Valor Friday

| June 14, 2019


LTJG Ann Bernatitus, (NC), USN. Albert Murray, painter of numerous admirals and dignitaries, made this portrait of her at the Corcoran Gallery here in Washington in 1942. Bernatitus was stationed at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and several times she took the trolley or bus from Bethesda to the Corcoran to sit for Murray.

Another of Mason’s Valor articles, this one highlighting CAPT Ann Bernatitus, USN, and her valor in the early days of World War 2 and beyond.

Mason

In US Navy history, women were largely restricted to the Nurse Corps until World War II. There was a short period of women working in a variety of roles in the Navy during WWI, but all were discharged after the war. So from the beginning of the US Navy until 1942, women were only permitted to serve in the Navy as nurses.

One such woman is my subject today. Ann Bernatitus, who retired as a captain from the US Navy in 1959, is a story worth telling.

Bernatitus was commissioned as an ensign into the Nurse Corps in 1936 after graduating college in 1934 and completing a post-graduate program in operating room nursing in 1935. Her first postings were to naval hospitals in Massachusetts and Maryland.

In 1940, as the world was succumbing to war, Bernatitus was assigned to USS Chaumont, a transport ship in the Pacifc. The ship’s typical duties saw her moving men and materiel from Hawaii to Manila. In July, 1940, on one of these trips, now Lieutenant (J.G.) Bernatitus was reassigned to the naval hospital at Canacao, Philippines.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec 7th, 1941, and the invasion hours later of the Philippine Islands on the 8th, the Canacoa hospital staff and patients were evacuated to Manila and later Bataan under Army supervision as the Army was forced to retreat to the Bataan peninsula. Bernatitus and two naval medical officers evacuated to Bataan on 24 December. The staff that stayed behind in Manila were captured when Manila fell days later.

The team Bernatitus ended up on in the makeshift field hospitals at Bataan saw her as the only Navy nurse. She treated American, Filipino, and Japanese wounded from December until April, 1942, frequently near the front lines of the desperate defense of the island.

Bernatitus had found herself a member of the “Angels of Bataan” (sometimes also referred to as “The Battling Belles of Bataan”). The women of the Army Nurse Corps and Navy Nurse Corps served in arduous conditions in the first open air field hospitals to be used by US forces since the Civil War.

In addition to the high numbers of casualties these medical personnel attended to, tropical diseases were rampant. Both hospital staff and patients suffered from malaria and dysentery regularly. Bernatitus suffered from bouts of dysentery and beriberi (a disease caused by a vitamin deficiency). Both of these conditions are easily brought on by the austere living conditions of combat, with little food and potable water, and can be physically debilitating and even deadly.

All American forces in the Philippines had withdrawn to Bataan, from which General MacArthur famously departed the islands. Bernatitus’ field hospital was destroyed by enemy bombing on 7 April, and Bataan fell to the enemy on 9 April, 1942. All the nurses remaining there were ordered by General Wainwright (commander of US forces since MacArthur had been ordered to retreat) to the fortress island of Corregidor.

Bernatitus was part of this group. The Americans sought refuge in a maze of underground tunnels that formed part of the Malinta Tunnel complex. This extensive bunker was built as bomb-proof storage for munitions and personnel. This tunnel was where MacArthur had set up his command post and where Philippine President Manuel Quezon was sworn into office on 30 December, 1941.

In these dire conditions, Bernatitus was one of the last women to be evacuated when the submarine USS Spearfish was able to get to Corregidor on 3 May. The island fell, with all remaining personnel, including nursing staff, captured by the Japanese just three days later on 6 May. Bernatitus was the only Navy nurse to evade capture from Corregidor.

In October, 1942, she received the Legion of Merit with combat “V” for her heroism during the battles of Bataan and Corregidor from December, 1941 through April, 1942. Lieutenant (J.G.) Ann Bernatitus was the first American to receive the Legion of Merit, the first woman to receive it, the first ever to be awarded the medal with “V”, and only the second person ever to receive the honor.

The medal citation recounts the harrowing conditions for Bernatitus and these women:
“The conditions under which the nurses lived and worked lacked everything in the way of comfort. They were constantly exposed to enemy bombing attacks and experienced several as well as the endemic jungle diseases of that area. Miss Bernatitus suffered from both dysentery and beriberi during her tour of duty in Bataan. In spite of all difficulties Miss Bernatitus performed her duty in an exemplary manner with courage and good spirit.”

After escaping the Philippines aboard Spearfish, Bernatitus continued to serve throughout the war at Bethesda Naval Hospital, in New Orleans, Naval Hospital Great Lakes, and in San Francisco. In 1945 she was Chief of Nursing on USS Relief, a hospital ship that served during the Okinawa campaign in the pacific.

Bernatitus served until 1959 when she retired as a Captain. She retired to the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania area she’d been born in. She donated her Legion of Merit to the Smithsonian in 1976. She died at the age of 91 in 2003.

lom v

Legion of Merit
AWARDED FOR ACTIONS
DURING World War II
Service: Navy
GENERAL ORDERS:
CITATION:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Legion of Merit with Combat “V” to Lieutenant, Junior Grade Ann A. Bernatitus (NSN: 64916W), United States Navy, for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the Government of the United States as a member of Surgical Unit No. 5 during the Japanese attack on the Philippines, December 1941 through April 1942. Nurse Bernatitus maintained her position in the front lines of the Manila-Bataan area rendering efficient and devoted service during the prolonged siege. Miss Bernatitus was regularly attached to the Naval Hospital, Canacao, Philippine Islands having reported for duty there on 20 July 1941. Shortly after hostilities commenced in December 1941 the Naval Hospital Staff and patients were moved to a new establishment in Manila. On 24 December 1941, when Manila was being evacuated Miss Bernatitus accompanied by two Navy Medical Officers proceeded to the Army Hospital at Limay, Bataan. The remainder of the hospital staff stayed in Manila and were taken prisoners. On 25 January 1942, Miss Bernatitus was transferred to Army Field Hospital No. 1 at Little Baguio, Bataan and remained there on active duty until that hospital was destroyed by enemy bombing on 7 April. When Bataan fell Miss Bernatitus was transferred to Corregidor. During her stay in Bataan she worked directly under Lieutenant Commander C. M. Smith (MC), USN, who is now a prisoner of war. The conditions under which the nurses lived and worked lacked everything in the way of comfort. They were constantly exposed to enemy bombing attacks and experienced several as well as the endemic jungle diseases of that area. Miss Bernatitus suffered from both dysentery and beriberi during her tour of duty in Bataan. In spite of all difficulties Miss Bernatitus performed her duty in an exemplary manner with courage and good spirit. She was officially transferred from Corregidor three days before the surrender of that fortress. (Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Bernatitus is authorized to wear the Combat “V”.)

Thanks again, Mason.

Hand salute. Ready, two!

Category: Guest Post, Navy, Soldiers Angels, Valor

Comments (10)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. 5th/77th FA says:

    Wow. Hand Salute, Hell…This CAPT deserves at least a 14 gun Salute. Had read just a little on the nurses but did not know this. One of my neighbors was a Bataan March survivor (he passed away 15 or so years ago). The only thing he ever mentioned of his ordeals were how hard the nurses had to work.

  2. Slow Joe says:

    First!!!

    • The Stranger says:

      Not even close and wrong thread.

      *Walks away shaking head*

      • 5th/77th FA says:

        Ya see Pappy, there are some that are more aggravating than me. FIRST round of today is on me. Have a Yuengling or 6.

        May be occupied when the Friday WOT drops. Got a house full of estrogen laced company. Good luck to all!

    • HMCS(FMF) ret says:

      You done DORKED THE SQUEAKHOLE, SJ…

      (shakes head)

  3. Haywire Angel says:

    I am truly humbled to read how my sisters persevered through times like this! She is definitely a hero!!!

  4. Jay says:

    GodSPEED Captain Bernatitus! Holy cow, that is a hell of a read on a Friday. Good history.

    Need to hold some of these posers down by the ears and make them read and COMPREHEND what some REAL heroes did.

  5. Comm Center Rat says:

    Beside her WW II heroism, I’m in awe that she drew military retired pay from 1959-2003! Obviously, one tough woman in war and peace. She’s a worthy addition to the Valor Friday roll call. Having never served in the sea services, I knew nothing of this Florence Nightingale of the Pacific Theater. Thanks to Mason for bringing Captain Bernatitus’ legendary career to our attention.

    • AnotherPat says:

      DITTO on everything Comm Center Rat commented.

      Thank You, Mason and Ed for sharing.

    • Jay says:

      Comm Center Rat,

      Just a quick on historical pay charts. She went from collecting about $550 a month (O6 over 22 years) in 1963 (first year I could find) to just over 4,000 in January of 03. She DEFINITELY earned every penny of it. I bet she had some stories to tell.