Chronicling the Hellish Story of the Battle-scarred Nurses
By Chelsea J. Carter, The Associated Press
New Hampshire Sunday News, June 13, 1999
liberation from Japanese captivity in this 1945 photo. [AP Photo]
NEW YORK - They were nurses in search of a little adventure, a short stint with the Army and Navy in the Philippines, passing out aspirin and handling the rare emergency in a tropical paradise.
Months later, they were trapped on the Bataan peninsula, using crude techniques in makeshift jungle hospitals while trying to repair battered and bloodied bodies amid constant air raids and gunfire.
They were the female counterparts of the men who in World War II would proudly become known as "The Battling Bastards of Bataan" - the 72,000 soldiers whose 1942 defense of the Philippines ended with the largest surrender ever of U.S. troops.
"They were the largest group of women POWs in the history of our country. But there was so much going on - the events at Pearl Harbor, the war in Europe - that their story has been swallowed up," said Elizabeth M. Norman, who has chronicled their plight in "We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan."
Part memoir, part history, the book is the most comprehensive account yet of the 99 nurses known as the "Angels of Bataan."
It is a story, say some historians and surviving nurses, that has taken too long to tell.
"It's about time. There have been stories written, a person's personal story. But nobody's ever told the whole story," said Helen Cassiani Nestor, who at age 82 is one of 18 nurses known to be alive.
"There's still a lot of discussion about the role of women in combat. We were exposed to a lot of the shelling and bombardment in Bataan and Corregidor.
"Our group proved that we could go into the field and carry on and do a good job. People need to know that," she said.
The women's story begins with the Japanese attack on Manila Dec. 8, 1942, and follows them through the battles of Bataan and the nonstop shelling of Corregidor, a rock island fortress, to their surrender, their three years in Japanese camps and, finally, their liberation.
Linda Bird Franke, author of "Ground Zero: The Gender Wars in the Military," says the Bataan book fills "a vital but missing chapter in the history of World War II: the stunning heroism of women."
But the real gems of the book are in the vivid details of their actions, taken from interviews, journals, letters and government testimony.
"It is jungle land and everyone lives under trees. Rows of beds snuggled under the trees with narrow winding paths between them and the night sky overhead," Ruth Straub wrote in her journal, describing the first field hospital on Bataan.
"Japs overhead about 11:30 bombing ... again. Many women and children killed, injured and burned.
"What will become of all of us? One soldier brought in a 4-month-old Filipino baby. Both parents were killed during the bombing.... I am so hungry - rice, cold salmon and tomatoes. Couldn't eat any of it," she wrote in another entry.
Mrs. Norman writes of the surrender of Corregidor: "The nurses stood mute and edgy. Up and down the line walked the Japanese, looking them over. It was difficult, at first, to read the enemy's face, to separate reputation from reality, reality from fear.... The sight of women in uniform was so alien to the Japanese that they seemed puzzled, indeed almost confused, by the nurses' presence."
Through it all, wracked with disease and injury, the nurses continued to work, tending to soldiers and, later, to the hundreds held with them in the camps.
"When your world is crumbling around you, you need this kind of structure," said Mrs. Norman, an associate professor of nursing at New York University.
Of the hunger in the camps, she writes: "Some people started eating weeds - flowers and roots. ...A few of the nurses grew a little talinum and okra, then fried their meager harvest in cold cream that came in Red Cross kits."
Of the 99, 22 had managed to escape minutes ahead of the Japanese invaders. Of the remaining 77 repatriated in 1945, 48 were still alive when Mrs. Norman began writing the book eight years ago. Many died during her research, four of them just days before they were to be interviewed. Among them was Josephine Nesbit, a senior Army nurse credited with the nurses' survival in captivity.
"She was a key player in this story," Mrs. Norman said.
A few survivors refused to see her. "I do not want to live in the past," one said.
But many were eager to talk, hoping to set straight what had been romanticized in such movies as "So Proudly We Hail" (1942) starring Claudette Colbert, and "They Were Expendable" (1945) with Donna Reed, which were advertised as accurate accounts of the nurses' experience.
"They were dogs. They romanticized what happened. Let me tell you, there was nothing romantic about it," Mrs. Nestor her, said in a telephone interview from her urban Philadelphia home.
But Mrs. Nestor said they weren't brave.
"We were just doing our job."