Navy Nurse Ann Bernatitus: Out of the Pan and into the Fire

By Kim Ortega, NMAS Museum Technician 

Across the United States during the month of March, Americans celebrate Women’s History Month; a commemoration that recognizes and honors the indispensable roles women played throughout American history. Throughout United States Naval history, women answered the patriotic call to serve their country in both official and unofficial capacities. From volunteering as nurses in the Civil War, to finally receiving recognized ranks during World War II, the growth and progression of women in the Navy continues to be recognized and celebrated today.  

Lt. Junior Grade Ann Bernatitus was one of these women. Bernatitus, a Pennsylvania native, enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1936 at the age of twenty-four as a member of the Navy Nurse Corps. In a 1994 oral history interview with the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Bernatitus recalled her motivations for enlisting:

“I always wanted to be a nurse. There was nothing else for girls to do in those days but be a school teacher or a nurse. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to college. My school friend, whose mother was a widow, told my mother, who was also a widow, to let me go for training. My mother then decided to let me go for training locally.”

LTJG Ann Bernatitus prepping supplies at a nurse’s station circa. 1943. 
Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command. 

Despite her desire to be a nurse, Bernatitus’ learned that being a woman in the military was not always what it was cracked up to be. In the same interview with the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Bernatitus recalled Navy women’s unique role: :

“In those days we were neither fish nor fowl. We were not officers and we were not enlisted. Every morning we went on duty and had to count all the blankets and thermometers. I think we had to count the glasses. Then we scrubbed the floors and had to keep the curtains at the windows just so.”

Women’s roles in the Navy, however, quickly changed five years into her enlistment while Bernatitus was stationed at the Naval Hospital Cañacao in the Philippines  after  Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Fully anticipating their location would be next for an attack, Bernatitus and her eleven colleagues prepared for duty. The anticipated Japanese attack came on December 10, 1941 and left the Cavite Navy Yard destroyed and hundreds of casualties. Bernatitus and one other nurse accompanied the severely injured that were evacuated to Sternberg Army Hospital in Manila. Due to consistent attacks from the Japanese, Bernatitus continued to move from island to island providing medical care to those in need; a long way from counting blankets and thermometers in the pre-war era.

By December 24, 1941, the Navy transferred Bernatitus and her assigned team to the Philippine island of Bataan to work under the Army to help treat the injured. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, “in one eight-hour day [Bernatitus] saw two hundred and eighty-five patients brought into the operating room, waiting their turn. She treated her own countrymen and Japanese prisoners from dawn to midnight.” Despite the long hours and not knowing when the next attack would strike, Bernatitus upheld her duty to nurture and heal. 

Members of the U.S. Marine Corps stationed at Corregidor Island “celebrate the arrival of a fresh supply of Camel cigarettes.” Image was taken prior to the Japanese takeover of the island. 
Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command

By the spring of 1942 the Philippine Islands were losing ground and a Japanese takeover was imminent. Only a few days before Bataan was overrun by Japan, Bernatitus evacuated to Corregidor, another island in the Philippines. According to an article published by Navy Medicine, Bernatitus, along with “six Army officers, eleven Army nurses, and one civilian woman,” were the last Americans to escape Corregidor via the USS Spearfish (SS-190) submarine. 

USS Spearfish (SS-190) circa 1944. 
Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command. 

Bernatitus was the only Navy Nurse aboard. Under the cloak of night, their submarine was taken far out in Manila Bay. The submarine dove and stayed under water for the next seventeen days and continued to make its way to its destination: Australia. The Naval History and Heritage Command goes on to explain that “during this time of escape, [Bernatitus] was listed on the Navy Department records as “missing in action.”

Upon returning stateside in the summer of 1942, the United States Navy awarded Bernatitus the Presidential Unit Citation as well as the American Defense and Asiatic Pacific Ribbons in recognition of her service. Bernatitus was the second person overall, and the first female, to receive the new Legion of Merit Medal in October of the same year. Home of Heroes shared that when Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, former Chief of Naval Personnel, presented the award to Bernatitus he said, “Your excellent service in a time of stress and under such dangerous conditions is worthy of the distinction shown [to] you in becoming the first person in the United States Naval Service to be so decorated.”

The Legion of Merit Medal was created by Congress on July 20, 1942 to recognize military personnel who have “distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services.” Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command. 

Despite the events that occurred in the Philippine Islands, and the hardships and bouts of inequality for young women in the military, Bernatitus’ unwavering courage and determination allowed her to continue her career as a decorated Navy Nurse throughout World War II and eventually reaching the rank of Captain before her retirement in 1959. Bernatitus is only one example of women in naval history set to trailblaze a new path for women of today to follow.

Resource List

  1. “All Hands Naval Bulletin – Nov 1942.” Scribd, Scribd, March 1, 2021. 
  2. “Ann A. Bernatitus.” Home of Heroes, January 13, 2021. March 1, 2021. 
  3. “Bernatitus, Ann Agnes.” Naval History and Heritage Command, March 1, 2021 
  5. “In Memoriam: CAPT Ann A. Bernatitus, NC, USN (Ret.)” Navy Medicine Vol. 94, No. 3 May-June 2003. March 1, 2021.                                          


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