By C.V. Moore
Seventy years ago, U.S. Army nurse Ruby Bradley had just enjoyed a pleasant Thanksgiving in the Philippines. She looked forward to returning home to West Virginia soon and spent her days working some, but also luxuriating in her peaceful, comfortable surroundings. With the attack on Pearl Harbor only a few weeks away, Bradley had no idea of the chaos that was about to enter her life.
Bradley spent three years as a prisoner of war in the Philippines, nursing her fellow prisoners. She assisted in hundreds of operations and over a dozen child deliveries. She went on to serve as a nurse in the Korean War and was eventually promoted to Chief Nurse of Europe.
By the time she retired in 1963 as a colonel, Bradley, a Roane County native, had earned more honors than any woman in the U.S. Army’s history.
Today at Tamarack, Rebecca Park of Charleston will bring the woman’s story back to life, portraying Bradley before an audience as part of the West Virginia Humanities Council’s “History Alive!” program.
To commemorate Bradley’s experiences, and those of the soldiers held captive by Japanese forces during WWII, Park is embarking on a project she calls “70 Years Ago Today.”
“I’m going through these next six months thinking — what was happening to her?” says Park.
In January, she plans to go on a rationed diet, just as besieged U.S. soldiers in Bataan were forced to do at the same time 70 years ago.
“It helps me remember,” she says. “It helps me live in their present tense.”
Park says that feeling a strong sense of connection to Bradley, as she does with the other characters she portrays, hasn’t always been easy.
“I was raised in Christian Science, and she was a medical professional. I’m a pacifist; she was in the Army. I’m a liberal democrat; she was a 1950s Republican,” she says.
But Park recently found some historical sources that made getting into character less of a struggle. One, a book called “Guerilla Life,” published in 1945, is the story of an American woman living in hiding in the Philippines during WWII.
“These people began to breathe for me. I began to feel what temperature the air was, what they ate, the clothes they wore, and what they were afraid of.”
An article from a 1945 edition of National Geographic put Bradley’s experiences even further into context. Park discovered that when Bradley returned home in that year, the men who had gone on the Bataan Death March in 1942 were still missing. This detail triggered a strong response in Park.
“It was this horrendous period where we didn't know where our husbands and uncles and sons were. It was like looking through this window. It put me in what was her present. It wasn't history anymore. It was day to day.”
Park’s interest in Bradley grew out of everyday life in her native Roane County. Everyone in the county had apparently heard of Bradley, but Park eventually realized that they didn't know much else about her.
“That motivated me to uncover the mystery of who this person was,” she says.
She spent time researching Bradley’s life at archives. She read Bradley's personal papers and interviewed her before her death in 2002.
And she talked with soldiers who lived through the Pacific Theater of WWII.
All that research has helped her step into Bradley’s character. But certain physical cues, like flattening her naturally curly hair or donning a 1940s-era slip, are also important preparation, she says.
She has created a unique version of her performance for middle schoolers as well, which more deeply situates Bradley in time and place and appeals to the kids’ natural curiosity and sense of drama.
“My concern is that the story is preserved and that we can make good sense of it,” she says, drawing parallels between the war in the Philippines and the Iraq War.
“Part of my passion is that the more you know the story of what happened in the Philippines, the more you don’t want it to ever happen again.”
Park will portray the life of Ruby Bradley at the Gov. Hulett C. Smith Theater at Tamarack at 1 p.m. today. Admission is free.