wreckage of the USS Arizona," Sobocinski said, braving "an inferno as they retrieved several wounded sailors."

The Solace received 132 patients - over 70% were burn victims - and Mobile Hospital # 2 received 110 casualties, Sobocinski said.

In the days following the attack, many of those same corpsmen had the "grim task" of searching for the remains of service personnel in the harbor.

"At the naval hospital, a team of a Navy pharmacist-warrant officer, a dentist, and pathologist were tasked with identifying a seemingly unending flow of bodies, most without identification tags and many unable to be identified through fingerprints," said Sobocinski.

"They prepared the bodies for the first burials of victims that took place on December 8."

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