First Lieutenant Annie Fox was serving with the Army Nurse Corps on December 7, 1941. She was the chief nurse on duty at the Army hospital at Hickam Air Field, Hawaii, when Japanese bombs began falling during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Fox, 47, was a 23-year Army veteran of the Army who first enlisted in 1918, near the end of World War I.
During the attack on Pearl Harbor, she performed under fire, administering anesthesia to patients during the heaviest parts of the bombardment. She provided care for the mounting numbers of wounded arriving at the hospital, working with a coolness and efficiency that demonstrated courage in the face of adversity.
On October 26, 1942, in recognition of her efforts, Fox became the first woman in American history to be awarded the Purple Heart. At the time, the award was most commonly awarded to service members wounded by enemy forces. It was occasionally awarded for any “singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service.”
The Purple Heart was first established as the Badge of Merit by special order of General George Washington on August 7, 1782, during the American Revolution. Throughout its history, the criteria for being awarded the Purple Heart have changed. Before World War II, the award was only given to those who had served with the Army or Army Air Forces. On September 5, 1942, days before Fox received her award, the War Department announced that the Purple Heart would only be awarded for those who were wounded or killed in action. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the Purple Heart for Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard personnel on December 3.
With the new criteria in place, and because Fox was not wounded or killed during the attack, her time wearing the Purple Heart would ultimately be short lived. In addition to becoming the first woman to receive the Purple Heart, she was also one of the first to have the award rescinded. A War Department board was convened to examine previous awards and it was recommended that her Purple Heart be changed to a Bronze Star.
The October 26, 1944, order awarding Fox the Bronze Star recognized her heroic and meritorious service during the attack on Pearl Harbor. “The loyalty and devotion to duty displayed by Lieutenant Fox on this occasion reflected great credit upon herself and the military service.”
She remained in the Army and served in the Pacific for the duration of World War II, retiring from the military in 1945 after more than 27 years of service. Fox passed away on January 20, 1987, at the age of 93.
Robert Vanderpool is a historian with the 7th Air Force.