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Captain Ann Bernatitus
Nurse Corp, U.S. Navy


Recollections of CAPT Ann Bernatitus, NC, USN, (Ret.), recounting her service in the Philippines including Bataan, evacuation from Corregidor on USS Spearfish (SS-190); and service on USS Relief (AH-1) during the Okinawa campaign and the return of American prisoners of war from Japanese-occupied China.

[Source: Oral history dated 25 Jan. 1994, provided courtesy of the Historian, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery]

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Were you born in Pennsylvania?

I was born in this house. This is the old family homestead. Mother and Dad built it. I think it was built about 1905. Nobody has lived here but the Bernatitus family.

When did you decide you wanted to be a nurse?


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. That girl went to New York for her training.

Where did you go?

I trained at what was then the Wyoming Valley Homeopathic Hospital in Wilkes-Barre. While I was in training, someone from the Army came to Mercy Hospital to talk about military nursing and we had to go. That was where I got the idea of the Navy. In those days, things were pretty bad.

That was during the Depression?

Right. There were no jobs for nurses, It you were one of the old timers, maybe. They had private duty nurses in those days but only the rich could afford them. I wasn't thinking about going in the service at that time. It wasn't until after I graduated. I had no job. I then decided to take a postgraduate course in operating room technique and management at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate Hospital in Philadelphia at 19th and Lombard. I applied and was accepted for a 6-month course.

Even after I finished that, there were still no jobs. First of all, I think I was too young at that time to get a job as a supervisor of an operating room. I stayed on at Penn and did general duty for $45 a month and my board.

When was that?

I went in training in '31 and I graduated in '34 but, as I said, I stayed on. I saw an ad in one of the nursing magazines that said they would find you a job so I applied. One day I got a telegram saying there was an opening for a staff nurse, not a supervisor, but a staff nurse in the operating room at the New Rochelle hospital in New York for $80 a month and board. I grabbed it. So I went to New Rochelle and worked in the operating room there rather than being a staff nurse. I was doing what I had trained for.

After so many months, I realized I would have to get New York registration to be able to stay on there. At that time, I got a letter from my former director of nurses at Wyoming Valley saying she would give me a job as an operating room supervisor at the Nanticoke State Hospital in the area. But they would only pay me $70 a month. But I took it mainly because my mother felt better that I was close to home and not out in the big city. The superintendent who gave me the job had been an ex-Army nurse back during World War I.

I think at that time I had written for an application to join the Navy Nurse Corps. For the longest time, I didn't hear from them. So I wrote a second time and finally got an application form from the Bureau [of Medicine and Surgery]. I had to go to Philadelphia for a physical.

Did you have to take some kind of examination?

No. This was in '36. What was happening after World War I, like always, is like we're doing right now, cut, cut, cut. Somewhere along the line, I had heard that there were only 325 nurses in the Nurse Corps. Some had resigned after World War I and some had been furloughed. They were slowly calling them back. And they were also accepting new applicants. It seems that I went for the physical exam on the first of September, and on the 25th, I was on my way to the Naval hospital in Chelsea, MA.

How did the Navy brand of nursing differ from what you had experienced before?
First of all, I had been working in the operating room which meant my job was different from a regular staff nurse that was out taking care of patients. in those days, when you joined the Navy, you were on 6 month's probation. That was the stipulation. For those first 6 months, you wore the uniform and hat you graduated with and had in civilian life. They put you on a ward with an older nurse and you just learned the language and the routine.

Of course, that was the era before Navy nurses even had ranks. You were probably addressed as Miss Bernatitus.
Right. In those days we were neither fish nor fowl. We were not officers and we were not enlisted. We were in between. We did not get the pay of an officer but we got more than the enlisted.

So there you were at Chelsea, a provisional nurse. How long were you there?

I was there the first 6 months. Then the Navy would decide whether to keep you or throw you out. New nurses were coming into the Corps roughly every 2 to 4 weeks. I found myself supervising the corpsmen and keeping the books. Every morning you went on duty and had to count all the blankets, the thermometers. I think we had to count the glasses. And then you had to scrub the floors. You had to keep the curtains at the windows just so.

They had inspections?
Only once a week on Friday when the captain and chief nurse would come through. When the chief nurse visited the ward every morning, you had to accompany her, as the nurse on the ward. You stopped at every bed to tell her what was wrong with the patient and how he was getting along. Maybe what medications he was getting. Not like now.

And you were responsible for so many corpsmen?

Yes, so many corpsmen who were assigned to that ward. You taught them how to do things and saw that they did them. There were times you actually did nursing--took care of a patient. If there was a critically ill patient, you took care of him yourself.

How long were you at Chelsea?

Exactly 2 years. If you were the youngest nurse on duty, you took turns doing morning duty and afternoon duty, and then we all took turns doing night duty. It was the older nurses that got the assignment for straight morning duty, no afternoon duty. We worked from 8 to 3, and the afternoon nurses worked from 3 to 10. The night nurse came on at 11 and stayed until 7 or 8 the next morning.

All of a sudden, we had nurses assigned to the linen room. You had to check it out to see if it was all there and what condition it was in. There was a seamstress to mend it if necessary. And, by golly, I got assigned to this job as straight morning duty. A lot of the older ones didn't know what that was all about.

That was considered to be a plum assignment?
Oh, sure. Then they decided to open some World War I buildings. They had no dispensary. They had a dispensary in the Navy Yard at Charlestown but they didn't have a hospital for dependents. So they decided to open a hospital for dependents but did so before it was really set up. Then they hired some civilian nurses to come in and run it. That turned out to be a disaster. The nurses couldn't understand the Navy way of doing things. Finally, one day I went down for lunch and on the bulletin board was a note from the chief nurse. It said, "Miss Bernatitus, see me in my suite." I thought, "What did I do now?" I went in and found that they had decided to put a Navy nurse in charge of the other nurses in the dependent hospital and I was it. I looked at her and said, "I don't know anything about obstetrics. I'm an operating room nurse." She said, "Tomorrow morning you go over there." So I did. They put me in charge of the two floors. The lower floor was an outpatient clinic and an older nurse was assigned there. There was a death in her family and she had to go on emergency leave and never came back. So I ended up with the first floor too. And that's how I ended up with three floors.
After that I got orders to go to Annapolis.

When was that?
In 1938. The Navy was a real nice place in those days. The nurses lived separately; they had their own mess. You were served; the food was always good. Life was good.

Was it as good when you got to Annapolis?

Yes. Annapolis was a smaller station. In Chelsea, the building we were quartered in was at least 100 years old. The rooms were enormous with big, high ceilings and big windows. At Annapolis, we all had individual rooms. The place was beautiful. We could date the midshipmen. Some midshipmen would get their eye on you and then you were "dragged" to the hops at the Academy. You had to walk from the nurse's quarters across the drill field to get to the dancing place. It was very nice. You learned a lot. I was exposed to things I had never been exposed to before. The older nurses would feel sorry for you and take you places. It was such a nice, close group all the time. You knew everybody in the house.

How long were you there?

I was there maybe 2 years. I remember at that time the Nurse Corps would send nurses to George Washington University for a course in dietetics. And they'd send nurses elsewhere for a course in physiotherapy. At that time they were looking for nurses to sign up for these courses. The announcements were on the bulletin board. At that time I was relieving in the diet kitchen. The chief nurse kept asking me whether I wanted to go to dietetic school. I had filled out the form we used to get every year asking us where we wanted to go next. I had the Philippines down. "Suppose I go to dietetic school and there was an opening in the Philippines, I wouldn't get it." So I didn't sign up and sure enough, I got the Philippines.

How did you get there?

I didn't have much of a vacation. I had to go to Norfolk, VA, to the hospital there to meet the other nurse who was going with me, Mary Chapman, and get the ship. We went over on the [transport ship] Chaumont (AP-5). I think I took an overnight ferry from Baltimore to Norfolk and met Mary there. We stopped at Guantanamo Bay and then through the [Panama] Canal.
I wasn't a sailor and didn't enjoy the trip. I was seasick all the time.

Did you stop at Pearl Harbor?
Yes. We had marines aboard they were taking to Midway where they went ashore. Then we went on to Guam and arrived in the Philippines in July 1940.

What was your impression of the Philippines?

I had no idea what the Philippines looked like; I hadn't read up on it or anything. Of course somebody met us at the dock to take us to Canacao. All I can remember is the smell of copra which seemed to be everywhere. The nipa huts, the kids running around naked. The houses on stilts, the carabao. But life was very good out there too. We went to work at 8 o'clock. You went to lunch and then didn't nave to go back on duty.

You had the afternoon off?

Yes, because only one nurse had to go back to supervise. We had golf, bicycling, swimming. You could go to the markets if you wanted to. For $5 a month you took your shoes, put them outside the door, and the house boys would take them downstairs, polish them up, and when we got back they would be sitting by your door. It was the same with the women who did your laundry. On your way to work you dropped it off in the washroom and when you returned there it was all pressed for you. Just before war was declared, we had one shop across from the Army and Navy Club run by a Jewish woman originally from Philadelphia named Rosie. Nothing was on display. She would say "I've got just the thing for you." You might go in to buy a pair of stockings and you would come home with an evening dress. She would serve you a drink first. Anyway, I bought this two-piece slack suit. Rosie was taken prisoner and I don't know how many years later, I get a bill from Rosie. Apparently, she had kept her records and the bill came from Philadelphia.

You probably had signed a chit for that dress.

Sure. That's all you ever did.

Did you have individual rooms there?
Yes. Did Dorothy [Still Danner] or Bertha [Evans St. Pierre] tell you how we found out that the war had started?

Bertha said that her boy friend at Cavite phoned her.

Ed. Yes. He called her around 6 o'clock in the morning. The telephone was downstairs on the first floor. And she came running up the steps and into my room. "Ann, war's been declared."

Even before you got to the Philippines, had you been hearing anything about war?

I don't recall when we were going out. But one thing happened that made us aware that something was cooking. Mary Chapman was going to get married and had put in her resignation. When the Chaumont would come in, somebody already had their orders to go back but the ship always brought someone out as a replacement. The chief nurse Miss [Laura] Cobb had us at a meeting and said, "I would suggest that anything you have, you pack up and ship back." Mary Chapman was going to be on that boat so I packed up a Hong Kong chest that someone had picked up for me and all the other things I had bought from the Chinaman who used to come to the nurse's quarters. He came with his valises packed with linens and things and he would spread them on the floor and he'd tell us to just sign the chit. You wouldn't have to pay for the things right then. So I packed all these things up and sent them with Mary Chapman's things.

Did the stuff go out with the Chaumont?

Yes

But Mary Chapman didn't.
No. I'll tell you why she didn't. When we heard about Pearl Harbor, they started sandbagging around the hospital because it wasn't on a solid foundation, just on these corner posts that held it up. And it was a three-story building. They assigned us so many hours duty and then somebody would come and relieve us. I remember I was coming off duty some time in the early morning hours when the siren went off that the planes were coming to bomb Nichols Field. When the war was declared all the patients who could go back to duty were sent back to duty. They sent the Filipinos home. Anybody who couldn't be moved ended up under the hospital.

They put them under the hospital, protected by sandbags?

Yes. I stayed there, I don't remember how long because I had started to go over to the nurse's quarters already. The captain then decided to evacuate the patients to Sternberg hospital in Manila. He decided that two nurses and two corpsmen had to accompany them.

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