Although American women couldn’t join the military on a permanent basis until 1948, they had been enlisting since Loretta Walsh became the first woman allowed to serve in any branch of the military in 1917. This month, we’re introducing you to Annie G. Fox, an Army nurse who was the first woman to receive the Purple Heart.
Annie Gayton Fox was born on Aug. 4, 1893, in East Pubnico, Nova Scotia, in Canada to Annie and Charles Fox, a doctor. Nothing is known of her life before 1918, when she enlisted to serve in the Army Nurse Corps in World War I or why she chose to do so. After her tour ended on July 14, 1920, she was based in New York, then Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and Fort Mason in San Diego. Annie was then transferred to the Philippines where she served at Camp John Hay in Benguet and then in Manilla.
In 1940, she returned to the United States, where she was stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii. There, she passed her exam to become Chief Nurse, was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and was transferred to Hickam Air Field Station Hospital, a small 30-bed hospital with six nurses.
Less than a month later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Victims were sent to hospitals all over the island, including Hickam, where Annie was in charge. The noise of torpedoes, bombs, machine guns, and anti-aircraft guns was deafening and bombs fell all around the hospital, one leaving a 30-foot crater 20 feet from the hospital and another exploded across the street. Hospital staff, wearing gas masks and helmets, reported trying to save the wounded while enemy aircraft flew so close overhead that they could see the pilots conversing.
Annie not only cared for the wounded and assisted in surgery during the attack, but also organized civilian volunteers to provide assistance and make bandages. For her “outstanding performance of duty and meritorious acts of extraordinary fidelity” during this ordeal she was awarded the Purple Heart on Oct. 26, 1942, becoming the first woman to receive it. (At this time, recipients were not required to have been seriously wounded to receive this honor.)
The citation describes what Annie experienced and how she reacted:
“During the attack, Lieutenant Fox, in an exemplary manner, performed her duties as head Nurse of the Station Hospital… in addition she administered anesthesia to patients during the heaviest part of the bombardment, assisted in dressing the wounded, taught civilian volunteer nurses to make dressings, and worked ceaselessly with coolness and efficiency, and her fine example of calmness, courage and leadership was of great benefit to the morale of all with whom she came in contact….”
Two years later, the military added the stipulation that recipients of the Purple Heart had to sustain wounds during enemy action. As a result, on Oct. 6, 1944, Annie, now a Captain, was given a Bronze Star in lieu of her Purple Heart. The Bronze Star Medal is “awarded to members of the United States Armed Forces for either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.”
After the war, Annie continued her military career in San Francisco, and then as Assistant to the Principal Chief Nurse at Camp Phillips, Kansas, where she was promoted to Major. She retired from active duty on Dec. 15, 1945, two years before President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law, allowing women to serve as full members of all branches of the Armed Forces.
Annie eventually moved to San Diego to be with two of her sisters. She never married. She died January 20, 1987, in San Francisco, at the age of 93.
In March 2017, Hawaii Magazine ranked her among a list of the most influential women in Hawaiian history.