An Army nurse remembers Pearl HarborBy Michael G. Williams
The usual Sunday morning quiet prevailed at Pearl Harbor Naval Base on December 7, 1941. Shortly before 7 a.m., while most personnel slept off the effects of the previous night’s libations, Army nurse Myrtle Watson reported for duty at Schofield Barracks hospital.
The young lieutenant approached the two-story building for her first 12-hour shift off orientation, hoping the day wouldn’t bring anything out of the ordinary. For a short time, it didn’t.
“Sunday was like a day off because there were no routine medical rounds or treatments,” Watson recalls from her apartment at Oak Crest Village in Baltimore, Md. “At around five minutes to eight, we began wheeling the patients out onto the orthopedic ward’s balcony to watch the inter-regimental football game in the quadrangle below.”
A rumbling sound
As they were doing this, Watson, several corpsman, and their patients noticed a rumbling sound growing progressively louder. Within seconds, the first in a long line of planes snaked through a break in the Waianae Mountains called Kolekole Pass, flying so low that all of those on the balcony could see the pilots’ goggles and white scarves.
“At first, we thought that they were Air Force planes flying maneuvers,” Watson says. “We stood there waving as they passed, and several of them waved back at us.”
But what they initially believed to be American aircraft were actually more than 180 Nakajima B5N bombers, Aichi D3A dive bombers, and Mitsubishi A6M2 fighter planes, which together comprised the first wave of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The pilots and their rear gunners, who only seconds before exchanged friendly waves with Watson, suddenly opened fire on buildings and anything that moved around them.
Looking out over the grounds, she watched as a burst of 7.7 millimeter bullets kicked up dirt and concrete at the heels of a small dog frantically running for cover. From inside the ward, came a voice shouting, “The plaster’s coming off the wall!” Another voice shouted, “It’s falling from the ceiling too!”
‘We must be at war!’
Hearing this, Watson began cutting arms and legs out of traction and, with the help of anyone who could walk, rolled the patients onto mattresses beside their beds. She went back to the doorway and saw the planes still coming through the pass, one after another. Crouched at her feet, a tech-sergeant from Wheeler Army Airfield gazed skyward, then turned to her with a look of total astonishment: “We must be at war!”
“Pretty soon a runner came with orders to send every man who could walk and carry a riffle back to his company,” remembers Watson. “The guys all heard him, got their uniforms, and left. The ones on crutches stayed behind to help me.”
Before long, casualties started pouring into the hospital. Watson gathered her limping helpers and told them to scout the area for anything they could find in the way of sterile supplies.
People ran in all directions doing whatever they could to help; the ward filled with the cries of the wounded, many of them coming in dirty and bloodied. Watson knew their names only from their dog tags, but she can still see their faces as clearly as she did in those chaotic moments.
“One sergeant was such a nice-looking man, and he was hurt so badly,” she says. “I asked him, ‘Paul, what can I do for you?’ and he gently motioned across the room and said, ‘My buddy needs you.’”
As she adjusted his pillow, he glanced at her hand and whispered, “Whoever heard of a lieutenant wearing nail polish in the middle of a war?” Minutes later, he was dead.
Day of infamy
Paul was one of many soldiers that came under Watson’s care that day. When the attack was over, it had claimed 2,402 American lives and wounded 1,282 more.
The photos and news reels showing the twisted metal that was once the nation’s Pacific fleet testify to the crippling blow dealt that morning. Today, Watson looks back amidst all of this destruction and sees the bravery and heroics that pulled the nation through the war that this attack started.
“I watched from the balcony as men ran out of their barracks to fight, knowing full well that by the end of the day, every one of them would be a hero. A lot of people think that I’m foolish to relive all of this, but I do it so that the men who can’t speak for themselves will not be forgotten.”