The Nurses of Pearl Harbor: December 1941

Milbrath, Gwyneth, Nursing - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Keeling, Arlene, School of Nursing, University of Virginia

The surprise Japanese attack on the morning of December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor killed and wounded thousands of men, placing an incredible burden on the military hospitals on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Much has been written about the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the nursing and medical activities are often absent or overshadowed by the military activities. This dissertation fills a gap in the historical literature about Pearl Harbor through identifying and describing the role military nurses performed caring for the patients injured in Pearl Harbor during and immediately following the Japanese attack.

The purpose of this study was to identify, describe, and analyze (1) the state of military nursing training in the United States in the early 1940s; (2) the role of the nurse in the care of soldiers injured during the Pearl Harbor bombing; (3) the nurses’ response to the traumatic events; and (4) the role of race, military rank, and gender in their ability to prepare and respond to this disaster. This analysis answered the following research questions: (1) How did the level of medical disaster preparedness for Pearl Harbor affect preparedness throughout the rest of World War II?; (2) How did nurses forge their own space within the evolution of triage?; and (3) How was nursing scope of practice affected by a disaster situation?

This dissertation used traditional historical methods with a social and military history framework. The corresponding social, political, and cultural climates, as well as the state of the science of nursing and medicine, is examined as context for further understanding the nurses’ experience in Pearl Harbor. Both primary and secondary sources were used as source material for this dissertation, including data gathered from the U.S. Army Medical Department Center of History and Heritage, the National Archives, and the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. Oral history transcripts, letters, pictures, and other documents related to the work of the nurses at Pearl Harbor were used to inform this study.

The nurses of Pearl Harbor played a critical role in the care of the wounded after the Japanese attack by providing pain relief, shock treatment, wound care, surgical care, comfort to dying men, and other essential nursing duties. Collaboration and teamwork among the nurses, physicians and volunteers was pivotal to the prompt and adequate care of the wounded. Improved training in disaster response, trauma care, or triage could have improved the nurses’ ability to contribute to care in the initial phases of the arrival of casualties; however, the detailed plans, preparations, and collaboration between the civilians and military during the attack were truly unprecedented and had a profound impact on the success of the nurses and physicians. Even though triage was outside of the skill set of nursing at that time, the nurses successfully utilized principles and techniques of triage to prioritize the nursing care and first-aid they were able to provide. In disaster situations, traditional boundaries between race, class, and gender can be redrawn, and practice boundaries between physicians and nurses blurred.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
nursing, Pearl Harbor, historical research methods, disaster nursing
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: