December 7 marks the 61st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, marking the beginning of America's entry into World War II. More than 300 Japanese warplanes sank six American warships, and destroyed nearby aircraft, killing thousands of American military personnel. The number of veterans who personally experienced that surprise attack in 1941 are dwindling. But one Army Lieutenant, who served with the Army Nurses Corps at Schofield Barracks Hospital, is an active participant in the Maryland Pearl Harbor Survivors' Association.
"I was the only nurse on that ward and we didn't have a doctor to make rounds because there were no treatments - just essential medications given on weekends," said Ms. Watson. "I was thinking, 'I hope nothing unusual happens today that I can't handle by myself' because I was going to be on my own."
On December 7, 1941, 28-year-old army nurse Myrtle Watson was assigned to the orthopedic ward of Schofield Hospital at Pearl Harbor. It was football season in Honolulu and most of the casualties she was used to treating came from sports injuries and other minor accidents. Ms. Watson says that Sunday morning was a routine one her assignment was to push the beds of patients who were in traction, out onto the hospital's wrap-around porch where they could watch the inter-regimental football game.
"And as we were in the process of moving the patients, we heard planes approaching - a lot of planes," she said. "And no one had any inkling of exactly what was happening. But as the planes kept coming, we were standing out there on the porch, waving to the pilots, thinking it was one of our units on maneuvers. But around that time, we realized that the hospital was being strafed, that the plaster was falling off the walls and the patients that were out on the porch were saying, 'Get us inside!'"
Although U.S. Army Nurse Myrtle Watson had had no previous emergency medical training, she acted instinctively. She took her patients out of traction, helped them out of their beds and onto the floor where she surrounded them with mattresses. She says when she went back outside to see what was happening, she narrowly dodged a bullet herself. "Someone called to me, 'Look out!' and pushed me out of the doorway," she said. "And a bullet went right in the frame of the doorway where I had been standing. One of the patients later dug it out and gave it to me."
Myrtle Watson describes the unfolding chaotic scene of massive casualties piled one on top of another - some alive, some dead - all coming into the hospital that had few medics or nurses on duty and severely limited supplies. She says she worked round the clock for three days and, at night, except for a dim flashlight, was forced to work in the dark to avoid possible detection by the enemy. Ms. Watson says one patient in particular stands out in her mind.
"I very distinctly remember one young sergeant from Wheeler Air Force Base (good looking youngster) and I could see from his eyes he was trying to get my attention," she said. "And he was bleeding so profusely I didn't know how to check the wounds, he was so bandaged up from the operating room, across his abdomen and chest. And the mattresses were very thin and I put a basin under there, it was dripping through the mattress. And I asked him what I could do for him. And he beckoned across the ward, he wanted me to go see his buddy. Even with life-threatening injuries they were more concerned about their buddies than themselves. Well, while I was checking his dressings and seeing what I could do to check the bleeding, he looked down at my hands. Well, on the night of December 6, I had given myself a manicure and put some light nail polish on. And he could only speak in little more than a whisper and I held my ear to his mouth. And he said, 'Who ever heard of a lieutenant wearing nail polish in the middle of a war?' And I did what I could for him and went across to see his buddy. And when I went back to him, he had stopped breathing. And I cried, it just seemed so unfair."
Army Lieutenant Watson remained at Pearl Harbor for several months before being transferred to another base. She says the terrorist attacks last year on New York and Washington brought back the memories of December 7 vividly in her mind. "The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association has a motto: 'Remember Pearl Harbor - Keep America Alert.' And we have tried to do everything in our power to alert anyone who would listen, but America has become too complacent," she said. "And history had to repeat itself. I had thought through the years that the youth of today could not face up to the responsibilities, that they would not have the spirit of the young men that I worked with. But after seeing the firefighters and policemen on September 11, I think I've changed my mind. I have been talking to some eighth grade students in Baltimore County who are studying American history and I think there are too many people who are just not aware of the sacrifice that our military has made for them to live in freedom. And the students thank me. And I said, 'It's up to your generation to see that America stays alert. That they don't become too complacent and that we will not have a third 'day of infamy' and nobody will have to witness the human slaughter I did."
World War II veteran, army nurse and lieutenant Myrtle Watson, speaking from her home in Baltimore, Maryland. On December 7, this year, she joins the Maryland Chapter of Pearl Harbor survivors in the special ceremony that takes place every year aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney - the last surviving warship of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Now part of the Baltimore Maritime Museum, the Taney has been designated a National Historic Landmark.