Navy Nurses: The Heroines of Pearl Harbor

by Kelly Duffy, Deputy Director NMAS

The American public is well aware of many of the events that took place during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, such as the sinking of the USS Arizona (BB-39), the damage to the USS Nevada (BB-36), and the emergence of heroes such as Mess Attendant Third Class Doris Miller. Not as many individuals are aware of the heroic Navy Nurses, who persevered to treat the wounded. During the Pearl Harbor attack, 2,403 military personnel and civilians perished and another 1,143 were wounded, the majority of them sailors. Before the day’s sunset, the U.S. Naval Hospital, Pearl Harbor and the hospital ship  USS Solace (AH-5) overflowed  with casualties. Navy Nurses provided critical aide, support, and treatment during and after the Japanese attack.

From 1939-1941, United States Surgeon General Thomas Parran Jr. placed attention on Pearl Harbor’s  facilities and determined that the hospital could not accommodate a major crisis as the facility already suffered from low bed capacity and a lack of equipment, supplies, and personnel . Following this analysis, the Navy started construction for new hospital further away from the military installations and safer from a potential air attack. Besides the plans for a new hospital, a second Navy Mobile Base Hospital and the hospital ship the USS Solace (AH-5) arrived at Pearl Harbor shortly before December 7. In December, 1941 the U.S. Navy Hospital at Pearl Harbor and the Solace had a total of 682 available to treat the wounded and ill, with only 250 of them available at Naval Hospital Pearl Harbor. Little did the hospital’s staff know that these beds would soon be greatly needed.

US Naval Hospital Pearl Harbor main building. From the BUMED Library and Archives.

When the attack on Pearl Harbor began, crew onboard the Solace did not know what was happening. Lt (j.g.) John M. Gallagher, D-M USNR, recalled, “My first impression was that they were having a damage control drill.” Another Solace sailor though that it was “… a hell of a time… to be using some old battleship for target practice.” 

Footage from Capt. Erik G. Hakkanson (MC) from the deck of the Solace showing the attack on the USS Arizona. From the National Archives.

At the same time, Chief Nurse Grace Lally, who was readying herself for church, witnessed the Japanese bombers attack the USS Arizona (BB-39) and knew she was needed onboard the Solace.  She quickly arrived for duty to treat the injured and set up emergency wards. Navy Nurse Lt. Agnes Shurr described her experience: 

I was asleep that Sunday morning on the hospital ship Solace out in the middle of Pearl Harbor…”COMMAND BATTLE STATIONS!” was the first thing I heard. Our sailors were in their dress whites waiting to go ashore on liberty, but when the explosions started, they went around in the liberty boats, picking up injured and wounded out of the water. We received casualties almost immediately…

We worked through the day without stopping… Because we were so busy, I hadn’t been aware really of the seriousness of our own situation. I could see the ships in the water and the smoke rolling up and hear the sounds of ships firing at aircraft…

At approximately 8:20 a.m., the Solace began admitting the first of the wounded and dead service personnel. In the few minutes of preparation they had before the first arrivals, Solace nurses and staff quickly gathered supplies like sterile morphine solution, tannic acid, special serums, plasma, and others while current patients moved to upper beds to make the lower beds available to the critically wounded. Before the day was done, the crew of the Solace treated almost 300 patients. 

The USS Solace (AH-5) in Hawaii, ca. 1941. Photo #19-N-26324 from the National Archives.

Nurses at Naval Hospital Pearl Harbor also quickly prepped for casualties. Once the attacks began, staff at U.S. Naval Hospital Pearl Harbor sprang into action and by shortly after 9:00 a.m., the hospital’s entire staff was onsite and ready for duty. In the hour since the attack began, hospital staff readied stations for air attacks, dispersed fire-fighting equipment and ambulances, set up battle dressing stations and the operating suite, set up triage, transferred current patients to outbuildings and tents, and created a pool of vehicles to transport causalities to the hospital. The first patients arrived around 8:15 a.m., with a constant flow by 9:00 a.m. The injured arrived so quickly that Navy Nurses and staff could not get the proper admission information. Nurses sprayed tannic acid on wounds, administered morphine and sedatives to the severely injured. Navy Nurse Lt (j.g.) Helen Entrikin described how, “the regular operating rooms were so backlogged,” and Navy Nurse Lt (j.g.) Lenore Terrell recalled  how “ambulatory patients immediately left the hospital to get back to their ships,” then returned to the scene to continue rescue. Terrell also remembered, “Everyone was worrying about the others and not themselves.” In addition to providing physical support, Navy Nurses boosted morale. Lt (j.g.) Grace Lally mobilized the mess attendants, and she moved them to action to provide endless food and coffee in order to sustain the crew and wounded. She also ordered the cook to keep a steady stock of cookies and coffee after noticing their ability to boost spirits.  

Burned and injured patients receive care aboard USS Solace (AH-5) following the Pearl Harbor attack on 7 December 1941. BUMED photo # 09-5043-31 from the BUMED Library and Archives.

Throughout the attack and in the subsequent hours after, Navy Nurses at Pearl Harbor worked tirelessly. By the end of December 7, U.S. Naval Hospital Pearl Harbor saw 546 wounded and 313 dead; with almost 452 admitted in less than three hours. Those numbers are without the records of the roughly 200 service personnel  that received first aid and then returned to duty. Numbers for that day totaled around  960 patients by midnight, well over the Hospital’s 250-bed availability. 

During the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States Navy’s Nurses risked their lives to preserve  those of sailors, officers, and civilians. They cared for and treated the wounded while dodging explosions, bullets, and shrapnel.  Although historically overlooked, it cannot be denied that without their efforts, the loss of human life would have been higher. They treated patients during a hectic and unprecedented time in American history, created operating and triage rooms, and boosted spirits and morale. On a day filled with numerous acts of heroism, their often-unsung actions exemplified the Navy’s highest standards of honor, courage, and commitment. 

Navy nurses aboard the USS Solace in the Pacific, 1945. From BUMED Library and Archives

Works Cited

  1. “Answering the Call: Civil War to World War II.” Naval History and Heritage Command. Naval History and Heritage Command. November 29 2009. November 23 2020. https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/diversity/women-in-the-navy/civil-war-to-wwii.html
  2. Hawkins, Joellen W. and Irene Matthews. “”Tugboat Annie:” Nursing’s Hero of Pearl Harbor-Grace Lally (1897-1983),” Journal of Nursing Scholarship 23, no. 3 (Fall 1991): 183-186.
  3. “Heroic Nurses of Pearl Harbor.” Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau. Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau. November 23, 2020. https://visitpearlharbor.org/the-heroic-nurses-of-pearl-harbor/.
  4. Fessler, Diane Burke. No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II. United States: Michigan State University Press, 1997.
  5. “Pearl Harbor Attack: 7 December 1941.” Naval History and Heritage Command. Naval History and Heritage Command. December 5 2010. November 23 2020. https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-ii/1941/pearl-harbor.html.
  6. “Pearl Harbor Navy Medical Activities: Navy Medical Department Preparedness, 1941.” Naval History and Heritage Command. Naval History and Heritage Command. November 13, 2015. November 23, 2020. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/p/pearl-harbor-navy-medical-activities.html.
  7. Sobocinski, Andre B. “Navy Medicine at Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941)” Navy Medicine Live Official Blog of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. November 23, 2020. https://navymedicine.navylive.dodlive.mil/archives/3809.
  8. “Solace II (AH-5) 1941-1946.” Naval History and Heritage Command. Naval History and Heritage Command, April 6, 2009. November 23, 2020 https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/s/solace-ii.html
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