By Meribeth Meixner Reed
1939, the uneasy peace that followed World War I was crumbling. As
international unrest steadily escalated, the Army Nurse Corps and Navy
Nurse Corps increased their recruiting efforts to build up a presence in
the Pacific. Many military nurses in Hawaii considered an assignment in
the tropical paradise irresistible, the ultimate adventure. As ordered,
they packed dress uniforms and summer frocks - plus gas masks, just in
By fall 1941,
Army nurses were posted at the station hospital at Hickam Air Field, the
station hospital at Schofield Barracks, and Tripler General Hospital at
Fort Shafter, while Navy nurses were assigned to Naval Hospital Pearl
Harbor and the hospital ship USS Solace (AH-5). The naval
hospital had expanded earlier that year to 250 beds, and Tripler and
Schofield hospitals could accommodate up to 1,450 patients.
early December, World War I Army surgeon Dr. John Moorhead traveled to
Hawaii to present a series of lectures on traumatic surgery. His lecture
Friday, Dec. 5, described how to treat traumatic wounds with new
techniques like aggressive debridement and irrigation, directly applying
sulfanilamide powder onto an open wound, and not immediately suturing
or closing it. As the surgeon launched into his presentation Sunday,
Dec. 7, the doors to the room burst open to shouts: “Surgeons needed at
The quiet morning had erupted into all-out chaos
and destruction, and nurses and other active duty and civilian personnel
immediately rushed to their duty stations. Little did they know they
soon would apply lessons learned from Moorhead's lectures.
follows are nurses' insights reconstructing that day, compiled from
letters, oral histories, and other first-person accounts. (For a
complete list of sources, see the end of this article.)
7:55 a.m., only two of six nurses, 2nd Lts. Monica Conter and Irene
Boyd, were on duty at Station Hospital Hickam Air Field when they heard
jets roaring and then crashing. As Conter later recounted, “Numerous
planes were diving ... each setting off an explosion and a great mass of
black smoke.” The nurses could see waves of Japanese bombers. Then
blasts rocked the 30-bed hospital, and they lost power.
hospital was three blocks away from the barracks along Hickam's runway,
where the bombs hit first, 2nd Lt. Sara Entrikin recalled. In minutes,
injured men began to arrive. But so did nurses, physicians, corpsmen,
and volunteers, who moved patients downstairs in the dark. Staff
rendered first aid and dispatched serious cases to Tripler.
hour later, the Japanese dropped bombs again, shelling buildings,
automobiles, and fleeing pedestrians. Hickam Hospital shook once more as
a bomb landed 60 feet away. As fumes and smoke streamed into the
building, nurses realized their gasmasks and helmets were back in their
quarters. Pharmacy staff prepared morphine in syringes that held 10
doses each, and nurses performed triage, administering morphine and
tetanus antitoxin. They marked the letters “M” and “T” on the foreheads
of those they had medicated; there were no attempts to maintain health
Deafening noise came from planes crashing into
ships, bombs bursting in every direction, machine guns strafing from
aircraft, and the return fire of antiaircraft artillery. The sounds of
screams prevailed, further dampening everyone's hearing. Within minutes,
the thick choke of burning petroleum had replaced the tropical
fragrances of plumeria and hibiscus. The morning, once clear and bright,
grew hazy with billowing black smoke.
nurses felt their way around in the dark. Smoke and debris left a gritty
feeling in their mouths, but water was not always available;
furthermore, many feared the water supply had been poisoned. They saw,
touched, and smelled blood in all stages of clotting. With bare hands,
they cared for hundreds of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and
A mass casualty response
Nurse Lt. Grace Lally, USN, was dressing for church when she heard
machine-gun fire and planes flying too low. From the vantage point of USS Solace, anchored in the East Loch of Pearl Harbor, she saw a dive-bomber hit the smokestack of USS Arizona (BB-39). The battleship was fully submerged in nine minutes, killing 1,177 sailors and Marines.
Emergency care commenced immediately on board the Solace, which was equipped with operating rooms, labs, diagnostics, and 432 beds. Navy Lt. Agnes Shurr later recalled how Solace's
sailors, who were “in their dress whites waiting to go ashore on
liberty,” shifted gears to board launches and rescue men in the water
amid boiling fuel. Solace “received casualties almost immediately,” and nurses “worked through the day without stopping.”
Navy Lt. Teresa Duggan saw ships in flames, she was grateful the entire
fleet was not in port. Hundreds of young men sustained burns as they
were blown or jumped from burning ships into boiling water or flaming
oil, so the hospital ship “soon had a full patient load.” This was the
first time she had administered morphine without an order.
Spirit of cooperation
Navy Lt. Ruth Erickson - who later in her career would become the 10th
director of the Navy Nurse Corps - heard planes roaring too close
overhead, she instantly determined the aircraft were foreign. She dashed
through a shrapnel shower in the smoky haze from her quarters to Naval
Hospital Pearl Harbor. By 8:25 a.m., all battle stations, wards, and
operating rooms were fully functioning. Some injured sailors were
transported by launches; others swam and crawled in. “How they ever
managed, I'll never know,” said Erickson.
Clinicians used flit
guns, originally developed to spread insecticide, to spray tannic acid
powder directly onto burns, which covered any exposed body part. The
nurses administered sedatives to these gravely injured patients.
Lt. j.g. Helen Entrikin, Sara's twin sister, realized “the regular
operating rooms were ... backlogged,” so she ran through the hospital
collecting narcotics and supplies, and converted a dressing area into a
Colleague Navy Lt. j.g. Lenore Terrell
described how “ambulatory patients immediately left the hospital to get
back to their ships.” Some left to help “rescue their buddies,” then
slept “on the floor under their beds to make room for them.” She
described the spirit of cooperation among hospital staff as
A well-timed tackle
7:45 a.m., Army nurses and corpsmen had wheeled orthopedics patients
onto the porch of Schofield Barracks Station Hospital to watch football.
The spectators waved at the low-flying aircraft until they recognized
the rising suns on the planes. Bombing, followed by machine-gun
strafing, commenced. Rushing to wheel their charges back into the
building, Army 2nd Lt. Myrtle Watson was tackled to the floor by a
patient. She saw two heavy bullets lodged in a door frame, right where
she had stood previously; they would have cut her off at the knees had
her patient not intervened. Nurses cut patients out of traction, piled
mattresses around them, and began treating incoming wounded.
commotion woke Army nurse anesthetist 2nd Lt. Mildred Irene Clark, who
would later become the 12th director of the Army Nurse Corps. She
recalled the Japanese pilots were flying so close she could hear radio
communications between them. She ran to the hospital, where all nine
operating rooms soon were busy. She moved tirelessly from one patient to
the next, administering anesthesia, plasma, IV fluids, and medications.
Nurses provided other forms of comfort as well, such as joining men in
prayer, reciting Psalms, and closing the eyes of the dead.
2nd Lt. Anna Urda was already at Tripler General Hospital at Fort
Shafter - as a patient with a facial infection - when the bombing
started. When she saw a flash and explosion at the pineapple cannery
fuel tanks, she knew Pearl Harbor was under attack. Urda changed into
her nurse's uniform and reported for duty. “Now I was in charge of the
women's ward, where I [had been] a patient in the last hour,” she
Roommates Army 2nd Lts. Harriet Moore and Marguerite
Oberson followed the noise outside; a Japanese pilot waved at them from
above. “We felt lucky he didn't want to bomb a hospital,” Moore said.
Later that day, Oberson's fiancée was killed, but she continued
The attacks and the staggering number of critically
wounded young men - many in their teens - were horrific enough to shock
anyone, combatants and caregivers alike. However, nurses reported many
seriously injured men refused treatment, telling the nurses instead to
treat those who needed it most, or pleading with clinicians to save
their colleagues first.
By the end of the day, fatalities from
two hours of airstrikes had risen to 2,400. Most of the dead were
military men, the majority from USS Arizona, with another 429 from USS Oklahoma
(BB-37). Despite the trauma of that day, Terrell reflected, “It brought
out the best in people.” She could not recall any nurses who “fell
apart.” Despite dealing with fear for their loved ones' safety or even
grief, the Army and Navy nurses dedicated themselves to their jobs by
Lally later described how she mustered the
courage to face and treat so many seriously wounded patients: “If they
can smile, I guess we can. And look, they are smiling.”
1. Leatrice R. Arakaki and John R. Kuborn, 7 December 1941: The Air Force Story, 1991.
2. Monica Conter Benning, A Real Nurse's Dream: An Army Nurse's Experiences During WWII, 2008.
See also her letter published anonymously four months after the attack
in “Letters from Readers,” American Journal of Nursing (vol. 42, no. 4,
3. Diane Burke Fessler, No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II (Michigan State University Press, 1996).
4. Joellen W. Hawkins and Irene Matthews, “Tugboat Annie”: Nursing's Hero of Pearl Harbor: Grace Lally (1897-1983), Image: Journal of Nursing Scholarship, (vol. 23, no. 3). See also editor, the USS Solace, Trained Nurse and Hospital Review (vol. 44, no. 10).
Jan K. Herman, oral history with Capt. Ruth A. Erickson, USN (Ret),
Office of Medical History, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, 1994,www.med.navy.mil/bumed/nmhistory/Oral%20Histories2/ERICKSON,%20Ruth.pdf.
6. Jeanne May, “V-J Day Remembered: Army Nurse Recalls Pearl Harbor Attack,” Detroit Free Press, Aug. 14, 1985.
7. John J. Moorhead, “Surgical Experiences at Pearl Harbor,” Journal of the American Medical Association (vol. 118, no. 9), 1942.
8. Oral history interview with Anna Urda (Busby), National Park Service, 1984,https://www.nps.gov/valr/learn/historyculture/upload/AnnaBusby.pdf.
9. Ellsworth Newcomb, Brave Nurse: True Stories of Heroism (Appleton-Century Company, 1945).
10. Marian Nott, “Night of Laughter; Morning of Horror,” St. Petersburg (Florida) Independent, Nov. 11, 1976.
11. Barbara Brooks Tomblin, G.I. Nightingales: The Army Nurse Corps in World War II (The University Press of Kentucky, 1996).
12. Erica Warren, “Army Nurse Recalls Attack on Pearl Harbor,” North County Times-The Californian, Dec. 7, 2003,www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2003/dec/07/army-nurse-recalls-attack-on-pearl-harbor.
13. Walter Wright, “Nurses Recall Day of Infamy 'Brought out the Best in People,' ” Honolulu Advertiser, May 21, 2001, http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2001/May/21/ln/ln12a.html.