Introducing the Angels of Bataan: Heroic WWII Nurses, Our First Women in Combat

Today American women serve alongside men in the military and are trained to face combat. In 1941, that was not the case, but seventy-nine military nurses did face combat and near death. Left behind when MacArthur was forced to retreat from the Philippines, the Army and Navy nurses were taken prisoner by the Japanese, and subjected to hunger, disease and repeated bombings. Miraculously they survived and were saved when the American liberators arrived. What’s more, they had held to their code of honor and saved the lives of thousands of soldiers. Pure Grit (Abrams, February) by Mary Cronk Farrell tells their nearly forgotten story.

In 1940, Army Nurse Ethel Thor arrived for duty in heels, stockings and gloves. She barely returned home. Many nurses joined because they were looking for meaningful experience and adventure. When Frankie Lewey of Dalhardt, Texas signed up, she told her mother, "If ever there is a war, I hope I get right in the thick of it”.

Some were about to leave the corps before plans changed. Peggy Nash, who had supervised surgery at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Guam was preparing to leave to get married, but in October 1941 she was transferred to Manila and became one of eleven naval hospital nurses incarcerated in Santo Tomas Internment Camp.  Maude Denny Williams was a ten-year veteran nurse who had resigned to marry in Manila. When the war started, Chief Army Nurse to the Philippines Maude Davidson asked her to return to service. Denny later had to leave her soldier husband behind as a patient in Hospital #2 in Bataan when nurses were evacuated to Corrigador. Her husband did not survive to come home. Millie Dalton, an Army nurse from Georgia said, "There was no way in the world we were prepared for war”.

Frances Nash, who learned life and death nursing at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, may have been the best prepared of all for combat duty. She’d joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1935. In 1941 when she and others were ordered to stay in Manila until troops had evacuated to Bataan. She was told to “prepare to be taken prisoner”. She continued working, destroying paperwork to keep it from enemy hands; and when she did get orders to flee, she took enough morphine pills to provide nurses with lethal doses if needed.

Maude Davidson was assigned to organize a large camp hospital with fifty-six Army nurses and eleven Navy nurses in Santa Catalina convent. Her second-in-command, Chief Nurse Josephine (Josie) Nesbit, supervised Hospital #2 in Bataan. When orders were given for her to have all American nurses evacuate Manila for Corrigador, Nesbit insisted on taking the Filipino nurses who’d worked beside them. Many nurses who served were ill and could barely function. Sally Blaine, an Army nurse assigned to Hospital #2 was one of many who contracted malaria. She managed her hospital ward lying down from her cot.

When the nurses returned home, two received the Purple Heart for their injuries. Many were interviewed by reporters and welcomed by family, but there wasn’t the type of counseling or antidepressants needed to help recover, so most suffered emotionally in silence the rest of their lives. But, to those who knew, they were heroines who lead by examples of great courage and conviction.

Mary Cronk Farrell is the author of two books for young people, Fire in the Hole! and Daughters of the Desert: Stories of Remarkable Women from Christian, Jewish and Muslim Traditions, and a parenting book, Celebrating Faith: Year-Round Activities for Catholic Families. She’s a former newspaper and magazine writer and an award-winning television journalist.

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February 2014

Pure Grit• Mary Cronk Farrell• Ages 10-up Abrams• ISBN: 9781419710285• $24.95 Hardcover

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