Ann Agnes Bernatitus was born in January 1912 in Exeter, Pennsylvania, and joined the United States Navy in 1936. In 1940 she was assigned to the Philippines where she admits: “I had no idea what the Philippines looked like.”
Despite this uncertain start, however, she went to be the first person to receive the Congressional Legion of Merit Medal.
She would later say of her time as a nurse in the Philippines: “I never read up on it or anything, but life was very good out there… you went to work at eight o’clock and took lunch and never went back on duty.”
Bernatitus’s moment of glory came when she treated Filipino and American soldiers during the bombing of Bataan. She in fact was the only naval nurse assigned to the region during the height of the action. Among the 50 nurses who served during the Battle of Bataan, half were Filipino while the others were American.
Her dedication as an operating nurse in the battle torn district of Bataan, she worked tirelessly even during the bombing of the American field hospitals in the area. Just before the fall of Bataan to the Japanese, Bernatitus and other nurses were moved to the underground tunnels of Corregidor.
She was the last naval nurse rescued from the island by submarine. She arrived in Australia and returned home to serve in the US Navy till 1959. Ann Agnes Bernatitus died on March 3, 2003, at the age of 91.
Today a memorial stands in Exeter, Pennsylvania, in honour of her service and dedication to humanity. A painting of her also hangs in the Pentagon and her Congressional Legion of Merit Medal has been donated to the Smithsonian Institute and is on view there daily.
Her Legion of Merit 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 Agnes Bernatitus
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”.)
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