December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy,” Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and drew the United States into a global conflict that had been escalating for several years. Pearl Harbor connects the stories of two Mayo Clinic nurses.
After graduating from the Kahler Hospital’s School of Nursing, Ruth Erickson, R.N., joined the Navy Nurse Corps in 1936. In April 1940, she was assigned to the naval hospital at Pearl Harbor. Sunday, December 7, was her day off, but that morning she decided to visit her friends who were on duty. She was at the hospital, talking over coffee, when the bombs started falling.
Erickson and her colleagues worked round the clock, throughout the attack and for more than a week that followed, caring for the critically injured survivors. Ten days later, she was ordered to accompany patients who were being evacuated to the mainland for further care. Erickson ultimately earned the rank of captain and served with distinction as director of the United States Navy Nurse Corps. As a hands-on practitioner as well as a military executive, she placed the needs of each patient first.
For Teruko Yamashita, Pearl Harbor was devastating in a different way. Her family, along with approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the United States west coast, was uprooted and moved to detention camps under armed guard. Yet the war also opened opportunities for Yamashita and other Japanese-Americans. They were able to leave the camps as part of an educational initiative that helped advance desegregation and other social changes.
Sister Antonia Rostomily, director of Saint Marys School of Nursing, was “a formidable teacher and disciplinarian,” but also “a woman of good heart and common sense.” She knew that many schools would not accept Japanese-American students but believed that Saint Marys Hospital, with its experience serving international patients, would be a desirable setting. Under her leadership, the school admitted Japanese-American nursing students and hired Japanese-American nurses for diverse leadership positions – a practical measure to address staff shortages and a symbolic message of tolerance amid the pressures of wartime.