Brainerd grad, WWII nurse earns Congressional Gold Medal
Hortense McKay, a 1927 graduate of Washington High School in Brainerd, was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal for her work in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in Bataan in WWII.
BRAINERD — A large black and white photo of a young woman in an Army uniform looked out upon the faces of civilians and military personnel alike who filled Brainerd’s Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts Saturday, March 25.
The face of Lt. Col. Hortense McKay , serious but with the hint of a smile, hung above the stage, as the day’s various speakers celebrated the life and legacy of a local hero.
Born on a rural Minnesota farm in 1910, McKay graduated from Washington High School in Brainerd in 1927 and went on to serve her country in World War II. Now, almost 80 years after the end of the global conflict, and 35 years since McKay was laid to rest in 1988, her name enters the history books alongside the likes of George Washington, Thomas Edison, Frank Sinatra, Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks.
Those are some of the famous recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest expression of national appreciation bestowed by the U.S. Congress.
McKay is the latest recipient, honored posthumously for her service with the U.S. Army Nurses Corps in the Philippines during the 1940s, and fittingly during Women’s History Month.
McKay’s niece Patricia McKay Broback and nephews Richard and John McKay accepted the award on behalf of their aunt.
“It’s a great honor. Our family’s very proud of her. She was a great woman; she was a great example. She was a fabulous aunt to have,” Broback said before Saturday’s ceremony. “Just the person she was and the way that she treated us meant the world to us. It helped shape the people we are today.”
The jungle angel
After high school, McKay attended St. Cloud State Teachers College and the University of Minnesota School of Nursing. She worked in the Deerwood Sanitorium for a time and went on to do public health work briefly in Louisville, Kentucky, before entering the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in 1939.
“The need for nurses was great, the opportunity for advancement was obvious, and of course I believed in human justice,” McKay recounted in her 1988 memoir, “The Jungle Angel: Bataan Remembered.”
Around the same time the Company A, 194th Tank Battalion left Brainerd in February 1942 for training, McKay, too, stepped into the line of duty, eventually finding herself in the jungles of Bataan on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
She arrived in the Philippines in 1941, stationed at Fort Stotsenburg, next to Clark Field. There, she was one of 71 nurses overwhelmed with casualties after the first bombing attack by the Japanese.
Later that year, she was evacuated to the island of Corregidor before it fell and cared for the wounded in the Malinta railroad tunnel hospital. McKay was transferred to Hospital 2 in Bataan in early 1942. Working at the lesser equipped of the two hospitals in Bataan, with all accommodations outdoors, McKay cared for sick and wounded soldiers, fighting an extremely limited supply of medicine and other equipment, while battling excessive heat, advancing starvation and unhygienic facilities. Staff and patients alike were plagued with disease-carrying insects and contaminated water. Many nurses came down with the same afflictions for which they treated their patients.
McKay and her nursing team became known as the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor, so named for their brave and exemplary service in the face of hardship.
“The art of nursing, I thought, is far more than medicine,” McKay wrote in her memoir. “It is a few words of encouragement, the squeeze of a hand, a refreshing bed bath and a kind glance. During those horrible hours of jungle warfare, we attempted to put aside self and self pity and substitute love for our fellow men, and in reply, a whispered ‘thank you’ from a very sick soldier, a grateful look from the eyes of one dying, was all the appreciation and love we nurses ever wanted.”
The quote from McKay’s book was recounted Saturday in a short film scripted, directed and produced by Brainerd High School senior Cadence Porisch. “The Meaning of Compassion” took viewers briefly through McKay’s life, recounting the horrors of her service and her life of giving.
McKay and her fellow nurses were ordered back to Corregidor April 8, 1942, just one day before the fall of Bataan and the ensuing Bataan Death March, during which hundreds of American soldiers died.
Three weeks later, McKay was evacuated on the USS Spearfish submarine to Australia — a hot, cramped 17-day journey. Once in Australia, she was given the option to return home to the U.S. or continue serving.
McKay chose the latter.
She carried on in New Guinea for a time before returning to the Philippines. McKay served as chief nurse, in charge of nursing in a Leyte battlefield hospital, where she cared for a broad spectrum of patients, many liberated prisoners of war.
Then in 1945, with nursing personnel transferring in from ceased hostilities in Europe and nursing reinforcements from the U.S., McKay finally got to return home.
Military women including Col. Hope Williamson-Younce and Capt. Rachel Cochran spoke Saturday of McKay’s legacy and what it means to them and to their professions.
Quoting Booker T. Washington, who said, “Success always leaves footprints,” Williamson-Younce, interim corps chief of the Army Nurse Corps, reflected upon McKay’s successes.
“For over a century, the Army Nurse Corps has been at the forefront of military medicine, providing care to our service members in both war and peace. The footprints that Lt. Col. McKay left are enduring,” Williamson-Younce said. “Her servant leadership, and that of the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor, is not lost on the 7,000 active duty reserve, National Guard and civilian nurses currently serving around the globe. Army medicine is Army strong.”
Cochran, a battalion physician assistant with the Minnesota National Guard and decorated combat veteran, doesn’t believe she’d be where she is today without women like McKay.
“I stand before you today in 2023 as a woman in the military, serving in a combat unit full of tankers and infantrymen,” Cochran said. “One hundred years ago, however, this would have been unheard of. I find this ironic because, despite the fact that women across history have been serving in combat environments for centuries — primarily as nurses — it wasn’t until 10 years ago that the ban of women serving specifically in combat roles was lifted. I believe it was Col. McKay and women like her who paved the way for me to be able to serve my country the way I do in the 21st century.”
A life of service
In peacetime, McKay worked to reorganize the Army Nurse Corps and modernize Army nursing based on her WWII experiences. She later earned a nursing education degree from the University of Minnesota and became director of nursing at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.
Outside of work, she was known affectionately among her family members as Annie H., and her life was often incomprehensible to her relatives.
“She was a complex and multifaceted person,” Broback said, choking up when she first started talking about aunt. “Her courage, fortitude and practical approach to life defined the woman we knew. As unique as Hortense’s life was, so are our many memories.”
Strict and dedicated, yet appearing magical through her world travels, McKay was the relative from whom her family anxiously awaited calls on holidays, excited to learn where in the world she’d be calling from this time.
She took a strong interest in her nieces and nephews, gifting them, Broback said, with her lifelong love of learning.
“And to quote my cousin Ann,” Broback concluded, “‘Hortense wasn’t just our aunt, who we revered at times, but a very respected woman for all her time.’”
McKay retired from the Army in 1960 but remained an active member of her community, known for scrubbing the steps at the old Carnegie Library in Brainerd, raking pine needles at the Northland Arboretum, sewing costumes for college theater productions and volunteering with the Crow Wing County Historical Society.
She earned the Bronze Star Medal for her work during WWII and in 2015 became the first female soldier to have a building named after her at Camp Ripley, when the Minnesota National Guard dedicated its combat medical training center to her.
McKay died Jan. 15, 1988, while undergoing a second heart surgery at the University of Minnesota Hospital.
And now her legacy lives on.
“Col. Hortense McKay set a precedent that is now being written in the pages of history that women can do the hard things set before them,” Cochran said. “She lived out who God meant for her to be and set fire to the world’s previous expectations of what a woman can do.”
The full Congressional Gold Medal ceremony is available at bit.ly/HMcKay .
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.