My daughter sent me an article yesterday about the “Angels of Bataan” from A Mighty Girl. This is a story that is not as well-known as it should be. It’s a story about true heroism in the face of the most brutal of conditions that was carried out by 77 American military nurses who had never had any formal survival training.
Their story is finally being told in a book by Elizabeth M. Norman. The book is titled: “We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan.”
Here is a brief distillation of what these women endured and accomplished over the three years that they were held as POWs in one of the most brutal and notoriously harsh of the Japanese prison camps. The camp was on the grounds of the campus of the Santo Tomas University in Manila.
The U.S. Army nurses who had been stationed in Manila had only just heard about the Pearl Harbor attack. Their commanding officer, Capt. Maude C. Davison, told them to get a good night’s rest on the evening of Dec. 7. She suspected that they would need it—and they did.
It was the very next day, Dec. 8, 1941, that the Japanese started bombing Manila.
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Those nurses started seeing their first combat related injuries flowing into their wards that day. They were soon evacuated out of Manila to Corregidor and the Bataan Peninsula of that island.
The nurses set about putting up two field hospitals with open-air wards. Such primitive field hospital conditions had not been seen since the American Civil War. They were immediately overwhelmed with patients suffering from dysentery and malaria, yet they continued their care, staying at their posts treating them as best they could with limited supplies.
Capt. Davison was aware that things were going to get worse and soon. She, along with the medical doctor, made the decision to evacuate 20 of her nurses who were already ill, or injured, or for one reason or another, would not be able to endure the demands of captivity.
When the Allies surrendered, Davison and her nurses were taken to Santo Tomas prison camp. They were joined there by 11 Navy nurses who had remained in Manila to care for patients who could not be moved when the Japanese took Manila. They were under the command of Lt. Laura M. Cobb.
Under Capt. Davison’s leadership they maintained military discipline, setting 4-hour shifts and caring for thousands of their fellow prisoners at the Santo Tomas prison camp throughout the three years of their imprisonment. The Japanese eventually cut their daily rations to a mere 700 calories a day.
Though they maintained their care for their patients, the prisoners were dying from malnutrition every day. By January 1945, they were down to one cup of rice per day.
They were resorting to eating weeds, roots, flowers and slugs.
The Santo Tomas Prison Camp was liberated on February 3, 1945. Astonishingly, every one of the 77 Army and Navy nurses had survived.
When they were liberated the nurses had lost an average of 30 percent of their body weight. Davison herself had gone from 135 lbs. to 80, but each one of the nurses walked out of the camp.
The nurses were awarded Bronze Stars for valor, but they got lost in the shuffle and in the tenor of the times on their return home.
According to A Mighty Girl, Capt. Davison was recommended for a Distinguished Service Medal, but the War Decorations Board refused it saying, “Davison’s heroism had not been an independent action, but was at the direction of a male officer.”
Her health had been so affected by the prison experience that she had to take a medical retirement in 1946.
These heroic and selfless nurses were denied many of the benefits that the returning male soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines received. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion did not accept women until over 30 years later. Their story is finally being told in a couple of new books. Sadly, none of those nurses are still alive to see them.
Capt. Maude C. Davison was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal on August 20, 2001.
The Veterans Site honors the memory of the 77 Army and Navy nurses, who against the odds and in the worst of possible conditions, heroically continued do what nurses do best, to serve those in need with true care, skill and dedication. We thank Elizabeth M. Norman for writing their story.
We pledge to remember these heroic nurses and to continue to tell their story.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.