Josephine Nesbit and the WWII Angels of Bataan

Profiles in Nursing

Josephine Nesbit and the WWII Angels of Bataan

Fighting for their patients in the Filipino jungle

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Josephine Nesbit did not influence nursing in any conventional sense. She developed no theory; she formed no new branch of practice. Instead, this rather ordinary nurse, when faced with extraordinary circumstances, pursued her profession as best she could, always remembering that the patient comes first, but never forgetting to care for the caregiver.

Her early life was tough; by the age of 12 she was an orphan. Looking for adventure and independence, she left high school and by 1914 had become a registered nurse. When World War II began, she was on her second tour of duty in the Philippines with the Army Nurse Corps.

Up until then, any assignment in the Pacific was a desirable posting, with wonderful weather, easy nursing and luxurious accommodations. The social calendar was full and free time was plentiful.

In December 1941, the Japanese assault on Manila changed everything. Before long the American army was in retreat, huddled for a last showdown on the Bataan Peninsula. Nesbit and several of the one hundred nurses that she led offered to stay with those too sick to move, but orders came to set up a hospital deep in the jungle, and she obeyed them.

The frontline facility served 6,000 patients, all without a building. Instead, the 18 wards were nestled under the trees. Patients lay on improvised cots or even on the jungle floor. Rats, geckos and snakes were their companions, and so was hunger. As the enemy drew closer and closer — and artillery fire became constant —rations dropped to 1,000 calories a day. The mosquitoes were ferocious, and eventually the nurses cared for their patients while in the throes of malarial fever themselves.

It was hard to maintain morale and solidarity, but through her gentleness and solicitude, Nesbit did just that. She insisted that the women respond always as nurses, as army officers and as a united group. She knew that without that discipline she would lose “her girls” one by one, if not to hunger, then despair.

In April of 1942, with the enemy less than two miles away and surrender inevitable, Nesbit received orders to evacuate. However, the order applied only to the American nurses. What about the 26 Filipino nurses who had worked with them, sharing all the same hardships? They were to remain, her superiors said. Not so, said Nesbit. Either all the nurses leave or no nurses leave. She was willing, despite misgivings, to leave the jungle and follow orders, but she would not leave any nurses behind.

They went together, then, not to safety but to the hell of the Malinta Tunnel hospital on the island of Corregidor. It was an underground bunker where the fetid air and concussive bombing took their toll.

In May, Nesbit had a chance to escape on the last submarine to defy the Japanese blockade. Instead, she and her “band of angels,” as they called themselves, remained; they became prisoners of war, along with the remaining foreign nationals of Manila, and from August 1942 until the beginning of 1945 she and her former superior, Maude Davison, ran the Santo Tomas Internment Camp Hospital.

Although the nurses suffered hunger and harassment with everyone else, in theory they were now civilians. Nesbit maintained order by insisting that each nurse work four hours daily, often substituting herself if someone was too weak. She continued to nurture them all, managing to secure shreds of cloth for underwear and tiny bits of meat as extra protein.

When liberation came some of the nurses were too sick to stand, but they were all alive. Not one had died in the four years of frontline service and captivity. And they never forgot Nesbit’s kindness and leadership.

Her efforts did not cease during peacetime. When the Veterans Administration slighted nurses who had been POWs, she reminded them of the sacrifices these women had made — always advocating for “her girls.” And every year she sent cards and greetings to her one-time colleagues.

She lived to be just short of 100, and her ashes are scattered over San Francisco Bay.  

Elizabeth Hanink RN, BSN, PHN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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