- James Houser
March 4, 1958 - Colonel Ruby Bradley's Long Journey
Updated: Jun 2, 2021
Women's History Month: March 4, 1958. One of the most long overdue promotions in military history occurs today after an officer of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps is promoted to Colonel after 24 years of service. Her name is Ruby Bradley, the "Angel in Fatigues," the most highly decorated nurse in U.S. military history, and even if she is not a legend she deserves to be.
Ruby Bradley was born in 1907 in the West Virginia coal country. Little is known about her early life, but she certainly lived through World War I and the Roaring Twenties. She was a teacher aged 22 when the Great Depression hit, severely limiting her opportunities in a grim time for the United States. It's hard to know what compelled her to make her next move; the military was extremely underfunded in the early 1930s, and was certainly considered to be no place for a woman. However, there was a small U.S. Army Nurse Corps, and in 1933 Ruby enlisted to become an Army Nurse.
The recruiter was quick to reassure her "Now, don't worry, you won't be in any wars." That was *checks notes* incorrect.
By 1941, Ruby Bradley was 34 years old and had spent seven years as a 2nd Lieutenant. She was on duty as a Hospital Administrator at Camp John Hay in the Philippines when World War II came to the Pacific after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The Japanese overran the Philippines within the next several months. On December 23, Bradley and a small team of medical staff fled to the hills to hide, but had to surrender a few days later when they were betrayed by the locals.
Bradley was placed in Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, which housed 3,000 internees. This would be her home for 37 months. She became a leader to the one other Army nurse, six missionaries, and a Filipino nurse as they cared for and protected the American POWs in the camp throughout that time. They had no medical supplies or medicine; the Japanese refused to provide them. They had to make do, and the feats they pulled off illustrate dramatically the endurance of human spirit and ingenuity in times of prolonged suffering.
Bradley and her nurses set up a dispensary within the camp. She and one of the imprisoned doctors smuggled drugs, morphine and surgical instruments into the camp and slowly pieced together a makeshift clinic. "Three days after that," she remembered later, "we had an appendectomy." As dysentery rose, she supervised the making of soap from coconut oil. Diets among the POWs were so poor that their red blood cell counts were dropping, so with no other options Bradley's team also directed the making of iron capsules from scrap metal. With the materials and equipment she was able to jury-rig, Bradley took part in 230 major operations during her time at Santo Tomas.
Women and children were sequestered in the POW camps with American soldiers, and some were locked away pregnant. When the first expectant mother began to go into labor, the Japanese would not allow her to move to Manila's hospital, so Bradley improvised. She and her team cleared a small storeroom in the barracks, placed a thin mattress on the floor, and built an ether mask out of a tea strainer and gauze to anesthetize the mother. They had to sterilize their surgical tools - stolen and implemented - over an open flame. Bradley successfully delivered the baby and laid it to rest in a bed made from a desk drawer. The mother required critical care for 14 days, but both she and the baby pulled through. Bradley delivered 12 more babies during her time in the camp.
As the war grew worse for the Japanese from 1943 onwards, rations began to decline. The POWs were given a cup of rice a day, near starvation rations, but Bradley still gave half her ration to the starving children within the camp. She later stated that "I saved my food for when they started crying." She also stole food from the guards and granaries around the city. As she lost weight, she considered it advantageous - she could smuggle more tools and food in her uniform that way.
On February 3, 1945, MacArthur's troops liberated Manila and the Santo Tomas Camp. The formerly 110-pound Bradley weighed only 84 pounds, and untold internees owed her their lives. For their service, she and the other nurses became known as the "Angels in Fatigues." Fifteen days after liberation, she was finally promoted to 1st Lieutenant, and then Captain later in the year.
Apparently deciding to flip the bird to fate for thinking it could stop her, Captain Bradley decided to stay in the Army. She went to the University of California to get her Bachelor's in Nursing, which it seems like they really just should have handed to her as soon as she walked in the door. (What were they going to teach her at this point?!) By 1950, she was a Major, happily in charge of a large cadre of nurses and probably figured she was done.
Well, there was this thing in Korea...
By July 1950, Major Ruby Bradley was on the ground in Korea too. She became the Chief Nurse of the 171st Evacuation Hospital, a M.A.S.H. unit, rampaging around the frontlines in her ambulance picking up wounded soldiers. Is there such a thing as being addicted to saving people?
In November 1950, Bradley was far advanced with the main American forces in North Korea when the Chinese counterattacked and threatened to encircle the 8th Army. As 100,000 Chinese troops closed a ring around Pyongyang, the 171st Hospital was evacuating the wounded. As plane after plane flew out, the Chinese ring grew tighter. In the middle of it all was Major Bradley, who had survived over three years in a Japanese prison camp and was not about to see any of her charges captured.
Bradley refused to set foot on a plane until the last evacuee was on board. She walked through sniper fire in the driving snow, bellowing orders and keeping track of all her patients. She was determined to leave no man behind, and she didn't. Pulling her ambulance up to the airstrip as artillery fire rained down, she helped load the last patient onto the last plane as the ambulance exploded from a shell. “You can get out in a hurry when someone’s behind you with a gun,” she said later.
Due to her record, after this incident (or maybe just because he was scared of her) General Matthew Ridgway made Bradley the Chief Nurse for 8th Army. For the rest of the Korean War, Ruby served as the head of all 500 Army nurses in Korea.
Finally, after over a decade of basically telling the Angel of Death where he could shove it, Ruby Bradley was promoted to Colonel on March 4, 1958.
Never married, Ruby retired in 1963 after thirty years in uniform. She received two Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars, the POW Medal, the Korean Service Medal with three campaign stars, and 30 other decorations. In 1991, the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, her hometown of Spencer honored her with a parade, but she didn't feel special. The 84-year-old Ruby remarked, "I want to be remembered as just an Army nurse."
Ruby passed away in 2002. She is buried in the most fitting place imaginable: among the soldiers she looked after for so long, in Arlington National Cemetery.
Book Recommendation: For the story of Ruby Bradley and the other nurses in Japanese POW camps, check out Elizabeth M. Norman, We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan (New York: Random House, 2011).