Women’s History Month: 1st Lt. Annie G. Fox

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • 673d Air Base Wing historian
On December 7, 1941, 1st Lt. Annie G. Fox was serving with the Army Nurse Corps as the chief nurse on duty at the Army hospital located at Hickam Field, Hawaii, when Japanese bombs began to fall during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that forced the United States' entry into World War II.

At the time of the attack, the 47-year-old Fox was a 23-year veteran of the Army, having first enlisted in 1918 a few months prior to the end of World War I. 

During the attack, Fox is credited with performing in an exemplary manner under fire by administering anesthesia to patients during the heaviest parts of the bombardment, assisting in the dressing and care of the mounting numbers of wounded arriving at the hospital, and teaching civilian volunteer nurses how to make dressings.

Fox continuously worked throughout the entirety of the attack with coolness and efficiency, demonstrating great courage and calmness in the face of adversity and boosting the efforts and morale of all those around her.

For her efforts, during a ceremony conducted at Hickam Field on October 26, 1942, Fox became the first women in American military history to be awarded a Purple Heart.

At the time of her award, the Purple Heart was most commonly awarded to service members who had been wounded by enemy action; but it was also less frequently awarded for any "singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service."

Since Fox was not wounded during the Pearl Harbor attack, her award was justified by using the latter qualifications.

Throughout the medal's history, the criteria have undergone several changes.

On September 5, 1942, the War Department announced that the Purple Heart would henceforth only be awarded for those who were wounded or killed in combat as a result of enemy action. This change was made in large part due to the establishment of the Legion of Merit award, by an act of Congress dated July 20, 1942. Subsequently, on December 3, 1942, the president issued an executive order authorizing the award of the Purple Heart to also include military personnel from the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.

With the new criteria in place, and since Fox was not wounded or killed during the Japanese attack on Hawaii, her time wearing a Purple Heart would ultimately be short lived; not only was she the first women to receive a Purple Heart, she would also become one of the first women to have the award rescinded.

A War Department board was convened in 1944 to examine previous awards, and after reviewing her award under the new criteria, the board recommended Fox's Purple Heart be upgraded to a Bronze Star. This made her one of the first women to ever earn this award as well, the Bronze Star having been established by executive order on February 4, 1944.

The War Department board responsible for the review determined that her efforts, although heroic and meritorious, did not quite meet the standards required for the Legion of Merit.

Fox continued to serve in the Army in the Pacific Theater for the duration of World War II, retiring from military service on December 31, 1945 after completing career spanning more than 27 years. Fox passed away on January 20, 1987, at the age of 93.

The Purple Heart was first established as the Badge of Merit by special order of Gen. George Washington on August 7, 1782, during the American Revolution.

Forbidden by the Continental Congress from granting commissions or promotions in rank to recognize merit, Washington intended for the Badge of Merit "to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of military merit." 

The award was originally only open only to enlisted men, granting them the distinction of being permitted to pass all guards and sentinels in the same manner as commissioned officers.  Washington intended for the award, "the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding," to serve as a permanent decoration but its use was largely forgotten after the Revolutionary War.

It was reestablished in 1932 by order of the President of the United States in recognition of Washington's ideals during the national celebration of the bicentennial of Washington's birth. 

Up until World War II, the award was only awarded to those who had served with the Army or Army Air Forces.