Angels in Hell: The Nurse POWs of Bataan and Corregidor

The surrender of U.S. forces in the Philippines was only the beginning of the ordeal for these brave nurses

Three nurses in military uniforms stand around a sign that states "Nurses Quarters"

For most Americans, the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, was a shocking event to hear about on the radio or in the newspapers.

For American personnel stationed in the Pacific, it marked the beginning of a descent into hell. Within six months, the Philippines had fallen to the Japanese invaders, leaving tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers behind. Among them were “the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor”: the nurses of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Seventy-eight of those nurses would endure three brutal years as Japanese prisoners of war.

From Paradise to Perdition

Until December 1941, nursing was light duty in the lush, tropical setting of the Philippine islands. Most of the American nurses had come to the islands seeking adventure and romance. Few envisioned the horror that was about to descend. Less than 12 hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese warplanes attacked Manila. Imperial Japanese forces pounded the islands for weeks. By Christmas, Japanese troops and artillery had moved into Manila.

Some U.S. Army nurses and a single Navy nurse were relocated to two recently constructed military hospitals in the province of Bataan, on the peninsula across the bay from Manila. Other nurses went to the island of Corregidor, at the entrance of Manila Bay, where the U.S. Army had established its headquarters.

The American forces that remained in Manila surrendered on January 2, 1942.

Battlefield Nursing

At first, the nurses who fled Manila for Bataan thought they were just moving locations and assumed that standard military hospitals awaited them. Instead, they became the first large group of American nurses sent into a combat area during World War II. Over the weeks that followed, the nurses faced as much danger as any American G.I. or Marine, but without the training or weapons. Many nurses didn’t even have any real schooling in battlefield medicine.

The nurses’ usual starched white uniform dresses were swiftly replaced by size-44 mechanics’ overalls and later by homemade khaki skirts and blouses. As one surgeon wrote, “Rivulets of sweat washed away the nurse’s rouge and powder, leaving only lipstick to match the ruby-red blood.”

Jungle Hospitals

Bataan’s General Hospital No. 1 was a series of makeshift sheds with thatched roofs. General Hospital No. 2 was cruder still. Its location was selected for its heavy jungle canopy, which the Army commanders hoped would provide cover from air attack. There were no buildings at all.

Fortunately, there had been time before the latest Japanese advance to raid the mainland for hospital supplies, including a sterilizer.

Patient loads were almost impossibly heavy because the casualties were never-ending. As of Feb. 1, 1942, Hospital No. 2 had 43 Army officers, 21 Filipino military and eight civilian nurses to care for 2,160 patients. Some patients arrived barefoot, suffering nutritional edema. Many had a combination of battlefield injuries and tropical diseases.In a single 24-hour period on January 16, the surgical teams at Hospital No. 1 completed 187 major procedures. Chaplains remained in the OR to care for the dying; there was no point in leaving, since they’d immediately be called back.

Doctors and nurses were always at risk of joining the casualties, because the hospital was within reach of Japanese light artillery. A gruesome but monotonous routine prevailed: clean the patients, dress the wounds, administer the medicine. The nurses worked with snakes, geckos and wild pigs underfoot. Rats ate people’s sandwiches, so the nurses learned to eat on the run. Dogfights between American and Japanese aircraft sometimes took place only a few dozen yards overhead. Blackouts were enforced every night.

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Soon, everyone was sick and everyone was hungry. Rations were so short that caloric allotment was down to about 1,000 a day. Gas gangrene was a frequent challenge, as was dysentery.

Commanding Officers

The nurses’ commanding officers were Capt. Maude Davison, RN, an Army nurse of long standing, and 2nd Lt. Josephine Nesbit, RN, who assumed many of Davison’s responsibilities after Davison sustained a severe back injury during a Japanese air raid. A sharper personality contrast could scarcely be imagined. Davison was authoritarian and brusque; Nesbit, maternal and solicitous, allowing nurses to call her by her first name. Both women contributed in different but equally necessary ways, helping to maintain discipline and morale in the face of deprivation, isolation and nonstop work.

Those pressures would only get worse. Everyone expected relief and re-supply, but none came. Some additional nurses did arrive from Corregidor, but were quickly overwhelmed. “We were terrified,” one newly arrived nurse wrote. “I kept working to keep from thinking.” By April, anyone with eyes could see that the end was near. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had already left the Philippines under orders from the president. No one dreamed of a relief convoy anymore.

Finally, the word came to evacuate the nurses again. At first, the order applied only to American nurses; their Filipino colleagues were ordered to stay behind. However, Nesbit dug in her heels, declaring, “If my Filipino nurses don’t go, I’m not going either.” Her superiors conceded and all of the nurses — civilian and military, Filipino and American — departed for Corregidor, abandoning their defenseless patients.

On April 9, the American forces on Bataan surrendered and the patients became Japanese prisoners. Many of them were subsequently forced to march overland to prison camps in what historians now call the “Bataan Death March.”

The Malinta Tunnel

On Corregidor, the nurses from Bataan joined the ones already working in the Malinta Tunnel. This tunnel complex, which housed the U.S. military headquarters and the Philippine provisional government, was a place of relative safety—but for the nurses stationed there, it soon became a different kind of hell. Although the 831-foot tunnel was deep enough to withstand aerial and artillery bombardment, the concussion of the blasts shook the underground complex’s walls and ceilings, posing a constant threat to the pumps and generators that supplied the damp, dark tunnels with light, air and water. Even in the most peaceful moments, the Malinta Tunnel was a dismal workplace.

By the time the nurses arrived from Bataan, the end was fast approaching. Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, who had assumed command after MacArthur’s retreat a month earlier, knew that his exhausted, undersupplied forces were no match for the Japanese invasion and was already contemplating surrender.In late April, Maude Davison was told to select 20 nurses for evacuation.

Although she later said she picked the names out of a hat, she carefully chose nurses who were older, frailer, previously wounded or less fit. It was an unpopular decision that provoked anger and frustration among those not chosen.

Not all of those who were chosen would actually escape. The Navy flying boat assigned to carry them to safety was forced down and 11 of its 21 nurse passengers were captured. However, 10 of those nurses did make it to Australia, along with 11 more who escaped aboard the submarine USS Spearfish.

Three days later, Wainwright decided to surrender. The nurses who remained on Corregidor were now prisoners of war. So discouraged were the nurses that they signed a scrap of paper with all their names in case no one heard from them again.

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Santo Tomás Internment Camp

The newly captured nurses joined about 3,800 other captives — including previously captured Army and  Navy nurses — in a Japanese internment camp established on the campus of Manila’s Santo Tomás University. Many of the internees were civilians, some of them children.

The Santo Tomás Internment Camp, which stretched 10 blocks long and eight blocks wide, was a porous jail where internees could communicate and sometimes trade with the outside world. Prisoners with money or valuables could even buy small amounts of food and supplies or smuggle messages in or out.

Life in the camp was safer than the jungle and had more diversions. However, it was crowded and supplies were always scarce. Tempers became very short. “We lived in the past, completely in the past,” 2nd Lt. Inez McDonald, RN, later recalled. “We told things that we did as a child. We’d talk and talk and tell the same stuff until finally someone would say, ‘Oh, shut up! You already told that six times.’”

The Japanese almost immediately put the nurses to work at the camp hospital. Some nurses resisted, saying they did not want to care for civilians, but Davison insisted. According to Nesbit, few of the nurses were willing to brave “Miss Davison’s domineering manner and antagonistic attitude whenever approached on the subject.”

Nesbit, too, was interested in maintaining group cohesion, understanding that it was only as a group that they could survive. In later years, she wrote, “Whatever else could happen, first and foremost, we would conduct ourselves as members of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. … Our first and primary duty was to carry on in our most professional capacity — that of nurses.”

From Bad to Starvation

To relieve overcrowding, the Japanese later established a second internment camp on the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture campus at Los Baños. Eight hundred men were transferred there, along with the 11 captive Navy nurses, who still smarted from being under Army supervision.

By 1944, the war was going badly for the Japanese and food was becoming scarcer and scarcer. Some of the captive nurses lost as much as 40 pounds. Nutritional diseases were rampant. Distracting activities likes sports or theater became impossible because no one had the strength to participate.

Still, the hard work of nursing continued. The few extra calories allotted the nurses each day were not enough. Four-hour shifts were the most anyone could do, and it took all a nurse’s energy to administer a treatment or change a dressing. They had to rest between patients, and in truth there was little difference between them and their charges.

By early 1945, every day became a death watch, with four or five more patients succumbing to malnutrition. However, the end was near.

A Heroes’ Welcome

During the evening of February 3 and the early morning of Feb. 4, 1945, Santo Tomás was liberated by Allied forces. American paratroopers evacuated the prisoners of Los Baños on February 23. Carl Mydans described the scene in Life magazine: “As the flag went up for the first time over the Main Building entrance, there was more weeping by both the internees and some of the hard-bitten soldiers than at any other time since the moment of liberation.”

Although more than one in 10 internees had died during their ordeal, all 78 nurse POWs survived and received a heroes’ welcome. Most were decorated and promoted.

Their plight had been the subject of several propaganda campaigns and popular movies, including the 1943 Paramount film So Proudly We Hail, based on the memoir of Juanita Redmond, RN, one of the nurses who had escaped to Australia in 1942. However, few Americans really knew exactly what had happened in the detention camps.

Telling Their Stories

After their release, some of the nurses remained in touch while others simply wanted to forget. By the time Elizabeth Norman, RN, BSN, Ph.D.,  a professor at NYU’s Division of Nursing, began the research for her 1999 book We Band of Angels, some of the survivors had already died. However, Norman was able to use interviews, diaries and letters from 20 of the survivors to craft a detailed, intimate account of their ordeal.

In May 2000, some survivors of the Bataan Death March erected a stone marker on Corregidor to honor the nurses. The marker’s inscription reads:

“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.”

ELIZABETH HANINK, RN, BSN, PHN is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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