This week’s America250 salute is Navy Veteran Ann Agnes Bernatitus, a World War II nurse who was the first Legion of Merit recipient.

This week’s America250 salute is Navy Veteran Ann Agnes Bernatitus.

Ann Agnes Bernatitus was born in 1912 in Exeter, Pennsylvania. After graduating high school in 1928, she decided to become a nurse. Bernatitus entered nurse training in 1931 at the Wyoming Valley Homeopathic Hospital in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, completing training in four years. After failing to find employment, she decided to complete a postgraduate course in operating room technique at the University of Pennsylvania. She also worked there until she accepted a position at the New Rochelle Hospital in New York. However, realizing she needed New York registration to work at this position, Bernatitus eventually returned to Pennsylvania to work at Nanticoke State Hospital near her hometown. There, she decided to join the Navy Nurse Corps and was appointed ensign in 1936.

Afterward, Bernatitus went to the Naval Hospital in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where she worked as a staff nurse for two years. Later, she transferred to the Navy Hospital in Annapolis, Maryland, where she worked similar duties. After two years there, Bernatitus had a choice: go to dietetic school, or serve as a nurse at a naval hospital in the Philippines. She chose the Philippines. After briefly serving as a nurse aboard USS Chaumont (AP-5), she worked in Surgical Unit 5 in Canacao, Philippines.

When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, they also launched an attack on the Philippines afterward. Their attack forced the hospital to relocate to Manila, where Bernatitus nursed soldiers injured in the Japanese attack. Eventually, Manila was overwhelmed by the Japanese, forcing Bernatitus to evacuate to Bataan. Conditions in Bataan quickly deteriorated with wounded soldiers soon occupying virtually every operating table, and sanitation was nonexistent.

In April 1942, Maj. Gen. Edward King directed the American surrender after the Japanese took Bataan. Shortly before this, Bernatitus moved to Corregidor in Manila Bay, where she worked in the hospital established in the Malinta Tunnel located off a small fort on the island. A month later, she joined an attempt to bypass the Japanese blockade of Manila Bay aboard the submarine USS Spearfish (SS-190). With six Army officers, six Navy officers, 11 Army nurses, a civilian and two stowaways, Bernatitus was the only Navy nurse to escape Corregidor in the 17-day journey to Australia. After returning to the U.S., Bernatitus promoted to chief nurse.

Bernatitus served as the chief nurse at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, for a year before transferring to the Naval Dispensary, 8th Naval District in New Orleans, Louisiana. There, she received a Legion of Merit with Combat “V” for her service in the Philippines. Bernatitus became the first American and woman to receive the award.

In 1944, she served in naval hospitals in Illinois and California before becoming chief of nursing science aboard USS Relief (AH-1) during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Returning to the U.S. later that year, Bernatitus was assigned to the Naval Hospital in Brooklyn, New York.

In 1946, Bernatitus took a course in occupational therapy, completing it in 1948. Following this, she became the chief of occupational therapy for a naval hospital in Texas. She later transferred to a naval hospital in California, where she also worked in occupational therapy. In the 1950s, Bernatitus worked as the chief of nursing service for naval hospitals in Rhode Island, Camp Pendleton in California and served a related role at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia. Bernatitus retired at the rank of captain in 1959.

During her service, Bernatitus received a Legion of Merit with a combat “V,” an American Defense Service Medal with base clasp, an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two stars, a World War II Victory Medal, a Navy Occupation Service Medal, a China Service Medal, a Philippine Defense Ribbon, a Philippine Liberation Ribbon and a Philippine Independence Ribbon.

Bernatitus passed away in 2003 at the age of 91.

We honor her service.


America250

VA is highlighting 250 Veterans leading up to July 4, 2026, which marks 250 years of independence. Learn more about the count down to 250 years of the American spirit at https://america250.org/.


Contributors

Writer: Raymond Lin

Editors: Annabelle Colton, Julia Pack

Fact Checker: Timothy Georgetti

Graphic Designer: Kiki Kelley

By VAntage Point Contributor

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Published on Mar. 24, 2022

Estimated reading time is 3.5 min.

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