Angels of Bataan: Army Nurses in Santo Tomas Prison Camp, 1943

Angels of Bataan: The Military Women who Survived Three Years in a World War II Prison Camp

The Angels of Bataan were a remarkable group of women—something they had no intention of being when each of them quietly set out to serve as nurses in the US military.

A TROPICAL DREAM TURNED NIGHTMARE

Being stationed in the Philippines was a tropical dream in the early 1940’s. American military personnel found themselves with easy work days that left plenty of time to play in paradise. But in December of 1941—just 10 hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor—the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the Philippine Islands. The women who would come to be known as the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor suddenly found themselves in the middle of a war zone.

BATTLEFIELD NURSING IN THE JUNGLE

The nurses, doctors and other medical staff evacuated their patients from Manila to the Bataan peninsula. There, they set up two open-air field hospitals—the first of their kind for the US since the Civil War. While hard to imagine today, these women were not trained in combat or even battlefield medicine, as they were not expected to need it. Yet here they were, tending to thousands of injured and dying soldiers in the middle of dense jungle, all while hiding from the enemy and doing their best to keep the billowing dirt, jungle animals, and disease-carrying mosquitos at bay. Medical staff were stretched thin and often battling malaria while taking care of hundreds of patients alone with minimal supplies. During all of this, the battle continued in the jungles around them and the skies above.

RETREAT TO CORREGIDOR

This went on for months until early April of 1942 when Hospital #1 was bombed by the Japanese. The next day, all nurses still in the field were ordered to retreat south to Corregidor, a tiny island with a large, fortified underground compound. They lived alongside 10,000 other allied personnel in the tunnels, caring for the sick and wounded while the rock above them was bombed relentlessly. By early May, when breach of the tunnel entrance became eminent, American forces on Corregidor surrendered.

CAPTURE AND IMPRISONMENT

In the end, 72,000 Allied troops and 77 American military women were captured and those who survived were taken prisoner.

All 77 nurses eventually ended up at Santo Tomas, a University in Manila converted to a prison camp that held mostly foreign civilians. Santo Tomas swelled to more than 3,000 prisoners who were subjected to strict guidelines, cramped quarters and generally terrible conditions. Food and medicine became more and more scarce as the months stretched agonizingly into years. Like the others, the nurses suffered from malaria, dysentery and the diseases that inevitably come with severe and prolonged malnutrition. But they had something the other prisoners did not: a mission. First and foremost, they were nurses. They were officers in the Army and Navy. And there was still work to be done.

ORDER AND GOOD DISCIPLINE

As the ranking officer and Chief Nurse in the Philippines, Captain Maude C. Davison took command of the nurses in Santo Tomas. At 57, she was a seasoned Army nurse determined to keep order and good discipline in an effort to ensure their survival. She maintained a regular duty schedule for her nurses, insisting they wear their khaki blouses and skirts while on duty.

Second Lieutenant Josie Nesbit was second in command, and referred to the nurses as “my girls”. Nesbit was equally driven to maintain their identity and survival as a group. She seemed to understand well that it was work that would save them, and the sense of being part of something much larger than themselves. 

The nurses imprisoned at Santo Tomas (and Los Baños, where the Navy nurses were later moved) were riddled with the same jungle diseases and malnutrition as their patients, and yet continued to care for them anyway. Many nurses were so sick, they could only manage a few hours of work each day.

LIBERATION: NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON

In February of 1945 after nearly three grueling years of prisoner hardship and starvation, American troops stormed the gates. Santo Tomas was liberated, and Los Baños would follow soon. And it was not a moment too soon. People were so starving and desperate for nutrition that protein-rich blood plasma started to go missing. In their last few months of captivity, the nurses and other prisoners of war were down to 700 calories a day or less per person.

Army Nurses being rescued from Santo Tomas, Philippines - 1945.
Liberation and rescue from Santo Tomas, 1945. US Army, Public Domain.

By the end, the death rate in Santo Tomas was seven times that of normal civilian life. Incredibly, all 77 nurses survived their time as prisoners of war despite the harrowing death of hundreds of other internees in their camps.

A General speaking to rescued Navy Nurses at Los Banos, Philippines - 1945.
General Kincade speaking with Navy nurses rescued from Los Banos Prison Camp, 1945. US Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Public Domain.
MEDALS AND AWARDS

After their rescue, each woman was promoted and given Pacific theater battle ribbons and the Bronze Star for Valor. Two nurses were awarded the Purple Heart. And Captain Ann Bernatitus became the only Navy Nurse in World War II to be awarded the newly created Legion of Merit.

Army Nurses receiving awards after release from Santo Tomas Prison Camp. Leyte Island, Philippines - 1945.
Army nurses receiving Bronze Stars and promotions before returning to the US. US Army, Public Domain.

The Angels of Bataan were heavily promoted by the US government after returning to the US. It was an intense effort on the government’s part to motivate more nurses to join the war. By the end of the World War II, 59,283 nurses had volunteered to serve for the Army alone. More than half volunteered and served in combat zones, and 16 were killed by enemy action.  

RIGHT BACK TO THE BATTLEFIELD

One nurse not only survived her ordeal as a prisoner of war, she stayed in the Army and made a career of it—something rare for women at the time. Ruby Bradley was promoted to Colonel and returned to the battlefield. She served in combat in Korea and later retired as the most decorated woman in military history.

Captain Eunice Hatchitt also continued her service during World War II, redeploying to the European theater. The surgeons she worked with were completely stunned. By all accounts, Bataan had made her one of the most experienced battlefield nurses in the Army. 

Major Maude Davison, credited by many for keeping the nurses alive, was 60 years old at the time of liberation. She returned to the US in especially poor health after three years as a prisoner of war. She was medically discharged in 1946 and died 10 years later. In 2001, she was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

UNINTENTIONAL FIRSTS

By being stationed in the Philippines in 1941, the Angels of Bataan unintentionally notched a few firsts. In doing so, they became something much more than they set out to be: a remarkable example of courage, strength and perseverance during war.

Angels of Bataan in a truck after liberation. Santo Tomas, Philippines - 1945.
Liberated prisoners of war, headed home. Santo Tomas, 1945. US Army, Public Domain.

The Angels of Bataan and Corregidor were:

  • The first American military women to wear fatigues on duty
  • First American military nurses sent onto the battlefield for duty
  • The first large group of American women in combat
  • First group of American military women taken captive and imprisoned by an enemy.

It was this courage, strength and perseverance that helped show the US government and the country as a whole what women were capable of during war. Ultimately, it was an incredible story of survival through purpose—one that gradually opened doors for many generations of military women to come.

Lady Vet sub-logo LV in a red circle.
REFERENCES
  1. Norman, Elizabeth M. (2013). We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan. Random House. New York, NY.

‘2. ‘Angels of Bataan’ – Wikipedia (2020).

CREDITS

Lead photo credit: Army Nurses in Santo Tomas Internment Camp, 1943. Left to right: Bertha Dworsky; Sallie P. Durrett; Earlene Black; Jean Kennedy; Louise Anchieks; Millie Dalton. US Army, Public Domain.

All public domain photos sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Angels of Bataan: The Military Women who Survived Three Years in a World War II Prison Camp”

  1. Their strength as a unit was amazing. The humility described in the book is so inspirational. I was so moved by their story.

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