America’s Angel in Fatigues

Ruby Bradley West Virginia, United States 1907 - 2002

The plight of prisoners of war in the Second World War’s Pacific theatre is well documented through harrowing stories of brutality and photos of emaciated survivors. Yet from among the vile conditions and backbreaking labour, stories emerge of everyday compassion and bravery in the face of oppression.

Ruby Bradley was one such prisoner of war, spending over three years in camps in the Philippines. During that time she never once shirked her duty as a nurse, doing everything she could to look after her fellow inmates alongside her medical colleagues, who swiftly became known among the prisoners as ‘Angels in Fatigues’.

Bradley had started her US military nursing career in 1933 when she was assured she “wouldn’t be in any wars” – yet she had the misfortune to be in the Philippines when her country was unexpectedly thrust into the Second World War. Mere hours after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour that brought the US into the conflict, Bradley was in the underprepared Camp John Hay when it too was bombed by Japanese aircraft. Once ground troops moved in, the camp and town were quickly overrun, and Bradley was taken prisoner alongside US troops, civilians and dozens of her fellow nurses. Taken back to the camp which now served as a prison, Bradley did everything in her power to look after those who suffered, treating injuries and tending to those that succumbed to dysentery as the cramped, unsanitary conditions took their toll.

In 1943, Bradley was moved to the largest of the camps in the Philippines, the Manila Internment Camp. With over 3,000 prisoners to look after, Bradley and her fellow nurses went about earning their iconic nickname, providing medical help and often going hungry to make sure the camp’s starving children were fed. During her time in Manila, Bradley took part in 230 operations and helped deliver 13 children, doing her best to maintain the health of the prisoners despite a lack of supplies, decreasing rations, the destruction by a typhoon in November 1943 and an increasingly harsh regime.

Despite a lack of contact with the outside world, Bradley used the extra room in her uniform created from her dramatic weight loss to smuggle much needed medical equipment into the camp. In the months leading up to liberation, the death rate among prisoners accelerated as bodies began to succumb to the years of grim conditions. Bradley and the angels again proved their worth, being there to help comfort those in their final moments.

But on 3rd February 1943, the camp heard explosions and gunfire nearby, and the rumours that the US forces were in the area were confirmed – the camp of 3,785 people was finally liberated. The selfless acts from Bradley throughout her internment resulted in her emaciated frame weighing just 39kg when she was freed.

But despite her ordeal, only five years after being liberated – and now a major – Bradley found herself back in harm’s way during the Korean War. Again, she displayed little regard for her own safety when looking after her patients, refusing to abandon them when surrounded by thousands of advancing troops. It’s for this continued commitment and bravery that she is still the most decorated US servicewoman in history.

We will remember them

Ruby Bradley West Virginia, United States 1907 - 2002
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