On the eve of Pearl Harbor, twelve Navy nurses were serving at the Cañacao Naval Hospital, in the Philippines. When the Japanese first bombed the airfields around Manila and afterward destroyed the Cavite Navy Yard on December 10, 1941, these women not only had ringside seats, but got a firsthand taste of the horror of modern war. As the Japanese onslaught continued unabated, eleven of the nurses (one escaped) became prisoners of war shortly after the American and Filipino resistance ended in Manila.
Chief nurse Laura Cobb and her ten subordinates spent the next three years in captivity. First at Santa Tomas, a college campus in Manila, and later at Los Baños, at the site of the University of the Philippines agricultural college. The camp at Los Baños, was located about 35 miles south of Manila, near the shore of Laguna de Bay, a large lake. The nurses and all the internees including a three day old baby (for a total of 2,147) were liberated in a dramatic rescue on February 23, 1945.
Dr. Tom McLaughlin, a former Navy physician and cardio-thoracic surgeon, first became aware of the Navy nurse POWs while he was researching his father's wartime service. He was not only taken with the haunting images of these women preserved in photographs, but also with their heroic story. Each survived her captivity because, as Navy nurses, each had a purpose--caring for their patients. Regardless of the circumstances, they ran their prison hospital as a U.S. Navy hospital, even though they were forced to practice their healing art under armed guard and behind barbed wire. Their dedication to duty enabled every one of them to come home with dignity.
The following is a roster of the 11 Navy nurses
Chief nurse, Laura Mae Cobb, Wichita, Kansas
Mary F. Chapman, Chicago, Illinois
Bertha R. Evans, Portland, Oregon
Helen C. Gorzelanski, Omaha, Nebraska
Mary Rose Harrington, Elk Point, South Dakota
Margaret "Peg" A. Nash, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Goldia "Goldie" A. O'Haver, Hayfield, Minnesota
Eldene E. Paige, Lomita, California
Susie J. Pitcher, Des Moines, Iowa
Dorothy Still, Long Beach, California
Edwina Todd, Pomona, California
Note: Two civilian nurses were imprisoned along with the Navy nurses.
Helen G. Grant, a Scottish nurse
Basilia Torres Steward, wife of an American
From a photo taken by Japanese guard. Santo Tomas & Los Baños were civilian internment camps, except for a few hiding service men.
Nurse Peggy Nash
A Japanese guard was obsessed with her & took this photo without her knowledge. The photo was later published, and that was when her family learned she was alive.
"Found worms in my oatmeal this morning. I shouldn't have objected because they had been sterilized in the cooking and I was getting fresh meat with my breakfast.... I'm still losing weight and so are most of us..."
Ruth Marie Straub, an Army nurse, wrote those words in her diary on March 15, 1942, just over three months after the Japanese first bombed the U.S. military base in Manila. She and her colleagues had evacuated the city and established, in the Philippine jungle, hospitals for the skyrocketing numbers of casualties. In the face of the advancing Japanese Army, the nurses and other military personnel continued to retreat, first to the Bataan Peninsula, and then to Corregidor, a rocky island in Manila Bay. Straub was one of the lucky ones; she was evacuated with a handful of other nurses in April 1942. Her remaining colleagues, meanwhile, surrendered with the rest of the U.S. forces in May and were taken to STIC--Santo Tomas Internment Camp, where they were to spend nearly three years in captivity.
We Band of Angels tells the stories of these courageous women, tagged by the American media as "The Angels of Bataan and Corregidor." Utilizing a wide range of sources, including diaries, letters, and personal interviews with surviving "Angels," Elizabeth M. Norman has compiled a harrowing narrative about the experiences of these women--from the country-club atmosphere of prewar Manila; to the jungle hospitals where patients slept on bamboo cots in the open air; to the Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor, where they choked on dust and worked while the bombs rained down above them; to the STIC, where per-person rations were cut to 900 calories a day and the women resorted to frying weeds in cold cream for food. The story Nelson tells is compelling but slightly flawed: like many biographers, Nelson has a deep affection and respect for her subjects, which causes her to soften rough edges. At the same time, however, Nelson argues that these women were not heroes--nor were they angels (in the acknowledgments, Nelson notes that she didn't want the word angels in the title, but the publishers had their way). Perhaps because Nelson is a nurse herself, she is trying to stress that her profession is noble and that these women were, in a sense, just fulfilling their duties.
Nursing is noble, of course, but it is clear that these women were something special. Amazingly, all of the Angels of Bataan, some 99 in number, survived their ordeal--and clearly helped hundreds of the other sufferers survive. We Band of Angels deserves a space on the bookshelves of anyone interested in World War II. --C.B. Delaney