Profiles In Nursing

Mildred Dalton Manning (1914-2013), WWII POW and the “Last Angel”

She joined the Army to see the world

Mildred Dalton wearing a military uniform and hat, sits smiling towards the camera

Seventy-six years ago, American military nurses in the Philippines became prisoners of war. The last known survivor of these “Angels of Bataan and Corregidor” was former U.S. Army Nurse Corps Lt. Mildred Dalton Manning.

Join the Army, See the World

When 2nd Lt. Milly Dalton, RN, arrived at Clark Field in Manila in October 1941, it was a dream come true for a poor girl from rural Georgia. Born in a farmhouse, she’d grown up wearing homemade clothes and had to stay with her grandparents so she could attend high school.

During the Great Depression, she trained at the Grady Hospital School for Nurses in Atlanta and became the hospital’s head surgical nurse. In 1939, she gave up her post to join the Army Nurse Corps.

For Dalton, like other military recruits since time immemorial, travel was the primary attraction of military service. Short of winning the Irish Sweepstakes or marrying a millionaire, it was her only chance of seeing the world, which was also why she requested a transfer to Manila. “I asked for the Philippines because from there you could travel all over the Orient,” she later explained.

Care in the Jungle

Although most of Clark Field had heard about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor by breakfast time on December 8, the base was sorely ill-prepared when it too fell under attack that afternoon. Dalton survived unscathed, but things soon went from bad to worse.

On Christmas Day, she and 19 other nurses traveled by ferry to the newly established Bataan General Hospital No. 2, near Cabcaban on the Bataan Peninsula. Despite its name, General Hospital No. 2 was nothing more than tables and cots spread across 3 acres of open jungle. It was primarily a convalescent facility, allowing Bataan’s marginally less crude General Hospital No. 1 to focus on the most critical combat casualties.

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Even Dalton’s experience as a surgical nurse did not prepare her for this gruesome work. The only good thing about Hospital No. 2’s primitive conditions was that the lack of buildings made it a tougher target. Although Hospital No. 1 was bombed twice, Hospital No. 2 escaped with only near misses.

Prisoner of War

On April 9, during a lull in the bombing and strafing, Dalton and the other nurses on Bataan were ordered to board the last boat to Corregidor, only a day before the personnel and patients of Hospital No. 2 surrendered to the Japanese.

After another month in Corregidor’s dim, claustrophobic tunnels — an experience that left Dalton with a lasting dread of the dark — Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright surrendered the U.S. forces in the Philippines, fearing a slaughter.

The Japanese agreed “that the nurses would not be harmed,” but many were wary. “We didn’t know what to expect,” Dalton recalled. “I think they [the Japanese] didn’t know what to do with us, as they had no women in their army.”

For the next three years, her home and workplace would be a crowded prison camp on the University of Santo Tomás campus. Even in the beginning, when conditions were better than they later became, prisoners slept on the ground, sanitary facilities were sorely lacking and there was a steady stream of humiliations. “We would be awakened at 2 in the morning for head count or searched for contraband,” Dalton said.

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Work and discipline became the nurses’ only respite. “We were scared and tired, but we kept working,” she said. Wearing their uniforms and treating the other prisoners provided the nurses a sense of purpose and dignity that was otherwise almost as scarce as food.

“The Year We Starved to Death”

The hardest year of Dalton’s captivity was the last. “When the Japanese began to lose the war, they wouldn’t let anybody go outside, and they wouldn’t let anybody bring anything inside,” she later wrote. “So, that was the year we starved to death.” By the time Allied troops liberated the camp in February 1945, prisoners’ rations were down to “only one cup of rice twice a day.” Dalton said by then, the Japanese guards were almost as hungry as the prisoners were.

After the nurses were freed, Dalton was promoted to first lieutenant and awarded the Bronze Star. She returned to the U.S. that May and served out the final months of her enlistment encouraging civilians to buy war bonds.

In July 1945, she married Arthur Brewster Manning and started a family. She tried twice to return to her civilian nursing career, but found she could not bear it for long. “It just kept bringing back all those young men,” she said. “No legs, no arms, no eyes. I just didn’t want to be around that situation.” It wasn’t until the ‘80s that she was willing to discuss her wartime experiences, although she suffered from PTSD and the lingering effects of beriberi. Still, for the rest of her life, she maintained that she’d been lucky. “I came out so much better than many of my friends,” she said.

According to author Elizabeth Norman, RN, Ph.D., BSN, Dalton Manning outlived all of her comrades from Bataan and Corregidor. Her courage and resilience continue to inspire nurses and military women like Lt. Gen. Nadja West, M.D., the U.S. Army’s current surgeon general.

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