Profiles in Nursing

Col. Ruby Bradley (1907-2002), Army Nurse and Angel of Bataan POW

Combat veteran of two wars and Angel of Bataan POW

Nurses are trained to never abandon their patients. Perhaps no one nurse better understood that dictum than did Col. Ruby Grace Bradley, a U.S. Army Nurse Corps veteran who served in two wars and survived three years as a POW. Nurses are trained to never abandon their patients. Perhaps no one nurse better understood that dictum than did Col. Ruby Grace Bradley, a U.S. Army Nurse Corps veteran who served in two wars and survived three years as a POW.

“You Won’t Be in a War”

Bradley was born in 1907 in Spencer, W. Va. After graduating from college in 1926, she worked as a school teacher and then set her sights on the nursing profession. She graduated from Philadelphia General Hospital School of Nursing in 1933 and went to work at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C.

In October 1934, she joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps as a surgical nurse, with the “relative rank” of second lieutenant. “Now, don’t worry,” the Army recruiter told her, “you won’t be in a war!” For seven years, that was true. Bradley was stationed stateside, continuing her work at Walter Reed.

In February 1940, she was transferred outside the U.S. for the first time: to Station Hospital at Fort Mills, on the island of Corregidor in the Philippines. One year later, she was reassigned as head nurse at Camp John Hay on the Philippine island of Luzon.

Prisoner of War

That December, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Soon thereafter, Japanese aircraft struck Camp John Hay. “This force dropped 128 bombs, many of which did not explode,” Bradley later wrote. “Had each one been ‘live,’ the results would have been even more disastrous.”

Hiring Now

After the attack, the survivors attempted to flee to Manila through the mountains. Bradley and another Army nurse, Lt. Beatrice Chambers, walked more than 18 miles to a logging camp in Lasud, where they cared for civilian refugees, many of them women and children.  On December 28, Bradley and Chambers were captured and became the first Army nurse POWs of the war. For the first few months of her captivity, Bradley was held in an internment camp at Camp John Hay. “A group of more than 500 men, women and children was crowded into one building … [d]esigned for 50 men,” she recalled.

After about six weeks, the internees received Japanese permission to establish a small camp hospital. It soon became an obstetrical ward and nursery, where Bradley and Chambers helped to deliver 13 babies. In September, Bradley was transferred to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, where she joined other U.S. Army and Navy nurse captives.

[Editor’s note: You can read more about them in Elizabeth Haninik’s 2018 feature, “Angels in Hell.”]

Bradley and her fellow nurses continued their work despite near-starvation and their lack of proper equipment and supplies. The nurses scrounged what they could and improvised solutions like pulling threads from raw hemp to use for skin sutures.  Bradley also crafted toys for the interned children and sometimes saved her food rations for them as well. Her weight dropped to a meager 92 pounds during her imprisonment. One minor advantage was that her now-baggy clothes made it easier to smuggle contraband without attracting the guards’ attention.

The Santo Tomas internees were finally liberated in February 1945. Bradley received the Bronze Star and a promotion to first lieutenant.

The Last Plane Out

In June 1950, troops of the North Korean People’s Army unexpectedly crossed the 38th parallel into the Republic of Korea. Bradley, now a major, was reassigned as chief nurse for the Eighth Army’s 171st Evacuation Hospital.  When Bradley’s unit arrived in Daegu on September 21, it looked like United Nations forces had turned the tide in the Korean “police action.”

However, this success worried Chinese leaders, who decided to intervene lest American forces occupy the entire Korean peninsula. By November, the Eighth Army found itself facing more than 300,000 Chinese troops. A planned U.S. offensive, launched the day after Thanksgiving, soon became a desperate retreat in the face of an overwhelming Chinese counterattack.

Bradley was again in the thick of it. On November 30, the 171st received orders to evacuate all personnel and patients. Bradley refused to leave until all of the patients had been safely loaded onto evacuation aircraft.  She was the last to board the final plane out. As the transport taxied down the runway, the ambulance she’d just departed from exploded behind them.

Later Career

In 1958, Bradley was promoted to colonel — one of the first three Army nurses to hold that permanent rank. She retired from the Army in March 1963, although she continued to work for almost two more decades as a civilian nurse supervisor in West Virginia.  Bradley remains one of the most highly decorated of all female U.S. veterans, having earned a total of 34 medals and citations. She died in 2002 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Carole Jakucs, RN, MSN, PHN, is a full-time freelance writer and diabetes educator. Her background in nursing includes tenures in healthcare management and as a care provider. She has worked in med/surg/telemetry, pediatric emergency department and college health/urgent care.


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