In an era of seemingly unending political turmoil, we find ourselves looking for heroes, and sometimes we need to look no farther than our own backyard. Col. Ruby Ficklin Bryant was one such role model. A native of Emmerton in Richmond County, she was a trusted counselor and colorful character to her family, a distinguished person in her community and an outstanding example of service to her country.
Col. Bryant, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 95, has been honored by an exhibit at the Richmond County Historical Museum as a shining example of exemplary service, and is remembered lovingly as “our Worldly Aunt” by her extended family. A career nurse, she was one of the first three women to attain the permanent rank of colonel in the U.S. Army. She served nearly 30 years in places all over the globe, including the Philippines, Japan and Europe, and traveled extensively both during her career and after. She was the ninth chief of the Army Nurse Corps, earned an honorary doctor of laws degree from the Medical College of Virginia, and upon her retirement from the army in 1961, was awarded the U.S. Armed Forces Legion of Merit for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services.”
While it is true that Col. Bryant had many accomplishments and accolades in her lifetime, what her friends and family will recall most is her adventurous spirit and generous nature. “We will remember a person who always made us feel special each time we saw her,” said Col. Bryant’s nephew and namesake, Ficklin Bryant. “We remember her robust voice, the gleam in her eye and her joy of living — a woman who was so very thoughtful, courteous and kind to all.”
She was born in 1906 to Laura Jeter Bryant and William Bryant. Her mother was a milliner and her father was the Richmond County sheriff. She graduated from Farnham High School and attended Mary Washington College (at the time known as Fredericksburg State Teachers College). She began her working life as a teacher in Richmond County. However, she had a longtime desire to become a nurse, and eventually resigned her teaching position to enter nurse’s training at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (Walter Reed General Hospital). She graduated in 1933 with the last class of the Army School of Nursing. In the darkest hours of the Great Depression, the Army Nurse Cops admitted few members, so Bryant worked instead as a Civilian Conservation Corps nurse at Walter Reed. She later wrote that she was also deemed underweight for an Army nurse.
“I was healthy as a buck, but I was underweight. The weight minimum was 120 pounds, and I only weighed 108. So, they told me to eat big meals and after that to drink a glass of half milk and half cream. I did it. Sometimes I was so sick I could hardly get out of the dining room. But I gained enough weight to get into the Army,” she wrote. Ever cheerful and spirited, Bryant’s struggle to gain weight was one of the very few complaints to be found among her prolific letters and essays.
She became an Army nurse in 1934; her initial assignment was as a staff nurse at Walter Reed. She applied for foreign service and transferred to the Philippines; her initial trip to Manila aboard a troop transport ship took almost two months, first through the Panama Canal, then stopping in San Francisco, Hawaii and Guam along the way. While in the Philippines, she worked at Fort Mills Station Hospital on Corregidor and at Sternberg General Hospital in Manila. While at Fort Mills, Bryant helped to set up and equip the famous Malinta Tunnel Hospital, where American troops, including Gen. Douglas McArthur, sought shelter during the 1942 Japanese invasion of the islands.
In one letter, Bryant wrote: “I just stopped to watch searchlight practice. They have several huge searchlights which they turn on and practice spotting airplanes at night… I heard tonight we’re going to start war maneuvers soon, going to close the hospital and move into the tunnel for one month. That’s going to be a lot of fun! If I can only keep healthy, this is going to be one grand two years.”
In spite of the many challenges and uncertainties of the time, her zest for life never deserted her. “The island is run on a war basis all the time. Maneuvers are going on all the time,” she wrote. “The scenery, though, is the most beautiful part of all. I just stroll around the hospital porch from one side to the other and stare and stare… Everywhere I look is a different view, and I can’t tell which is the most beautiful.” Later, in a 1961 interview with The Richmond Times-Dispatch, she noted: “I didn’t follow the seriousness of world events then. I used to growl at the unscheduled training alerts.”
In another letter, she told of a day trip which turned into an unexpected overnight odyssey. Bryant and a group of nurses and doctors decided to visit a village on another island. To their surprise, word of their arrival had reached the village and the locals threw them a surprise party complete with a banquet, music, dancing, and a receiving line of dignitaries. By the time the group could say their goodbyes at midnight and make their way 40 miles back to the harbor, in a rickety truck dodging carabaos (a local species of water buffalo) the entire journey, it was too late to get a boat to cross the sea to Corregidor. Although they were due back on duty at 7 a.m., they had to spend the night packed into every available nook and cranny of a somewhat primitive summer house near the harbor. The next morning, the group hired a motor boat to take them 30 miles over the water to their base. The boat made it a short distance from shore before breaking down. Then they hailed a passing sailboat for the rest of the way back to base. They arrived an hour late for duty and expected to be in deep trouble. It turned out, their bosses had been so worried about them they didn’t bother with discipline. “I wouldn’t care a cent about doing it again,” Bryant wrote, “but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
During World War II, she was assigned stateside in Georgia and Maryland. She was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1944 while serving as director of nursing service at the Fourth Service Command at Atlanta. After the war, she was sent back to the Philippines and later became director of nurses in the Far East Command based in Tokyo. While there, she immersed herself in Asian culture, art and history on visits to Shanghai, Peking and Hong Kong. She maintained an interest in Asian art for the rest of her life.
In 1948, Bryant again returned to the states to become chief nurse of the Sixth Army at the Presidio of San Francisco, where she remained until 1951 when she transferred to Washington, D.C. to become the ninth chief of the Army Nurse Corps. The second graduate of the Army School of Nursing to become chief of the corps, she presided over more than 5,000 nurses during the latter part of the Korean War and was temporarily promoted to colonel. When her four-year term ended, by law she had to revert back to the rank of lieutenant colonel, then the highest permanent rank a woman could achieve in the Army. In 1955, she accepted an assignment as chief of the nursing branch and nursing consultant in Europe. Also in 1955, she was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from the Medical College of Virginia. She is believed to be the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the school. Three years later, with a new law passed by Congress, she was one of the first three women to be promoted to the permanent rank of colonel in the Regular Army.
Col. Bryant was discharged in 1961 after serving as nursing director at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. At career’s end, she was awarded the Legion of Merit, one of only two military decorations to be issued as “neck orders” worn and displayed around a person’s neck, the other being the Medal of Honor. Her award notes: “Her personal resourcefulness, keen analytical judgment and selfless devotion to duty made valuable contributions which enhanced the smooth and orderly accomplishment of nursing service activities, and earned the respect and admiration of all associated with her… Colonel Bryant’s distinguished performance of duty throughout this period represents outstanding achievement in the most cherished traditions of the United States Army, and reflects distinct credit upon herself, the Army Medical Service, and the military establishment.”
After a European trip, Col. Bryant settled near her family in a duplex in Warsaw, which she shared with her sister Tucker. She continued to travel and pursue her interests in photography, stamp and antique collecting, bird watching, cooking and shelling (a hobby first acquired in the Philippines). She entertained family and friends frequently and often kicked off a gathering with her favorite toast: “Here’s to us, the nicest people I know!” according to elder nephew Robert McBath, whose curiosity for travel and history was at least partly inspired by his Worldly Aunt.
Her parties were always lively, said nephew Ficklin Bryant. “She had shelves filled with treasures from all over the world, and it was so special when she would tell stories of where she was when she bought them and about the countries and the people. Every time I went, I would find something new. I learned so much from her,” he said. “But she was completely humble and would always prefer to talk about you and not herself. No one I have ever met exhibited the joy of life more than Aunt Ruby. She lived her dream and was the most down to earth woman that I have ever known.”
Col. Bryant peacefully passed away in her sleep, as she would have wished, on January 3, 2002 and was later laid to rest at Calvary United Methodist Church in Emmerton.
“My Aunt Ruby was my favorite person who has ever lived. I wish everyone could have known her. There was absolutely no one who didn’t love her,” Bryant said. “To be around her was always uplifting, and there is not a single day that goes by that I and many others don’t think of her. She was truly a master of life and the greatest woman I have ever known.”
*Note: Thanks go out to Richmond County Museum Curator David Jett for his help with this article. The Army Nurse Corps’ timely assistance is also appreciated. Thanks, too, are owed to Ficklin Bryant, Robert McBath and Mary Beth Bryant for their recollections, and for providing access to writings, photos and newspaper clippings.