The Navy Department Library
Lieutenant Ruth Erickson, NC, USN
Oral History of The Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941
Excerpt from Oral History of LT Ruth Erickson, NC (Nurse Corps), USN. LT Erickson was a nurse at Naval Hospital Pearl Harbor during the attack on 7 December 1941.
[Source: Oral history provided courtesy of Historian, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery]
After the maneuvers were over, we were assigned to an R & R (rest and relaxation) port of Charlotte Amalie, Virgin Islands. After 5 lovely days we followed the fleet, supposedly to New York to assist in the opening of the World's Fair of April 1939.
Upon reaching Norfolk, VA, everything changed. It seemed Japan was "rattling the saber." Thus, all ships were ordered to refuel, take on provisions, and immediately return to the West Coast.
When we reached the Panama Canal, the locks operated around the clock to get the ships through. The Relief (AH-1) was the last ship and we remained on the Pacific side for 2 to 3 days and then continued to our home port, San Pedro, CA.
When we arrived we remained in port until February 1940. In late summer of 1939 we learned that spring fleet maneuvers would be in Hawaii, off the coast of Maui. Further, I would be detached to report to the Naval Hospital, Pearl Harbor, T.H. when maneuvers were completed. The orders were effective on 8 May 1940.
Tropical duty was another segment in my life's adventure! On this same date I reported to the hospital command in which CAPT Reynolds Hayden was the commanding officer. Miss Myrtle Kinsey was the chief of nursing services with a staff of eight nurses. I was also pleased to meet up with Miss Winnie Gibson once again, the operating room supervisor.
We nurses had regular ward assignments and went on duty at 8 a.m. Each had a nice room in the nurses' quarters. We were a bit spoiled; along with iced tea, fresh pineapple was always available.
We were off at noon each day while one nurse covered units until relieved at 3 p.m. In turn, the p.m. nurse was relieved at 10 p.m. The night nurse's hours were 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.
One month I'd have a medical ward and the next month rotated to a surgical ward. Again, I didn't have any operating room duties here. The fleet population was relatively young and healthy. We did have quite an outbreak of "cat [catarrhal] fever" with flu-like symptoms. This was the only pressure period we had until the war started.
What was off-duty like?
Cars were few and far between, but two nurses had them. Many aviators were attached to Ford Island. Thus, there was dating. We had the tennis courts, swimming at the beach, and picnics. The large hotel at Waikiki was the Royal Hawaiian, where we enjoyed an occasional beautiful evening and dancing under starlit skies to lovely Hawaiian melodies.
And then it all ended rather quickly.
Yes, it did. A big drydock in the area was destined to go right through the area where the nurses' quarters stood. We had vacated the nurses' quarters about 1 week prior to the attack. We lived in temporary quarters directly across the street from the hospital, a one-story building in the shape of an E. The permanent nurses' quarters had been stripped and the shell of the building was to be razed in the next few days.
By now, the nursing staff had been increased to 30 and an appropriate number of doctors and corpsmen had been added. The Pacific Fleet had moved their base of operations from San Diego to Pearl Harbor. With this massive expansion, there went our tropical hours! The hospital now operated at full capacity.
Were you and your colleagues beginning to feel that war was coming?
No. We didn't know what to think. I had worked the afternoon duty on Saturday, December 6th from 3 p.m. until 10 p.m. with Sunday to be my day off.
Two or three of us were sitting in the dining room Sunday morning having a late breakfast and talking over coffee. Suddenly we heard planes roaring overhead and we said, "The `fly boys' are really busy at Ford Island this morning." The island was directly across the channel from the hospital. We didn't think too much about it since the reserves were often there for weekend training. We no sooner got those words out when we started to hear noises that were foreign to us.
I leaped out of my chair and dashed to the nearest window in the corridor. Right then there was a plane flying directly over the top of our quarters, a one-story structure. The rising sun under the wing of the plane denoted the enemy. Had I known the pilot, one could almost see his features around his goggles. He was obviously saving his ammunition for the ships. Just down the row, all the ships were sitting there--the [battleships] California (BB-44), the Arizona (BB-39), the Oklahoma (BB-37), and others.
My heart was racing, the telephone was ringing, the chief nurse, Gertrude Arnest, was saying, "Girls, get into your uniforms at once, This is the real thing!"
I was in my room by that time changing into uniform. It was getting dusky, almost like evening. Smoke was rising from burning ships.
I dashed across the street, through a shrapnel shower, got into the lanai and just stood still for a second as were a couple of doctors. I felt like I were frozen to the ground, but it was only a split second. I ran to the orthopedic dressing room but it was locked. A corpsmen ran to the OD's [Officer-of-the-Day's] desk for the keys. It seemed like an eternity before he returned and the room was opened. We drew water into every container we could find and set up the instrument boiler. Fortunately, we still had electricity and water. Dr. [CDR Clyde W.] Brunson, the chief of medicine was making sick call when the bombing started. When he was finished, he was to play golf...a phrase never to be uttered again.
The first patient came into our dressing room at 8:25 a.m. with a large opening in his abdomen and bleeding profusely. They started an intravenous and transfusion. I can still see the tremor of Dr. Brunson's hand as he picked up the needle. Everyone was terrified. The patient died within the hour.
Then the burned patients streamed in. The USS Nevada (BB-36) had managed some steam and attempted to get out of the channel. They were unable to make it and went aground on Hospital Point right near the hospital. There was heavy oil on the water and the men dived off the ship and swam through these waters to Hospital Point, not too great a distance, but when one is burned... How they ever managed, I'll never know.
The tropical dress at the time was white t-shirts and shorts. The burns began where the pants ended. Bared arms and faces were plentiful.
Personnel retrieved a supply of flit guns from stock. We filled these with tannic acid to spray burned bodies. Then we gave these gravely injured patients sedatives for their intense pain.
Orthopedic patients were eased out of their beds with no time for linen changes as an unending stream of burn patients continued until mid afternoon. A doctor, who several days before had renal surgery and was still convalescing, got out of his bed and began to assist the other doctors.
Do you recall the Japanese plane that was shot down and crashed into the tennis court?
Yes, the laboratory was next to the tennis court. The plane sheared off a corner of the laboratory and a number of the laboratory animals, rats and guinea pigs, were destroyed. Dr. Shaver [LTJG John S.], the chief pathologist, was very upset.
About 12 noon the galley personnel came around with sandwiches and cold drinks; we ate on the run. About 2 o'clock the chief nurse was making rounds to check on all the units and arrange relief schedules.
I was relieved around 4 p.m. and went over to the nurses' quarters where everything was intact. I freshened up, had something to eat, and went back on duty at 8 p.m. I was scheduled to report to a surgical unit. By now it was dark and we worked with flashlights. The maintenance people and anyone else who could manage a hammer and nails were putting up black drapes or black paper to seal the crevices against any light that might stream to the outside.
About 10 or 11 o'clock, there were planes overhead. I really hadn't felt frightened until this particular time. My knees were knocking together and the patients were calling, "Nurse, nurse!" The other nurse and I went to them, held their hands a few moments, and then went onto others.
The priest was a very busy man. The noise ended very quickly and the word got around that these were our own planes.
What do you remember when daylight came?
I worked until midnight on that ward and then was directed to go down to the basement level in the main hospital building. Here the dependents--the women and children--the families of the doctors and other staff officers were placed for the night. There were ample blankets and pillows. We lay body by body along the walls of the basement. The children were frightened and the adults tense. It was not a very restful night for anyone.
Everyone was relieved to see daylight. At 6 a.m. I returned to the quarters, showered, had breakfast, and reported to a medical ward. There were more burn cases and I spent a week there.
What could you see when you looked over toward Ford Island?
I really couldn't see too much from the hospital because of the heavy smoke. Perhaps at a higher level one could have had a better view.
On the evening of 17 December, the chief nurse told me I was being ordered to temporary duty and I was to go to the quarters, pack a bag, and be ready to leave at noon. When I asked where I was going, she said she had no idea. The commanding officer ordered her to obtain three nurses and they were to be in uniform. In that era we had no outdoor uniforms. Thus it would be the regular white ward uniforms.
And so in our ward uniforms, capes, blue felt hats, and blue sweaters, Lauretta Eno, Catherine Richardson, and I waited for a car and driver to pick us up at the quarters. When he arrived and inquired of our destination, we still had no idea! The OD's desk had our priority orders to go to one of the piers in Honolulu. We were to go aboard the SS [steamship] President Coolidge and prepare to receive patients. We calculated supplies for a 10-day period.
We three nurses and a number of corpsmen from the hospital were assigned to the SS Coolidge.
Eight volunteer nurses from the Queens Hospital in Honolulu were attached to the Army transport at the next pier, USAT [U.S. Army transport] Scott, a smaller ship.
The naval hospital brought our supplies the following day, the 18th, and we worked late into the evening. We received our patients from the hospital on the 19th, theCoolidge with 125 patients and the Scott with 55.
Were these the most critically injured patients?
The command decided that patients who would need more than 3 months treatment should be transferred. Some were very bad and probably should not have been moved. There were many passengers already aboard the ship, missionaries and countless others who had been picked up in the Orient. Two Navy doctors on the passenger list from the Philippines were placed on temporary duty and they were pleased to be of help.
Catherine Richardson worked 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. I had the 4 p.m. to midnight, and Lauretta Eno worked midnight to 8 a.m. Everyone was very apprehensive. The ship traveled without exterior lights but there was ample light inside.
You left at night?
Yes, we left in the late afternoon of the 19th. There were 8 or 10 ships in the convoy. It was quite chilly the next day; I later learned that we had gone fairly far north instead of directly across. The rumors were rampant that a submarine was seen out this porthole in some other direction. I never get seasick and enjoy a bit of heavy seas, but this was different! Ventilation was limited by reason of sealed ports and only added to gastric misery. I was squared about very soon.
The night before we got into port, we lost a patient, an older man, perhaps a chief. He had been badly burned, He was losing intravenous fluids faster than they could be replaced. Our destination became San Francisco with 124 patients and one deceased.
We arrived at 8 a.m. on Christmas Day! Two ferries were waiting there for us with cots aboard and ambulances from the naval hospital at Mare Island and nearby civilian hospitals. The Red Cross was a cheerful sight with donuts and coffee.
Our arrival was kept very quiet. Heretofore, all ship's movements were published in the daily paper but since the war had started, this had ceased. I don't recall that other ships in the convoy came in with us except for the Scott. We and the Scott were the only ships to enter the port. The convoy probably slipped away.
The patients were very happy to be home and so were we all. The ambulances went on ahead to Mare Island. By the time we had everyone settled on the two ferries, it was close to noon. We arrived at Mare Island at 4:30 p.m. and helped get the patients into the respective wards.
While at Mare Island, a doctor said to me, "For God's sake, Ruth, what's happened out there? We don't know a thing." He had been on the USS Arizona (BB-39) and was detached only a few months prior to the attack. We stayed in the nurses' quarters that night.