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Brainerd High alum saved lives as WWII nurse in Philippines

Army Lt. Col. Hortense McKay, a Brainerd High School graduate, served as a nurse in a makeshift hospital in the Philippines during World War II starting in 1941 and returned to the Southeast Asian country a second time as a nurse following her evacuation from it.

A black-and-white photo of Lt. Col. Hortense McKay in her Army uniform is on display at the Crow Wing County Historical Museum and Research Library in Brainerd.
A black-and-white photo of Lt. Col. Hortense McKay in her Army uniform is on display at the Crow Wing County Historical Museum and Research Library in Brainerd.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Not many people may have heard of Army Lt. Col. Hortense McKay, but several owe their lives to her.

The 1927 Brainerd High School graduate was born July 16, 1910, in Harmony in Fillmore County, about 260 miles southeast of Brainerd. She died on Jan. 15, 1988, at age 77.

McKay graduated from St. Cloud Teacher's College and the University of Minnesota School of Nursing in 1933 and worked in the Deerwood Sanitarium. She went on to do public health work briefly in Louisville, Kentucky, and transferred to the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in 1939.

"The need for nurses was great and the opportunity for advancement was obvious. … Of course, I believed in human justice, and within a few years, I was sent overseas,” McKay was quoted as saying in Maxine Russell’s book by "Jungle Angel: Bataan Remembered.”

A Bronze Medal awarded to Lt. Col. Hortense McKay, a Western Union telegram between her and her father, and other items related to the World War II hero and nurse are on display at the Crow Wing County Historical Museum and Research Library on Laurel Street.
A Bronze Medal awarded to Lt. Col. Hortense McKay, a Western Union telegram between her and her father, and other items related to the World War II hero and nurse are on display at the Crow Wing County Historical Museum and Research Library on Laurel Street.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

She was sent to the Philippines and was stationed at Fort Stotsenburg, next to Clark Field, one of 71 nurses there overwhelmed with casualties after the first bombing attack by the Japanese, according to an early Brainerd Dispatch article.

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Evacuated to the island of Corregidor before it fell, she cared for the wounded in the Malinta railroad tunnel hospital, and within four weeks was transferred to a primitive hospital at Bataan.

“We are indeed proud of the heroism and devotion to duty which the nurses in the Philippines have displayed,” according to a 1942 letter signed by Col. Julia O. Flikke of the War Department on display at the Crow Wing County Historical Museum and Research Library in Brainerd.

At the county museum on Laurel Street, a black-and-white portrait of the young woman staring resolutely, a Red Cross armband she wore in the Philippines, a Bronze Star medal she earned for her service to her country and more are exhibited to honor her and educate others.

Several other black-and-white photos at the county museum provide additional information about the remarkable life and career of the Brainerd High School alum. Even an actual exercise uniform worn by McKay and a Western Union telegram sent by her is on display at the facility.

Several other black-and-white photos at the county museum provide additional information about the remarkable life and career of the Brainerd High School alum, such as an exercise uniform worn by McKay.
Several other black-and-white photos at the county museum provide additional information about the remarkable life and career of the Brainerd High School alum, such as an exercise uniform worn by McKay.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

McKay served in a makeshift hospital near the Real River in the Philippines in an unforgiving jungle with bamboo thickets starting in 1941, caring for those in World War II.

“Jungle conditions have made every one of us unusually resourceful,” McKay said of using the native bamboo used by Filipinos for bed frames, benches, clotheslines, tables, mats, drinking cups, cigarette holders and shelter. “The fast-growing bamboo was very useful to us.”

In a museum display, McKay was quoted as saying, “Another unusual use for bamboo was the construction of frames to fit over the latrine holes in the ground. These frames were built in a rectangular shape. One bamboo bar was used as the seat and another bar was used for the person's legs.”

McKay called the Real River a "lifesaver . . . to relax and refresh us” and recalled the nurses used its waters "for bathing and washing clothes” and recycling medical supplies that were in short supply, for example, soiled bandages that were washed and reused out of necessity.

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MORE ABOUT BRAINERD HISTORY BY FRANK LEE:
The Northern Pacific Railway was the driving force behind Brainerd’s first bridge across the Mississippi River, and the bridge was constructed in 1870. But five years later, it came crashing down and five passengers were killed.
The J.J. Howe Lumber Co. played a key role in shaping Boom Lake in Brainerd’s past. But scant evidence of the business remains at the lake today near the popular Kiwanis Park.
A public dedication ceremony by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War Camp No. 56 will take place Aug. 27 at Evergreen Cemetery in Brainerd to honor Union Pvt. Elias Fenstermacher, the last Civil War veteran buried in Crow Wing County. He died in 1948 at the age of 97.

McKay detailed the harsh conditions at the hospital, which were recounted in "A History of the U. S. Army Nurse Corps" by Mary T. Samecky, which was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1999.

“I was in charge of feeding 90 people from a 12-quart bucket. The contents were a strange mixture, a kind of ‘Bataan stew,’ with maybe some mule or horsemeat, carabao, even monkey, perhaps fish, rice and occasionally a few green weeds or maybe vegetables,” McKay recalled.

Following her evacuation from the Philippines to Australia aboard a submarine, she returned to the Southeast Asian country in 1944 to serve as a nurse until the end of the war the following year. There were more medical supplies but the rainy season brought mud up to their knees.

McKay’s earlier stint in the Philippines prior to her evacuation in 1942 at the makeshift hospital stuck with her, particularly the food rations.

“We always put netting over the food because the flies were everywhere. It was difficult to keep the food clean. … We did the best we could. Salmonella, fecal streptococci and other pathogens of intestinal origin could be deadly to many already weak from too little food,” she recalled.

McKay went into more detail about her first time working as a nurse in the Philippines in a 2010 article in the Bluff Country Reader, a weekly newspaper in her birthplace of Harmony.

"As our food supplies were gradually consumed and we received fewer or no replacements, we began to starve. My usual 115 pounds dropped to about 88 pounds,” McKay stated.

“There were about 6,000 patients in our hospital waiting to be fed. We went on half-rations, relying more on rice than protein. Also, we were out of quinine … many of our GIs died of malaria and dysentery, both known as great killers."

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McKay continued in the Army until her retirement in 1960.

She died at the University of Minnesota Hospital while undergoing a second heart surgery. For her heroism and self-sacrifice, the Minnesota National Guard named a medical training center in 2015 in honor of McKay. The Medical Simulation Training Center at Camp Ripley was christened "LTC Hortense E. McKay MSTC.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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