Hattie Rilla “H.R.” Brantley, nurse, member of the United States Army, prisoner of war (POW) during World War II, and longtime women’s advocate in the military, was born on April 4, 1916, in Jefferson, Marion County, Texas, to Albert Maxey Brantley (1879–1943) and Minnie Lou Emma (Sewell) Brantley (1883–1974). She grew up on a farm near Jefferson during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression and expressed a desire to see the world outside of her town.
Brantley attended Dallas’s Baylor School of Nursing from 1933 to 1937. She graduated with honors and joined the Baylor staff to help teach new nursing students and to treat patients in the Dallas area. She remained part of the Baylor staff until 1939, when, in keeping with her youthful desire to see the world, she joined the U. S. Army Nurse Corps. After enlisting she was sent to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
Six months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the subsequent U. S. entry into World War II, Brantley, a lieutenant, was assigned to the Philippines. As the war progressed she served in a makeshift hospital in the jungles of the Bataan Peninsula. The conditions were difficult due to mosquito infestation, hot and humid weather, dust storms, and a lack of medical supplies. However, Brantley and the other nurses continued their work to save the lives of the patients despite these conditions. Their efforts earned them the nickname “Angels of Bataan.”
On April 8, 1942, the nurses stationed in the Bataan Peninsula were ordered to evacuate to Corregidor in Manila Bay, because they received news that the Japanese Imperial Army was set to capture Bataan by April 11. Every nurse made it to Corregidor, and the troops that remained in Bataan surrendered on April 9. After the evacuation, Brantley and the other nurses continued to care for the wounded and sick underground in the Malinta Tunnel on the island of Corregidor. The conditions were even more dangerous and dire, because the island was under constant bombardment by the Japanese Army, and shipments of medical supplies and needed rations were not able to make it to the nurses. On May 6, after weeks of shelling bombardment by the Japanese Army, Corregidor surrendered.
With the surrender of Corregidor, Brantley officially became a POW. The nurses had to march to Santo Tomas Internment Camp. The lack of water and food posed a great threat to Brantley and the other prisoners. The Japanese Army did not give out sufficient rations, and the POWs were expected to comb the surrounding area for anything edible. Brantley later recalled, “We never had enough to eat.” Their diet often consisted of merely cornmeal gruel, watery coconut milk, horse meat, and fish heads. Brantley and some of the other nurses created a rope ladder and lowered it over the fence to get food from the Filipino people. Brantley kept the rope ladder under her bed and worried that this risky act could result in her execution. Despite these grueling conditions, Brantley continued to tend to the wounded and ill, while encouraging the women to remain hopeful and diligent. She later commented, “We never really thought we weren’t going to make it.” Amazingly all of the women survived, and Brantley credited her “faith in God and country, and the prayers of my family” for carrying her through.
Brantley and her fellow POWs were freed on February 3, 1945, after almost three years of captivity. Her family was uncertain of her condition as the last letter they received from her was dated August 1943 and simply stated, “Well and working every day.” Brantley returned home on February 26, 1945, and learned that her father had passed away in August 1943. She returned to a changed home life and nation, one that she was not expecting because she had not received mail or news in almost three years. In July 1945 she married Kenneth Erwin Harmon in Colorado. She met Harmon, a Navy civilian employee, while they were both being held captive at Santo Tomas Internment Camp.
After her return from captivity, Brantley took only ninety days of leave before returning to duty and nursing. Her military career spanned three wars—World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Prior to her retirement, Brantley spent several years treating soldiers with severe burns at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. She rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring in 1969 and was the last of the POW nurses to leave military service.
After her retirement Brantley established the Bledsoe-Brantley Nursing Scholarship at Baylor University to honor her former roommate, Mary Cecile Bledsoe Hewlett. She also traveled across the nation to give speeches about her time as a POW and to talk about the role of women in the military. During her spare time she engaged in beekeeping and gardening.
On April 8, 1983, Brantley, as one of approximately thirty Corregidor nurses, was honored at the White House in Washington D.C. The gathering in Washington, D. C., was the first reunion for the women since their liberation. Brantley and the others were recognized for their dedication to helping the wounded even after they had been taken captive. She met with President Ronald Reagan and gave interviews. In June 1988 Brantley received a medal for her bravery and sacrifice during her time as a POW. After receiving her medal she said that it was “overdue.” These awards for Brantley and her fellow nurses came much later than the medals that were given to male POWs immediately following the war. However, Brantley helped to alter gender expectations and break gender barriers by eventually receiving a medal for her service and giving interviews and speeches on her experiences as a POW.
On September 20, 2006, Hattie Rilla “H.R.” Brantley passed away at the age of ninety in Jefferson, Marion County, Texas. She was buried in New Prospect Cemetery in Marion County. Several obituaries were written to commemorate her dedication to serving the wounded and her many sacrifices during her military career. Her gravestone included Brantley’s summary of her aspirations and ensuing consequences in a memorable epitaph: “I JOINED THE ARMY TO SEE THE WORLD AND RIDE A HORSE. IN A JAPANESE PRISON CAMP I ATE THE HORSE.”