When people think of war and the prisoners taken by the opposing side during conflicts, mental pictures develop of individuals wearing few clothes, fed slight rations and many times beaten and/or mistreated. Though these mental pictures may vary some, one constant seems to be the norm – normally all the individuals in the picture are male. Though it is true the vast majority of war prisoners are male, some female prisoners have also been in the picture.
One such individual was Ruby Bradley. A nurse who became the third woman to achieve the rank of Colonel in the US Army, Bradley spent 37 months as a POW in the Philippines during World War II. Over the course of her military career, Colonel Bradley earned a total of 34 medals and is to date the most highly decorated woman in the history of the US military.
The daughter of Fred O. Bradley and Bertha Welch, Ruby was born on December 19, 1907 near Spencer, West Virginia. In 1926, she graduated from Glenville State Teachers College and taught elementary grade students for the next four years in a one-room school house in Roane County. In 1930 she entered the Philadelphia General Hospital School of Nursing. Ruby graduated as a surgical nurse in 1933.
In 1934, Ruby joined the Army Nurse Corps and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. Initially assigned to Walter Reed General Hospital, she was assigned to Station Hospital at Fort Mills, Philippine Islands in February 1940. A year later, she transferred to Camp John Hay on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
On the day referred to by FDR as the ‘day which will live in infamy’ (Dec. 7, 1941), Bradley was in the Philippines. Shortly after word was received regarding the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes filled the sky over the Philippines, raining bombs on Camp John Hay. Following the bombing raid, a small boy was brought to the infirmary. He was out walking with his mother at the time the bombs began to fall on the camp. The child was in shock and began to turn blue. The surgeon’s efforts to revive him proved futile, so he stated given the number of people still waiting for care, he had to move on to the next patient.
Ruby felt the child still deserved a chance. The surgeon handed her a 6” needle, used to inject the heart with a stimulant after it had stopped beating. The idea of sticking the needle into the child’s chest bothered Ruby. She noticed a bottle of whiskey in the operating room and quickly devised a different plan. Pouring a small amount of the whiskey on a piece of gauze, she sprinkled it with a bit of sugar and placed it on the child’s mouth. A moment later, the child began to suck on the gauze and the whiskey quickly revived him.
Three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ruby was captured by Japanese forces. In 1943, she was moved to Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila. During her incarceration, Bradley helped to deliver 13 babies and participated in 230+ operations; with little or no access to medicine or supplies. Possessing a resourceful nature about them, the Angels in Fatigues, (the group of nurses Bradley worked with), would sterilize hemp and ravel it for the threads which were then used as sutures. Surgical instruments were sterilized on cooking stoves and pieces of cloth torn into bandages.
While at Santo Tomas, Ruby was considered a godsend by all with whom she interacted. Her greatest concern belonged to the children. Each time a baby was born, she took it upon herself to ensure the child’s birth was properly documented. She produced a multitude of toys from the most unusual odds-and-ends; and many times gave her own meager rations to the hungry children.
A red cross on an Army tent proclaimed the area to be a hospital, but that in no way ensured a ‘safe haven.’ The enemy considered hospitals up-for-grabs every bit as much as any other facility. As a result, troops harbored squeamish attitudes towards the hospitals and normally concealed minor wounds from the medical personnel; considering the front lines a safer place to be. The reason for their feelings could have been tied to the fact the hospital tents were many times erected within close proximity to popular military targets such as supply depots, magazines and communication headquarters. Knowing full well they stood just as good a chance of becoming casualties of war as the soldiers on the front lines, the nurses normally dressed in steel helmets and combat boots, along with the usual scrubs.
When the camp was finally liberated on February 3, 1945 after the US Army overtook Manila, Ruby weighted 85 pounds due to the starvation diet the Japanese forced on their POWs. The extra room in her uniform due to her weigh loss proved a handy place to smuggle surgical equipment into the prisoner-of-war camp.
In 1950, Ruby was now a major serving in Korea. Accompanying the troops as a front-line chief Army nurse, she worked in the 171st Evacuation Hospital. When the Americans later began to retreat from the Chinese army, Ruby made sure all the wounded and sick patients were on the planes before she boarded. The last person to board the last plane to leave the landing strip, Ruby heard her ambulance blow up behind the plane as the landing gear was raised after take-off. She later proclaimed, “I was the last one out.”
Bradley achieved the rank of colonel on March 4, 1958 at Fort McPhearson Georgia. She retired from the military on March 31, 1963.
Though retired from the military, she did not retire from nursing. She spent the next 17 years in Roane County, West Virginia where she worked as a supervisor in a private nursing facility.
In September 1991, her home town of Spencer, West Virginia recognized her with tributes and a parade on ‘Ruby Bradley Day.’
Tom Brokaw presented a story about Colonel Bradley on February 23, 2000. During the NBC Nightly News, he referenced the forgotten heroes of America’s military.
At the age of 94, Colonel Bradley died of a heart attack on May 28, 2002 in a nursing home in Hazard, Kentucky. She was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery following a funeral with full military honors, including the use of six white horses to carry her coffin to the gravesite, followed by the symbolic riderless horse. The Army Band playing traditional hymns and a 21 gun salute was fired.
Among her 34 medals and citations of bravery, Colonel Bradley received the: American Campaign Medal, American Defense Service Medal, 2 Army Commendation Medals, Army Occupational Medal with Japan clasp, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, 2 Bronze Stars, 3 Korea Service medals, 2 Legion of Merit Medals, Meritorious Unit Emblem, 10 Overseas Bars, Philippine Independence Ribbon, Philippine Liberation Medal, 2 Presidential Emblems, UN Korean Service Medal with 7 battle stars, and the World War II Victory Medal. She was also presented the Florence Nightingale Medal by the International Red Cross – their highest international honor.
When interviewed about her service time and the fact she was America’s most decorated military woman, she would shrug her shoulders and state, “It was all in a day’s work.”