The Angels of Bataan (December 1941 - March 1945)
And then right in the middle, you have army and navy nurses, enlisted women doing their duty from the front lines and back. Unlike the combat medics who will keep troops until they can be evacuated, they are the ones who tend the wounded around the clock, saving lives so they can make it back home or, should the situation call for it, back to the front lines.
It goes without saying that there was a great deal of danger with such a profession; by the Second World War's end, sixteen American nurses were killed by enemy action, caught in the falling shells with the other enlisted men.
On the other hand, there were many who saw the very worst of war, found themselves captured and interned by a most violent enemy as atrocities continued around them... and still continued to do their duty, saving lives.
This is the story of 11 United States navy nurses, 66 army nurses, and one nurse-anesthetist who were captured during the Battle of the Philippines: today, they are known as "The Angels of Bataan".
When the Japanese invaded the Philippines in the end of 1941, they were actually attacking a superior number of Filipino and American defenders (a ratio of about 3:2 in favour of the defenders). However, the Japanese were leading with their very best troops and were hitting poorly trained and poorly equipped Filipino and American forces. Over the course of four months, the Japanese had overrun and occupied the Philippines, and a great number of American forces had retreated to Australia to fight another day.
As the Japanese approached Manila (just before Christmas Day), eighty-eight US army nurses escaped to the cities of Bataan and Corregidor. The navy nurses under command of Lt. Laura Cobb, meanwhile, stayed behind to serve in the Battle of Manila to tend to the mounting numbers of wounded. Of them, eleven were captured with the fall of Manila and interned at Santo Tomas with the other prisoners of war. The army nurses, meanwhile, continued to serve at Bataan and Corregidor.
Bataan fell on April 9th, 1942. The nurses stationed there fled to Corregidor and reunited with their colleagues in the vast tunnel system dug out under the Filipino fortress.
Corregidor fell on May 6th, 1942. The remaining US army nurses were captured and interned - also at Santo Tomas, where the navy nurses were already interned.
Back in the United States, no one knew the fates of the missing nurses. Of the sparse pieces of information, one came out as a memoir written by Lt. Juanita Redmond, a nurse who had actually managed to escape Bataan. From those memoirs, the American film industry made movies portraying the plight of the captured army and navy nurses. For one of the films, the Red Cross also stationed recruitment booths in the cinema lobbies.
The key item Lt. Redmond continued to make clear with her memoirs was that the nurses were still lost, captured in the far Pacific...
At Santo Tomas, the nurses never ceased their work. Captain Maude Davison, a 57 year old army nurse with 20 years of service, took command of the nurses and kept them on regular schedules and to always stay in uniform as befit their duty. A year later, the navy nurses were transferred to a new internment camp at Los Baños.
Still under command of Lt. Cobb, the navy nurses eventually came to be known as "The Sacred Eleven".
For the following years, the nurses at Santo Tomas and Los Baños continued their duty. Even as the war turned against the Japanese and as a result the internment camps' food sources slowly shrivelled, they continued their work even as they watched their body weight dissolve away like the other prisoners. By the end of the war, Captain Davison lost almost half her body weight, going from 156 pounds to 80 over the course of her internment.
Thankfully, the war was coming to an end, at least in the Philippines.
On January 30th, 1945, American Rangers, scouts, and Filipino guerrillas raided a massive Japanese prisoner of war camp near Cabanatuan. The raiders rescued over 500 prisoners, both soldiers and civilians. These prisoners told their story, everything from the camp conditions to their march that brought them there (the Bataan Death March). Hearing the stories hardened Allied resolve, and they were more determined than ever to rescue those left behind.
On February 3rd, the Allies made an aggressive raid on Santo Tomas during the Battle of Manila. The nearly 6000 internees, including the United States Army Nurses, were liberated by the US 1st Cavalry.
Shortly afterward, 130 US paratroopers and 800 Filipino guerrillas raided Los Baños on February 23rd. There, they liberated over 2000 prisoners including the 11 navy nurses.
The Angels of Bataan were coming home.
(Left: Army Nurses awarded the Bronze Star; Right: US poster back home)Back in the United States, the nurses were all awarded Bronze Stars for valour; the US Army also went on to award their nurses a Presidential Unit Citation "for extraordinary heroism in action."
These United States Army and Navy nurses were the first large group of American women in combat, and the largest group of American women to ever be taken captive and imprisoned by an enemy force.
For her part, (later promoted) Major Maude Davison was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2001. She was credited for keeping the nurses going at Santo Tomas, never letting them forget that they were, indeed, nurses. While hard to credit her directly just from that, much can be said for the fact that all 66 army nurses survived the war while under her command.
For the nurses as a whole, the men who survived the Battles of Bataan and Corregidor dedicated a plaque to them in 1980. Placed at the Mount Samat shrine in Bataan, it reads:
TO THE ANGELS-- In honor of the valiant American military women who gave so much of themselves in the early days of World War II. They provided care and comfort to the gallant defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. They lived on a starvation diet, shared the bombing, strafing, sniping, sickness and disease while working endless hours of heartbreaking duty. These nurses always had a smile, a tender touch and a kind word for their patients. They truly earned the name--THE ANGELS OF BATAAN AND CORREGIDOR."