Nevertheless, She Led: Purple Heart Recipient Annie Fox

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I live on a Navy base in California. Each time I enter the gates, I stop my car, hand my military ID to the sentry, and wait while it is scanned and verified. The guards wear protective gear and carry fully loaded semiautomatic weapons. Sometimes they direct a car to pull to the side, where the driver exits and guards swarm over the vehicle, opening the hood and trunk. They run mirrors affixed to long poles along the undercarriage, searching for bombs and weapons.

This is just everyday life on a military base under the ever-present threat of terrorism.

Every time I see those sentries and watch their eyes scan the horizon for incoming threats, I wonder, what if it happened here?

Last fall on a family trip to Hawaii, we toured the Pearl Harbor National Memorial and the Aviation Museum at Hickam Field. Since my husband is on active duty, we were allowed into the housing area of the base at Pearl Harbor.

As I stood outside those houses, some less than 50 feet from the water, I thought about the families who were living there at the time of the attack in 1941, enjoying a beautiful Sunday morning in paradise. Some of the bungalows were just a few feet from where the USS Arizona went down. Bombs and torpedoes rained from the Japanese bombers, while bullets strafed the area all around them. Oil streamed from the ships, and as it ignited and burned on the surface of the water, screaming men, suffering grisly burns and shrapnel wounds, managed to swim through the inferno, many coming ashore in the yards of those nearby houses.

Some of the Navy and Army Air Corps (later renamed the Air Force) wives from the neighboring base at Hickam Air Field made their way to the station hospital. Some brought injured sailors and civilians to find treatment and stayed to help tend to the wounds of the broken, burned, and half-drowned men who poured in continuously throughout the day.

There they met Lt. Annie Fox at her new post as head nurse; she had arrived less than a month earlier. Already a seasoned veteran of more than 23 years, she maintained her calm and efficient yet kind and comforting demeanor, administering anesthesia to the wounded and assisting in a myriad of surgeries. Faced with a massive loss of life, horrific injuries, and a shortage of bandages and beds, she worked tirelessly to save lives.

Lt. Fox also organized the flood of civilian volunteers and showed them how to roll and apply bandages and help the less seriously wounded. Throughout the attack, even when the Japanese planes flew so low that other nurses reported being able to make out the faces of the pilots, Lt. Fox never faltered.

In recognition of her valor and her contribution to saving countless lives that day, she was awarded the Purple Heart for meritorious bravery, the first woman in history to receive such an honor.

When the requirements for winning a Purple Heart were changed two years later to include injury from enemy fire, the Army converted her medal to a Bronze Star, the fourth-highest combat award in the U.S. Armed Forces. Lt. Fox was among four women to be the first to wear it. However, she is still recognized as the first female Purple Heart recipient.

After Pearl Harbor, Lt. Fox continued to serve in the Pacific Theater, retiring in December of 1945. She had given 27 years to the service of her country and served in two world wars. She never married and never had children. She died in 1987 at the age of 83.

During a time when few women were given opportunities or positions of authority, her superiors recognized that hers was not just a feat of nursing that day — it was a feat of leadership.

But Lt. Annie Fox should not be remembered because she was a female leader.

She was a leader.

And that is enough.

This piece is part of a series recognizing National Purple Heart Day (August 7). CircleAround is putting the spotlight on three women recipients of one of the nation’s highest military honors, “awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy.”

Tags: Groundbreaking Women

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Written By

Becky Hepinstall Hilliker

Becky Hepinstall Hilliker is the co-author of Sisters of Shiloh (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) and a freelance writer. See Full Bio

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