In the midst of a triumphal Japan marching across the Pacific in the early days of 1942, they stood tall, proud, and cared for over 27,000 American military prisoners of war in undersupplied internment camps. These heroes were 77 American nurses and one nurse-anesthetist from the United States Army Nurse Corps, and the United States Navy Nurse Corps deployed to the Philippines – otherwise known as the “Angels of Bataan.”
Why were they the Angels of Bataan? Besides being prisoners of war themselves, they fought through years of starvation and maltreatment while nursing thousands of soldiers after the Fall of Manila and the Fall of Bataan from 1941 to 1945.
Military nurses don’t get enough credit for their work during the war, so let’s give their story some measure of the attention it deserves.
Nurses During The Fall of the Philippines
Japan had started the Philippine conquest from Formosa, landing in Batan Island on December 8, 1941. This would be the start of one of the worst military defeats of the US as the US Armed Forces in the Philippines at that time outnumbered the Japanese Forces by 3:2. Estimates as high as 23,000 American and 100,000 Filipino soldiers were killed or captured despite the numbers advantage.
When the Japanese Forces were advancing fast to Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, US Army, and US Navy nurses at the Sternberg General Hospital in Manila and other hospitals in the vicinity escaped to Corregidor and Bataan. About 88 nurses successfully made the journey. The leaders of the army nurses, namely Capt. Maude Davison and 2nd Lt. Josephine Nesbit, escaped to Corregidor as well to serve during the Battle of Bataan.
The US Navy nurses largely stayed behind because they did not want to leave their patients. Thus, they were captured by the Japanese forces shortly after they had arrived. These Navy nurses were headed by Lt. Laura M. Cobb, who was part of the “Twelve Anchors,” a section of nurses that stayed behind in the Philippines until 1945.
The nurses captured in Manila were placed at the University of Santo Tomas, which was converted into an internment camp for the prisoners of war. Davison and her legion of nurses continued their nursing duties, establishing the Santa Catalina Hospital within the camp. Here, they treated patients suffering from injuries and diseases due to Japanese abuse, maltreatment, and bombings.
Bataan quickly fell after the fall of Manila, where they had established 18 open-air wards containing 400 patients each. 66 nurses remained with the troops refusing to leave their posts and were captured on May 6 when Corregidor had fallen.
In May of 1943, Lt. Cobb and some navy nurses were transferred to a new internment camp located in the southern portion of Luzon outside Manila, the Los Banos Internment camp where they would be known as “The Sacred Eleven.”
These military nurses, who were also maltreated by the Japanese, served with all their hearts. Note that they treated patients with little to no supplies and equipment, without medicine or clean water. They had been starving for the majority of their time in these internment camps, and as a result, they were also suffering from malnutrition.
Mildred Dalton Manning, the last surviving member of the Angels, recalled being scared, tired, and weak because they were not eating. Sources say that the prisoners ate about 700 calories per day, which saw them lose about 30% of their body weight. But despite all these, they kept working until February 3, 1945, when a US tank had broken through the gates of the Santo Tomas Internment Camp through the leadership of Major General Vernon D. Mudge.
Despite the odds, all 77 American military nurses and one nurse anesthetist survived the war. They were awarded the Bronze Star for Valor and the Presidential Unit Citation for their extraordinary service during dire circumstances.
The history of WWII tends to be told in terms of the bravery of its fighting men, but women in uniform also made significant and in the case of these nurses, heroic contributions to the war effort in horrific circumstances. The Angels of Bataan should forever be remembered as one of the bravest and most significant military units of World War II.
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