When the Japanese invaded the Philippine Islands in December of 1941, over 100 U.S. Navy and U.S. Army nurses were stationed at military bases in the islands. The tragic and heroic story of these women is almost lost to history. None among the “Greatest Generation” would ever forget them, but those legendary people are almost gone now.
Early in the war, most of the army nurses were concentrated at Sternberg Army Hospital in Manila. After the destruction of the Cavite Navy Yard by Japanese bombing, the Navy doctors and nurses from the hospital at Cañacao also went to Sternberg.
Nearby buildings were confiscated and converted to medical facilities. Events soon overtook these preparations. Most of General Douglas MacArthur’s Filipino-American Army were half-trained local recruits. Of the about 12,000 American troops, none was an organized division. He had two battalions of light tanks, but also a division of horse cavalry. Control of the air had been lost to the Japanese in the first few days. Realizing that his forces could not hold the Japanese short of Manila, the general ordered delaying actions while his troops retreated into the Bataan Peninsula to create a stronghold there. On December 26th, he declared Manila an open city.
Over 80 Army nurses and one Navy nurse, Ann A. Bernatitus, operating room nurse for a Navy surgeon, were bussed to Bataan. The other eleven Navy nurses remained in Manila and were captured.
The nurses went to Bataan dressed in their starched white cotton uniforms, woefully inadequate to work in a jungle combat hospital. Upon arrival at Lamay, where Hospital Number 1 was to be located, they were issued Army Air Force mechanics coveralls--all size 46--and “boondocker” boots. Fortunately Chinese tailors lived in Lamay and retailored the coveralls. For headwear, the nurses wore M1917 “soup plate” steel helmets.
At least open-walled sheds were available for wards at Hospital No. 1. Warehouses held old iron beds stored since the First World War. The nurses had to assemble the beds and organize the wards. Casualties in the hundreds poured in from the front. OR nurses worked hours on end assisting their surgeons. Ward nurses cared for dozens of patients apiece, then hundreds. By April, ward nurses were responsible for over 400 patients each. With Japan controlling the air, patients had to be transferred from the front at night. Surgeons toiled all night long under portable operating lights, sometimes continuing on into the day. The nurses changed dressings and tended to other patient needs by flashlight or kerosene lanterns. Because of shortages, dressings had to be reused. Dirty dressings were boiled over fires and then refolded. They performed all these tasks while slowly starving to death.
Because of limited food supplies, Bataan went on half-rations in the first week of the siege. Rations were later reduced another fifty percent. As their weight slowly faded, so did their energy. Yet the nurses plugged doggedly on. They were medical professionals, and the welfare of the men under their care was their primary concern.
As Allied forces retreated, Hospital No. 1 had to be packed up and relocated to Little Baguio closer to the tip of the peninsula, a miracle of logistics. All of the hundreds of patients survived. The Americans took everything not nailed down with them, even the electric wires from the buildings.
Hospital No. 2 was the first open-air hospital operated by the U.S. Army since the Civil War. In fact, one nurse likened it to the Atlanta train station scene in Gone With The Wind. Located near a small river, the space was simply hacked out of the jungle. The nurses set up beds brought from Corregidor out on the ground. Eventually, there were 18 wards of 200 beds each. When beds ran out, Filipino carpenters built bamboo bunks four tiers high. The ward nurses had to continually climb up and down ladders. At first, there were no mosquito nets, and malaria and dengue fever soon ravaged the patients and hospital staff. Dysentery, scurvy, and beriberi became common as food supplies dwindled. When hypodermic equipment ran short, the nurses reused syringes and re-sharpened needles on stones. The women had to bathe in the river. At least those at Hospital No. 1, located in an old Army motor pool complex, could take showers. During the siege, over 10,000 patients were treated at the two hospitals.
As the Allied forces continued to retreat, the specter of sexual assault hung over the women. They all knew of the Rape of Nanking in 1937 and about the raped and murdered nurses in Hong Kong. But the nurses really had little time to speculate. In her memoirs, one survivor said that they couldn’t worry about themselves. The care of their patients remained their primary concern. Their grateful wards soon dubbed the women “The Angels of Bataan.”
The nurses may have pushed rape to the backs of their minds, but Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright, the commander on Corregidor did not. As military collapse on Bataan became inevitable, he ordered all the American and Filipina nurses evacuated to Corregidor. After a harrowing road trip past exploding ammunition dumps and boat trips under fire, the women reached the relative safety of Corregidor. They continued to practice their profession there in crowded hospital tunnels dug into the rock. Continual artillery bombardment made their situation worse than Bataan.
A few of the nurses escaped. Two PBY Catalina flying boats evacuated twenty at night. One of the planes made it to Australia, but the other was damaged on Mindanao and its ten nurses captured. On the night before Corregidor surrendered, eleven Army nurses and Navy nurse Ann Bernatitus escaped on the submarine, Spearfish.
Fifty-six nurses went into captivity on Corregidor. Their commander, Captain Maude Davidson, maintained tight discipline and kept the women tending to their patients. The Japanese appeared stunned to encounter women prisoners who were military officers. Fortunately for the nurses, the new Japanese commander of the Corregidor hospital was a graduate of the University of California in Los Angeles. He ordered that the women be left alone to attend to their duties. Only one abortive rape attempt occurred.
After being imprisoned for a few months, the Corregidor nurses joined the nurses from Sternberg at the Santo Tomas University internment camp. Captain Davidson worked with civilian medical professionals to organized an infirmary and set up a nursing rotation to keep her charges focused on their profession. She insisted that they wear their khaki skirts while on duty. Lieutenant Laura Cobb followed suit with her Navy nurses. They carried on as the Japanese systematically starved the internees for the last year of captivity. A testament to their effectiveness is the fact that, except for complications from surgery, not a single military or civilian woman died at Santo Thomas. At the camp, the military nurses were known as “The Angels of Mercy.”
During the re-conquest of the Philippines in 1945, General MacArthur took great pains to assure that the military nurses were freed at the earliest possible moment, sending a flying column of tanks to liberate Santo Tomas.
The women came home to a grateful nation and military decorations. All were awarded the Bronze Star for heroism. Those injured received the Purple Heart. But like the rest of the “citizen soldiers” of the “Greatest Generation,” they went on with their lives and soon faded from the collective consciousness of the nation.
Before World War II, women were considered “the weaker sex” in Western society. The “Angels of Bataan and Corregidor” conclusively disproved that stereotype.
Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction. He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about. A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II. His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam. His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, was released on September 15, 2015. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: wbellauthor.com or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.