Myrtle Watson, 97, a resident of Oak Crest in Parkville, received… (Erickson Tribune )
On Dec. 7, 1941, a young Army nurse reported to Schofield barracks hospital in Hawaii for what would be her first solo weekend assignment. She would not leave for about three months.
At 97, Myrtle Miller Watson, a longtime Baltimore resident who lives at Oak Crest Retirement Community in Parkville, can vividly recall the details of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the men whose lives she touched.
She remembers the fatally wounded soldier, who could barely breathe but asked her to check on his buddy. His jokes about her bright nail polish so moved her that she never painted her nails again.
She remembers the sergeant shot in the chest and back, as he raced from the barracks to join his men.
"I got him on oxygen and kept him warm with hot water bottles," she said. "He was one of the few we could send back to the states."
The retelling still fills her eyes with tears, even on the eve of the 69th anniversary of the attack that drew the U.S. into World War II, but she gladly speaks of the heroes of Pearl Harbor.
"I repeat this story for the men, who can't speak for themselves," she said. "I tell their stories so they will never be forgotten. I have never forgotten those young men who were so willing and eager to serve their country. It is really important, especially for children in school, to remember this day."
Watson joined the Army soon after graduating from Church Home Hospital, which used to be on Broadway in Baltimore. When she was offered posts in Hawaii or Greenland, she said she opted for "paradise" and arrived on the island three weeks before the attack. .
Knowing she would be alone in the orthopedic ward, she went to work that Sunday morning hoping nothing unusual would happen. As she helped patients to the veranda to watch a football game in the quadrangle, "we heard a terrible racket," she said.
"The planes were flying so low, we could see the pilots' goggles and scarves," she said. "At first, we waved to them. Then, plaster began falling from the ceilings and walls and we saw bullets flying by."
An Army mechanic and patient quickly identified the enemy planes and pushed her inside, minutes before a Japanese pilot strafed the doorway of the hospital. For years, she kept the bullet that narrowly missed her.
Throughout the day, runners came to the hospital with orders that seemed to change by the minute, she said.
"Every man who could walk was ordered back to his unit," she said. "They were all so eager to go."
For hours that day, her only assistance came from ambulatory patients in the orthopedic ward. "Even the ones who could barely walk helped," she said.The wounded began arriving in ever growing numbers, she said. She found herself dealing with post-op cases that had no follow-up notes on their care. "All I could do was scribble something on their condition for the night nurse, but then that was me."
Throughout all the suffering, she rarely heard a complaint. "No one asked for morphine. Most were more concerned about their buddies than they were about themselves."
There would be no real relief, until a convoy ship arrived on Christmas Day with more nurses and supplies. Even then, everyone continued working to help the patients heal.
Watson left the Army at the end of the war and finished her nursing career at GBMC. She joined the local Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, whose numbers have steadily dwindled. Military records show there are about 40 in Maryland, but only four attended the last meeting Watson could make it to. About 100 members of the national association gathered in Hawaii and are to attend a ceremony Tuesday. The group considered disbanding because of dwindling membership, but decided to wait at least a little while longer, according to the Associated Press.
Those who know Watson at Oak Crest, where she has lived for 14 years, call her a treasure. They hope to hear her speak on Tuesday.
"Her eyes and her hearing have deteriorated, but her mind is as clear as a bell," said fellow resident Ray Geddes.
Among Watson's most treasured possessions is an American flag that flew over the USS Arizona Memorial and also over Schofield Barracks Hospital. She has returned to Hawaii, with her grandchildren. They tossed leis into the waters surrounding the Arizona and she has shared the stories with them. One of the most compelling images she describes from that immortalized day occurred when the National Anthem played on the radio at the nurses' station. It came amid announcements of the attack and constant reports of the devastation.
"In the middle of the ward," she said, "everyone who could stood at attention and saluted."