This past weekend, the nation paused to honor the military men and women who died in the line of duty. And we’d like to continue that theme of remembrance this week by focusing on some of the heroes in scrubs who also served on those front lines. These were the nurses who carried bandages in place of rifles, yet still put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of their country and their brothers and sisters in arms.
Here are a few of their stories.
Colonel Ruby Bradley
Colonel Bradley was already a military nurse when America entered World War II and was based in the Philippines when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Soon, the Japanese army was sweeping through the islands, and Nurse Bradley, another nurse, and a doctor hid in the hills after their base was evacuated. Unfortunately, the three were betrayed by two of the locals, and Nurse Bradley soon found herself a captive in a Japanese POW camp.
But rather than allowing this to end her story, Nurse Bradley chose this moment as the beginning. She began treating prisoners with any useful medicine or instrument she could get her hands on, earning her the nickname “Angel in Fatigues”. In a short time, Bradley set up a small pharmacy, a clinic, and a smuggling operation by which she and a doctor brought morphine and other medicines into camp.
In the 37 months that Bradley was a captive, she performed over 230 major operations and delivered 13 babies, all while using anything and everything on hand as instruments.
“Three days after [smuggling morphine into camp], we had an appendectomy,” Nurse Bradley recalled during a 1983 interview. “The Japanese thought it was wonderful that we could do all this without any instruments.”
Nurse Bradley was eventually rescued, but her story didn’t end there. She went on to serve as a combat medic in the Korean War, eventually becoming the Army’s most highly decorated nurse.
Lieutenant Reba Whittle
Nurse Whittle served as a flight nurse in the European theater of World War II, and like Nurse Bradley, fought her battle from behind the walls of a POW camp. When her plane was shot down over Aachen, Germany, Nurse Bradley became the only female POW in Europe during World War II. Her situation was so rare that the Germans themselves were confused as to how to treat her.
Eventually, she was allowed to attend to prisoners within the camp—falling back on her flight school nursing training where she learned to treat injury and illness in the absence of a physician. But when she wasn’t treating soldiers, she was kept in an isolated cell.
After the war ended and Nurse Whittle returned home, she began a second battle—one against the United States government for recognition as a veteran and POW. Because of her gender and the rarity of her situation, she was denied benefits and recognition, something she fought until her dying day.
It was a battle Nurse Whittle eventually won, earning recognition (posthumously) of World War II POW in 1992.
Lieutenant Elsie S. Ott
Nurse Ott was another flight nurse who served during World War II, treating evacuees as they flew from India to Washington, D.C. While this may seem run of the mill today, the use of airplanes to evacuate the wounded (and to bring in fresh troops) was considered experimental.
Nurse Ott was chosen as flight nurse for the first evacuation flight and within 24 hours was onboard, despite the fact that she had yet to board an aircraft in her life. But Nurse Ott took to the skies like a natural, treating soldiers for a wide assortment of maladies as the plane completed its six-day flight to the states.
But Nurse Ott didn’t just treat her patients during the flight. She also kept a detailed list of the endeavor, noting the equipment and changes needed to improve the process for both the injured and the medical personnel. She eventually returned to India with the 803rd Evacuation Squad, and by 1946, she had been promoted to captain.
Her bravery and commitment lead to Nurse Ott becoming the first woman to receive the U.S. Air Medal.