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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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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