Capt. Ruth A. Erickson, 95; Leader of Navy Nurse Corps

Ruth Erickson was a Pearl Harbor veteran, chief of nursing aboard a hospital ship during World War II and chief nurse at several Navy hospitals.
Ruth Erickson was a Pearl Harbor veteran, chief of nursing aboard a hospital ship during World War II and chief nurse at several Navy hospitals. (U.s. Navy Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ruth A. Erickson, 95, who was chief of the Navy Nurse Corps from 1962 to 1966 and was frequently sought out by historians for her account of surviving the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, died of pneumonia Nov. 25 at her home in Rochester, Minn.

Capt. Erickson, a former Alexandria resident, served in the Navy for 30 years before retiring in 1966.

As chief of the Navy Nurse Corps -- a post now held by officers at the rank of rear admiral -- Capt. Erickson worked on improvements in the nursing service's administration, its nursing practices and opportunities for the education and advancement of nurses.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the morning of the Japanese attack, she was a nurse at Naval Hospital Pearl Harbor. It was her day off, and she was having breakfast when "suddenly we heard planes roaring overhead, and we said, 'The flyboys are really busy at Ford Island this morning,' " she told the Navy Historical Center for its oral history archives.

"Right then there was a plane flying directly over the top of our quarters, a one-story structure. The rising sun under the wing of the plane denoted the enemy. Had I known the pilot, one could almost see his features around his goggles. He was obviously saving his ammunition for the ships. Just down the row, all the ships were sitting there.

"My heart was racing, the telephone was ringing, the chief nurse was saying, 'Girls, get into your uniforms at once. This is the real thing!' "

She assisted in the operation on the first patient brought to the ward. Ten days later, she was one of three Navy nurses who accompanied the evacuation of the first war casualties from Hawaii to San Francisco aboard the President Coolidge, a luxury liner pressed into service as a hospital ship.

Later, as chief of nursing service aboard the hospital ship Haven, she returned to Pearl Harbor on the day that hostilities with Japan ended. She was aboard Haven when it brought home U.S. prisoners of war from Japan in 1945.

Capt. Erickson's later military career included assignments on the hospital ship Relief and at naval hospitals throughout the United States. She was personnel officer for the Nurse Corps at the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington and served as chief nurse at three major naval hospitals.

Ruth Alice Erickson was born in Virginia, Minn., graduated in 1934 from the Methodist-Kahler School of Nursing in Rochester and joined the Navy Nurse Corps two years later. She received a bachelor's degree in nursing education in 1953 from Indiana University.

After her military retirement, Capt. Erickson lived in Alexandria until 1990 and then moved to Rochester. She had been a member of Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in Alexandria.

Survivors include a sister.

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