Courage to Live

Courage to Live

This article originally appeared in Soldiers magazine online.

 They called themselves the Battling Belles of Bataan, but to the GIs fighting a desperate and doomed battle for the Philippines in 1941 and 1942, and later to their fellow civilian internees, they were, simply, angels. 

The Angels of Bataan and Corregidor, as they’re best known, were a group of 88 Army nurses and 12 Navy nurses stationed in the Philippines in early December 1941. “They were trailblazers for women in the military, for the Army Nurse Corps,” said nurse and ANC historian Lt. Col. Nancy Cantrell. “They set the example for the rest of the services. Their story told the world ... that women are tough, they can serve in combat and they can survive.” 

The nurses hadn’t received any military or survival training and held only relative rank. Most were the equivalent of second lieutenants, albeit with far lower pay, and were universally addressed as “Miss.” 

The majority had volunteered for the assignment, according to Elizabeth Norman, a professor of nursing history at New York University and author of “We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of 

American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese.” Manila was considered the “pearl of the Orient,” and they expected to meet men and have fun. Duty was light and they sunbathed, played golf and tennis, and danced under the stars. 

As late as Nov. 18, 1941, newly arrived 2nd Lt. Marcia Gates wrote her mother that she had already bought two new evening gowns and was growing spoiled because local Filipinos took care of all the laundry, cooking and housework. (Gates’ niece, author Melissa Bowerstock, compiled her family’s letters from this period in a book about her aunt.) 

Less than three weeks later, on Dec. 8 (Dec. 7, Hawaii time), the nurses awoke to the news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, and they were stunned. Fearing the Philippines would be the next Japanese target, commanders issued the nurses steel helmets and gas masks. At 8:19 a.m., Japanese bombs began to fall. The attack was devastating, destroying all but one of the U.S. airplanes in the Philippines and leaving thousands dead or wounded. 

“The hospital was bedlam – amputations, dressings, intravenouses (sic), blood transfusions, shock, death,” 2nd Lt. Ruth Straub wrote in her diary (as excerpted by Norman). She “worked all night, hopped over banisters and slid under the hospital during raids.” Her fiancé, she would learn a week later, was killed in the attack. 

Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered a retreat to the inhospitable jungles of the Bataan Peninsula and the supposedly impregnable island of Corregidor at its tip. There, they would make a stand and wait for reinforcements. The reinforcements never arrived. 

A makeshift hospital ship, manned by one of the Army nurses, managed to sneak out, but the most gravely wounded couldn’t be moved and were left behind in Manila with 11 Navy nurses. Meanwhile, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the Army nurses crossed the bay under heavy fire, becoming, Norman wrote, “the first group of American military nurses sent onto the battlefield for duty.” They were already the first women in U.S. military history to wear fatigues and combat boots. 

Hospital 1 on Bataan initially consisted of 29 bamboo and grass sheds, and doctors and nurses could barely keep up with the casualties from the unrelenting air raids and fierce, often hand-to-hand, combat. In one 24-hour period – Jan. 16, 1942 – they performed 187 major surgeries, according to Norman. 

Hospital 2 was farther inland, and in the open air. There was no protection from the mosquitos, so malaria and dengue fever were endemic, affecting everyone from the wounded to healthy soldiers to the nurses themselves, while ever-present flies contaminated food and water with dysentery and other parasites. 

Food, contaminated or not, was scarce. Infantrymen were fighting on 1,000 calories a day by late February – a quarter of the nutrition they needed to stay in fighting shape. They ate the cavalry horses, water buffalo, even monkeys, while the sick and exhausted nurses forced themselves to work. One senior nurse, bedridden from malaria, even set up a cot in the middle of her ward and continued directing her staff, Norman wrote. 

Two of the nurses were injured with shrapnel when the Japanese bombed Hospital 1 for the second time, and quickly went back to work. Watching women endure the same danger and hunger seemed to inspire the troops to continue the fight, Norman wrote, but by April, the enemy was only miles from the hospitals. On April 8, 1942, Lt. Gen. Jonathan “Skinny” Wainwright, new commander of the U.S. Army in the Philippines, ordered the nurses to the relative safety of Corregidor. 

They didn’t want to leave helpless, sick and wounded men to fend for themselves. They were nurses and their sacred duty was to stay with their 8,800 patients, but orders were orders. They escaped by dodging sniper fire, mines and explosions in whatever buses and boats were available. 

The Japanese then used the hospital patients as human shields. They also force-marched the ambulatory soldiers (wounded or not) some 60 miles through the rugged terrain and heat during the infamous Bataan Death March. Anyone who fell behind was killed; historians estimate that nearly 20,000 Americans and Filipinos perished. The nurses felt they had abandoned their patients, and Norman said it haunted them for the rest of their lives. 

Their new hospital was underground in the dank, hot, airless Malinta Tunnel. It continuously shook from bombs and artillery fire, Gates later said. “The ... tunnels were jammed with wounded. Every other patient they brought in was someone we’d known personally. That was hard to take.” And once again, food and medical supplies quickly ran low. 

Japanese soldiers were infamous for raping the women they conquered and Wainwright, who publically hailed the nurses’ bravery, wanted them off the island. He managed to have 22 Army nurses and one Navy nurse sent to Australia by PBY plane and submarine, but there wasn’t time to evacuate the remaining 56. A second plane hit an underwater rock during a refueling stop and left 10 nurses stranded on the island of Mindanao. They were eventually captured as well. 

The Japanese infantry assaulted Corregidor’s beaches in wave after punishing wave. Wainwright finally surrendered May 6, because “fighting in the ... tunnels, jammed with wounded, would be mass murder,” 2nd Lt. Eunice Young remembered in a passage quoted by Bowersock. The next morning, “in the middle of a difficult operation, I heard a scuffling noise and glanced up. In the door stood a Japanese soldier with his bayonet fixed …. My heart popped into my mouth.” Expecting to die, the nurses wrote their names on a bed sheet, but the Japanese, Young went on, were shocked at their presence and had no idea what to do with “captured women in uniform.”

While Japanese soldiers stole the nurses’valuables, by all accounts, none were molested or killed. Eventually, they moved the nurses to the civilian internment camp of Santo Tomas in Manila, where the 11 Navy nurses had been held since March. The Navy nurses later moved north to the Los Banos internment camp. 

It was “fairly pleasant” at first, 2nd Lt. Rita Palmer told her hometown newspaper, the Hampton Union, in 1945. She had been injured by shrapnel on Bataan and was one of the nurses stranded on Mindanao. In the beginning, the food supply was adequate when supplemented by meat, eggs and produce that internees purchased from local Filipinos. To fill the time, interned golf and tennis pros offered lessons, while college professors held courses on everything from music to Spanish. Palmer earned a year’s worth of college credit. 

The Army nurses worked in the prison hospital an average of four hours a day, something Young said “wasn’t our rightful job. As Army nurses we should have been with our men in the military camps. We fumed about that.” Still, nursing became their salvation, Norman wrote. It gave them a support system, something to do, something to focus on, a reason to get up in the morning. 

“They were a tough bunch,” Cantrell added. “They had a mission. They were surviving for the boys ... and each other. That does give you a bit of added strength.” 

The nurses learned to make sutures from hemp, 2nd Lt. Ruby G. Bradley wrote in an article for the Army’s Office of Medical History. She was captured north of Manila at Camp John Hay in December 1941, and was sent to Santo Tomas in September 1943. She later served in the Korean War, becoming a colonel and the most decorated woman in U.S. military history at that time. Nurses sterilized surgical instruments by baking them in ovens or boiling them over Bunsen burners. Men in camp banged scrap metal into bedpans, Norman added, and interned chemists turned rubber from the rubber trees in camp into a paste to hold bandages. 

The nurses saw everything from childbirth to heart attacks, and Gates was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy while in camp. There were diphtheria, chicken pox and tuberculosis outbreaks as well. But as Japan started to lose the war, the prisoners received less food and fewer privileges. Starting in 1944, the biggest problems were symptoms of malnutrition and starvation, especially beriberi, which leads to swollen, painful limbs and is caused by thiamine deficiency. The nurses were sick and starving too, and could do little for their patients but make them comfortable and watch as they starved to death – as many as five a day by early 1945, when they were forced to live on just 700 calories a day. 

“As the Americans drew nearer still, less food was given to the people,” Palmer said. “The large flock of pigeons that had nested in the eaves gradually disappeared.” Gates later said she ate dogs and cats, and once crawled around the floor to find a single grain of rice. She lost 23 pounds. 

The nurses knew they were dying, Norman said. “They knew the camp was on a death watch and it was only a matter of time. They would make these cynical jokes about it, but none of those nurses ever expressed a fear to me about their own deaths, ever, either in battle or in camp.” 

“It appeared to take more courage to live than to die,” Bradley wrote. Fortunately, Allied troops arrived in time to save them from starvation and execution, which the Japanese were rumored to be planning. 

Just after dark on the night of Feb. 3, the nurses heard gunfire in the streets of Manila, and the 1st Cavalry Division and 44th Tank Battalion barreled through the gates. The internees went wild, screaming and crying with joy, singing “God Bless America,” Gates remembered. “We could hardly talk to the men. Everyone was weeping with joy and we were almost unable to believe that it had finally happened.” The Navy nurses at Los Banos were liberated Feb. 22. 

A number of the soldiers, who had pushed through enemy lines to liberate Santo Tomas, were wounded. Six eventually died, and more were injured as the Allies fought to keep control of Santo Tomas over the next few days. The nurses, weak with hunger and seriously ill (Palmer had just been hospitalized with dysentery and malaria), rushed to care for American soldiers for the first time in nearly three years. They stayed on duty until the Army sent a fresh unit of nurses to relieve them. 

Then they got to go home, via a long, circuitous route of island hopping, hospitals, physicals, press interviews, ticker tape parades and ceremonies. The nurses were all promoted and awarded the Bronze Star, and Palmer and another nurse received Purple Hearts. Their 100 percent survival record, Norman explained, is unmatched to this day. They were famous heroines and perfect recruiting tools for the Army Nurse Corps, but they weren’t sure why.

“We never did anything heroic,” Young wrote in the Saturday Evening Post. “We were captured at our posts, like thousands of soldiers.” 

And then they were largely forgotten. Only a few received long-term treatment in military or veterans hospitals. Most simply went home to their parents. Some got married, and some, like Bradley, went back to work as Army nurses. 

“The government never bothered to follow up with them about the impact of this on fertility, on cancer rates, on heart disease,” Norman said. She learned that many died fairly young, and that they all had chronic gastrointestinal and dental problems, as well as emotional and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Gates’ relatives, for example, said she was never the same. She tried to commit suicide in the early 1950s, and died from breast cancer in 1970 at the age of 55. 

Still, the nurses didn’t regret their wartime service. Although Palmer admitted in the 1990s that she “had not successfully come to terms with everything that happened in those years,” she said she “learned some valuable lessons, a great deal about human nature under extreme conditions and the recognition that little is gained and nothing resolved by war.”

Whatever the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor may have thought of their service, Cantrell said, “These women are my heroes. They are our heroes as nurses. I think that some of the things we do today ... are because of women like them.”  

Elizabeth M. Collins is an award-winning defense writer based in Maryland.