Pearl Harbor: Woman, former nurse, recalls 'day of infamy'
At 26, Agnes Shurr was a nurse aboard a hospital ship at anchor on a bright, calm morning.
"It was a Sunday, and we could sleep in," she said. "We were anchored out in the stream, away from the docks. Sunday was our day off, and I was sleeping."
Seventy years later, with balloons from her 96th birthday party still bobbing festively in her Grand Forks, N.D., retirement home apartment, Shurr smiles and confesses her memory isn't what it used to be. She has trouble remembering names and places ... and dates.
But she remembers Dec. 7, 1941.
"I heard the announcement over the loudspeaker saying, 'Man your duty stations,' " she said, gazing off and remembering. "It said, 'This is no drill. All hands. This is no drill.' "
Of the 13 nurses who were aboard the USS Solace, one of two hospital ships in the harbor that morning, Shurr is the only one still alive. She is one of a small and dwindling number of Pearl Harbor survivors left in the country.
The surprise Japanese attack killed more than 2,300 Americans, severely damaged the U.S. Pacific Fleet and yanked the country into World War II.
Ever since, Americans have paused on the anniversary to remember what President Franklin Roosevelt called "a date which will live in infamy," and "Remember Pearl Harbor" became the watchword for national vigilance.
'This is no drill'
Shurr was born in 1915, the second of five children, and raised on a farm near Glenburn in north-central North Dakota - about as far from an ocean as she could be.
Her father farmed. Her mother was a nurse.
"I always said I didn't become a nurse because of her, but I suppose now that had something to do with it," she said. "She wanted us to do what we wanted to do. We were told to be independent, to take care of ourselves."
She trained at the St. Joseph's Hospital School of Nursing in Minot and, in 1938, joined the Navy. On that long-ago December morning, she was asleep when the air filled with the sounds of klaxons, ships' engines, guns firing and planes diving.
The noise didn't immediately alarm her, though she thought it curious.
"We heard those kinds of noises all the time in the harbor -- ships coming and going and letting off steam and shooting off their guns. We had drills all the time.
"But we didn't usually have them on a Sunday."
Then came the announcement:
"This is no drill."
Shurr looked out a porthole and saw officers running along the ship's deck, and that confirmed the seriousness of the situation.
"Officers never run on deck," she said.
Busy days, nights
She reported to her station in the medical ward below decks, and soon casualties arrived - young men with fractured arms and legs, broken backs "and lots of shrapnel wounds," she said. Many of the patients were covered in oil and suffering from burns.
The Solace, a converted passenger ship that had just been commissioned by the Navy a few months earlier, was not hit during the attack. She sent motor launches to the doomed battleship Arizona, pulling men from water covered in burning oil, and later to the West Virginia and the Oklahoma, according to various accounts posted on the Internet.
The ship could hold about 400 patients, Shurr said, and there were busy days and nights for the nurses in the weeks following the attack. Some patients were evacuated by air or sea, "as many as were able to make that trip back to the States," she said.
In March 1942, Solace was ordered to the South Pacific, and its nurses spent the next three years shuttling between New Zealand, Australia and battle zones, caring for servicemen wounded in the island campaigns.
The ship was with the fleet in the Gilberts, the Marshals, the Marianas, the Solomons - at Tarawa, Eniwetok, Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima - and earned seven battle stars. It ended the war with happier duty, ferrying soldiers, sailors and Marines home to the mainland from Pearl Harbor.
Lifetime of duty
Shurr stayed in the Navy for 20 years, including duty during the Korean War when she rode aboard transport planes that brought wounded soldiers from hospitals in Japan to Hawaii. By the time she left the service in 1958, she had reached the rank of commander.
She came to Grand Forks and worked in anesthesiology at the old St. Michael's Hospital, but she was ready to travel again in 1963, accepting a two-year stint with the World Health Organization to train nurses in Afghanistan.
Back in Grand Forks, she taught nursing at the University of North Dakota. After retiring in 1981, she often talked to young people about the importance of setting and working toward goals and learning about other cultures.
The anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor "used to be an important day for me," she said, "but not anymore, so much. Now it's kind of in with all the other dates that have happened since then.
"We used to have that slogan - 'Remember Pearl Harbor, and Keep America Alert.' I think it's right that we stay aware of our security. We ought not to let small, insignificant countries walk over us - or the big ones, for that matter.
"But I don't see any point in dwelling on the past. Why do you want to remember the bad things that happened, and what can you do about them at this stage of the game?"
Now, she doesn't dwell on the "date which shall live in infamy," or the hatred the attack instilled in people who suffered through it and its bloody aftermath.
"Some things," she said, "it's just as important to forget as to remember."
Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald. The Pioneer and Herald are both owned by Forum Communications Co.