50 states, 50 heroes: Angel in fatigues

Published 6:30 am Saturday, December 12, 2020

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Born Dec. 19, 1907, in Spencer, West Virginia, Ruby Grace Bradley began her working life as a teacher. She then decided to go into nursing and graduated from the Philadelphia General Hospital School of Nursing in 1933. The following year, she joined the Army Nurse Corps as a surgical nurse. She was commissioned a second lieutenant and was eventually assigned to the John Hay Air Station (also known as Camp John Hay) near the city of Baguio on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

Ruby Grace Bradley

Japanese forces captured Baguio on Dec. 27, 1941, and Camp John Hay was captured two days later. Bradley, who was serving as the administrator, was one of two Army nurses taken prisoner. For several months after, the Japanese kept Bradley and 500 civilians interned at the camp in a single building that was designed to house only 60 people.

After almost two years of deplorable conditions, Bradley was transferred to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, where she was one of several imprisoned nurses. During her time at Santo Tomas, she assisted in 230 operations and delivered 13 babies. For their efforts, the nurses were called “Angels in Fatigues” by their fellow prisoners.

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The poor conditions at Camp John Hay had caused her to lose weight, making her uniform too big. Using this to her advantage, Bradley managed to smuggle her meager rations into the civilian areas to feed starving children. She did this frequently, often times going hungry herself. She also used the extra room in her uniform to sneak in surgical supplies. Because of her emaciated frame, the Japanese guards were none the wiser.

When the Americans liberated Santo Tomas on Feb. 3, 1945, Bradley weighed a mere 86 pounds.

Upon her return to the United States, Bradley opted to stay in the Army. She attended the University of California and received her Bachelor of Science degree in 1949.

At the beginning of the Korean War, Bradley was named Chief Nurse of the 171st Medical Evacuation Hospital in Pyongyang, which had fallen to U.N. forces on Oct. 19, 1950. On that same day, Chinese forces crossed the Yalu River and invaded the Korean Peninsula. By November, they were threatening to take Pyongyang.

With over 100,000 Chinese advancing on Pyongyang, American Headquarters in Japan ordered Bradley to evacuate immediately as they did not want her to have to endure more time as a prisoner of war. Bradley refused, choosing instead to evacuate the hospital’s staff and patients first. Only after everyone was aboard a plane did she evacuate. She later recalled that her ambulance exploded after being struck by an enemy shell just as she boarded her plane.

In 1951, Bradley was promoted to Chief Nurse of the Eighth Army and was in charge of assigning 5,000 Army nurses in the Far East Command.

Bradley retired from the Army with the rank of colonel in 1963. She was the third woman in Army history to achieve the rank of colonel and the most decorated Army nurse, having received 34 medals, including two Legions of Merit and two Bronze Stars.

She continued nursing until 1980 and was given an honorary doctorate degree by West Virginia University. On Feb. 23, 2000, Bradley was the subject of a NBC Nightly News report by Tom Brokaw honoring forgotten military heroes.

Bradley passed away on May 28, 2002, in Prestonburg , Kentucky. She is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. After her death, Rep. Joe Baca (D-CA) drafted and read a memorial resolution in her honor.