Ann Agnes Bernatitus was born in Exeter, Pennsylvania, on 21 January 1912. She trained as a nurse, even returning to school for a postgraduate class in operating-room technique and management, but could find no steady job in the depths of the Depression. She worked in a few short-term positions and then was accepted into the Navy Nurse Corps in 1936. “In those days we were neither fish nor fowl,” she recalls. “We were not officers and we were not enlisted. We were in between. We did not get the pay of an officer but we got more than the enlisted.” Still, Bernatitus did well at her job and was given more and more responsibility. In 1940 she decided she wanted to be assigned to the Philippines. “I had no idea what the Philippines looked like,” she says, “I hadn’t read up on it or anything. …But life was very good out there…. We went to work at 8 o’clock. You went to lunch and then didn’t have to go back on duty.” But the plum assignment didn’t last long.
When the personnel at the hospital in Canacao learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they sprang into action, shoring up the rickety three-story building and moving the patients beneath it, where they would be protected by sandbags that had been shifted into place for that purpose. Soon after, hospital officials decided the patients should be moved to Manila under the care of two corpsmen and two nurses. One nurse volunteered; Bernatitus literally drew the short straw (though it was, in actuality, a cotton-tipped applicator swab). Just a few weeks later, she was chosen to make another move, this time to Bataan. She was the sole Navy nurse among 50 others, half from the U.S. Army, half native Filipinos. The convoy arrived at their new location, Camp Limay, on Christmas Eve, 1941.
Just a few months later, in the spring of 1942, Bernatitus was transferred to Corregidor as the Japanese drew closer to Bataan. The hospital there was in a long, narrow cave. “I was less scared on Bataan than I was on Corregidor,” she says. “When the Japanese bombed, the whole place just shook.” She remained in the subterranean hospital for a month until she was one of the lucky ones selected to evacuate. “I don’t know how I was picked,” she says, but she did know that she didn’t want to go by plane. Submarine was the only other choice. So when USS SPEARFISH (SS-190) pulled up on 3 May, she headed down to the beach.
“When we got down there we got on a boat that was even smaller than the one that took us to Corregidor,” Bernatitus recalls. “Then we shoved off. We had to go through our own mine fields to get to the submarine. We learned later that it was taking us so long to get out there that the submarine wasn’t sure Corregidor hadn’t already fallen. Finally we saw this dark shape and we came alongside of it. You could hear the slapping of the water between the two objects. Then someone said ‘Get your foot over the rail.’ And then someone just pulled me, and then the first thing I knew I was going down the hatch. I got down there awfully fast.” Altogether, over 20 people accompanied Bernatitus onto SPEARFISH.
“When they first said 17 days [the length of the trip to Fremantle, Australia], I thought I couldn’t make it. But I did,” Bernatitus continues. “When we first got aboard I was in the control room. Everything was lighted up and there were all these valves and what have you. They took us into the officer’s mess. That’s where we sat and they gave us tea and chocolate cake. We hadn’t seen chocolate cake and tea in a long time. The chefs gave up their quarters for us. It was just a cabin with a sink in it.” She shared the space with three other women.
“Our luggage we brought with us was on the deck in that same room. I was one of the four picked to go to bed right away. The next morning when my 8 hours were up four others went to sleep. You just had to kill time any way you could. Most of our time was spent in the crew’s mess. Someone had a Victrola that was playing all the time. The crew would come with magazines they had stashed away someplace. We would sit and talk. And of course, the boys loved it. The crew was fed first. Anything they served was wonderful for us. We hadn’t seen food like that. They gave us one bucket for four of us when we went to bed. And that was for bathing and washing. Of course, if you went to the john you had to have an escort. Down in that submarine, the only thing you heard was the sound of the screws turning. You know, after a while the gals were cooking for the boys.
“They initiated us when we went under the equator. I had just gotten up and I had to stand in a pan of water or something.
“You know, while we were on that submarine we remained submerged during the day and at dusk we would surface to charge our batteries. When we came up we came up at an angle…. And then someone opened a hatch and we felt this gush of nice fresh air come through. We had hardly done this when whish, down we went again. Well, that was an experience. They thought they sighted something. Everything was turned off and everybody was sitting around doing nothing. You could watch the men. Those who had shirts on you could just see those shirts gradually turning from tan to brown with perspiration. We must have been submerged for several hours just barely crawling. But everything turned out okay.”
Ann Bernatitus, who, soon after her return to the United States, became the first American to receive the newly-created Legion of Merit, continued to serve in the Navy until 1959. In 1976 she donated her medal to the Smithsonian. She passed away on 3 March 2003.