We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan

We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan

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by Elizabeth Norman

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In the fall of 1941, the Philippines was a gardenia-scented paradise for the American Army and Navy nurses stationed there. War was a distant rumor, life a routine of easy shifts and dinners under the stars. On December 8 all that changed, as Japanese bombs began raining down on American bases in Luzon, and this paradise became a fiery hell. Caught in the raging…  See more details below


In the fall of 1941, the Philippines was a gardenia-scented paradise for the American Army and Navy nurses stationed there. War was a distant rumor, life a routine of easy shifts and dinners under the stars. On December 8 all that changed, as Japanese bombs began raining down on American bases in Luzon, and this paradise became a fiery hell. Caught in the raging battle, the nurses set up field hospitals in the jungles of Bataan and the tunnels of Corregidor, where they tended to the most devastating injuries of war, and suffered the terrors of shells and shrapnel.
But the worst was yet to come. After Bataan and Corregidor fell, the nurses were herded into internment camps where they would endure three years of fear, brutality, and starvation. Once liberated, they returned to an America that at first celebrated them, but later refused to honor their leaders with the medals they clearly deserved. Here, in letters, diaries, and riveting firsthand accounts, is the story of what really happened during those dark days, woven together in a deeply affecting saga of women in war.
Praise for We Band of Angels
“Gripping . . . a war story in which the main characters never kill one of the enemy, or even shoot at him, but are nevertheless heroes . . . Americans today should thank God we had such women.”—Stephen E. Ambrose
“Remarkable and uplifting.”—USA Today
“[Elizabeth M. Norman] brings a quiet, scholarly voice to this narrative. . . . In just a little over six months these women had turned from plucky young girls on a mild adventure to authentic heroes. . . . Every page of this history is fascinating.”—Carolyn See, The Washington Post
“Riveting . . . poignant and powerful.”—The Dallas Morning News
Winner of the Lavinia Dock Award for historical scholarship, the American Academy of Nursing National Media Award, and the Agnes Dillon Randolph Award

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Editorial Reviews

Barbara Ehrenreich
...[G]rippingly related....[T]heir immediate enemy was hunger....One would like to know more about these women's interior lives and what sustained them through privation and terror... —The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When the Japanese took the Philippines during WWII, 77 American women, navy and army nurses, were caught on Bataan and later imprisoned by the Japanese. The few who escaped were cast by the American press more as belles than as professionals who had held steady in their devotion to their patients and their country in the face of bombing, starvation and the gruesome injuries and diseases of their charges. A headline in the New York Times, for instance, announced that in Corregidor, Hairpin Shortage Causes Women to Cut Hair. The 77 women left behind never received as much attention, and Norman (Women at War) tries set the record straight about exactly what the Angels of Battaan and Corregidor did throughout the war. The book derives from interviews with 20 of the 77 nurses who were captured and is at its best when it stays closest to their words and stories. Norman makes excellent use of extensive quotations from diaries and interviews. Her writing lags at moments, particularly when it drifts away from the specific experiences of the nurses. But Norman also captures moments of great couragefor instance, when a nurse refused an evacuation order until her superiors agreed that not just American, but also Filipino, nurses should be moved to safety. In one amusing anecdote, the nurses force a Japanese guard to shoot a monkey that has been harassing them and disrupting the hospital. But the true highlights come in the evocation of tears and sweat that went into the nurses daily struggle to maintain their tight communityand their dedication to their patientsin the face of overwhelming adversity. BOMC and History Book Club selections. (May)
Children's Literature - Children's Literature
The most decorated woman in American military history is Ruby Bradley, now 92. She served in the Philippines and was interned in a prison camp. She was tough, reliable, resourceful and behaved with courage under extreme duress. She later served in Korea, receiving medals and honors for her service. Her story is only one of many compelling ones in the engrossing book, We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese by Elizabeth M. Norman. Ms. Norman drew upon diaries, letters and interviews with the aging survivors to give us this little known but inspiring story. 1999, Random House, Ages Adult, $26.95 and $13.95. Reviewer: Jan Lieberman
Library Journal
When the Japanese began their assault against Allied troops in the Philippines, a group of American nurses were caught in the crossfire. These women entered the service to build careers and travel the world, and none of them ever imagined they would see battle, let alone be held as POWs. Yet this is precisely what happened in December 1941 and early 1942, when the Philippines fell to Japan. During the initial months of the attack, the nurses were instrumental in setting up makeshift hospitals, first in the jungles of Bataan and later in the caves beneath Corregidor. Eventually, they were captured by the Japanese and sent to civilian POW camps at Santo Tomas and Los Baos, where they remained for the next three years. Norman (nursing, New York Univ.) tells their harrowing story through survivor interviews as well as letters and journals kept by the nurses during this time. Her book is a well-written account of an obscure piece of World War II history. Recommended.Roseanne Castellino, Arthur D. Little, Cambridge, MA
Kirkus Reviews
A gripping history of "the Angels of Bataan," nurses who provided selfless care under conditions of extreme hardship on one of WWII's grimmest fronts. Before the Japanese attack on December 8, 1941, the US military base in Manila was regarded by those assigned there as a lush, exotic tropical paradise. Norman (Nursing/New York Univ.) captures a country-club atmosphere of pristine beaches, officer's clubs, sports facilities, and dances, all facilitated by Filipino servants, that vanished in the space of five hours' assault. US forces retreated to Bataan, a wild, unsettled, untamed, disease-ridden jungle/mountain preserve, a land of monkeys, snakes, wild pigs, exotic birds, and huge rats. The 14,000 US and 73,000 Filipino troops, along with 99 nurses and about 200 doctors, faced health threats that included malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, roundworms, and skin fungi—not to mention 250,000 Japanese soldiers on the attack. US medical personnel set up jungle hospitals that were mercilessly bombed by the enemy despite Red Cross signs. Casualties from war and disease mounted. The army sought refuge in the offshore rock fortress of Corregidor, bombed and shelled daily until the starved garrison, short of food and supplies, with many sick and wounded, was forced to surrender. Norman spends much of the book describing the prisoners' sufferings in the overcrowded prison camps of Santo Tomas and Los Banos. As food rations were cut, people slowly starved. The nurses endured beriberi, pellagra, and scurvy while serving the sick and dying in the prison hospital. Relief finally came with the heroic rescue by US armored units and paratroopers in 1945. Final chapters briefly cover the postwar livesof surviving nurses, many of whom suffered later from ailments that could be traced to their ordeal in the Philippines. Norman's touching and stirring narrative makes a fitting tribute to these remarkable women's courage and dedication. (photos, not seen) (Author tour)

From the Publisher
Praise for We Band of Angels
“Gripping . . . a war story in which the main characters never kill one of the enemy, or even shoot at him, but are nevertheless heroes . . . Americans today should thank God we had such women.”—Stephen E. Ambrose
“Remarkable and uplifting.”—USA Today
“[Elizabeth M. Norman] brings a quiet, scholarly voice to this narrative. . . . In just a little over six months these women had turned from plucky young girls on a mild adventure to authentic heroes. . . . Every page of this history is fascinating.”—Carolyn See, The Washington Post
“Riveting . . . poignant and powerful.”—The Dallas Morning News

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Chapter 1: Waking Up to War

In the fall of 1941, while the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy secretly stockpiled tons of materiel and readied regiments of troops to attack American and European bases in the Pacific, the officers of General Douglas MacArthur's Far East Command in the Philippines pampered themselves with the sweet pleasures of colonial life.

For most, war was only a rumor, an argument around the bar at the officers club, an opinion offered at poolside or on the putting green: let the bellicose Japanese rattle their swords -- just so much sound and fury; the little island nation would never challenge the United States, never risk arousing such a prodigious foe.

The Americans had their war plans, of course -- MacArthur had stockpiled supplies and intended to train more Filipino troops to fight alongside his doughboys -- but most of the officers in the Far East Command looked on the danger with desultory eyes. They were much too preoccupied with their diversions, their off-duty pastimes and pursuits, to dwell on such unpleasant business. To be sure, there were realists in the islands, plenty of them, but for the most part their alarms were lost in the roar of the surf or the late-afternoon rallies on the tennis court.

Worry about war? Not with Filipino houseboys, maids, chefs, gardeners and tailors looking after every need. And not in a place that had the look and sweet fragrance of paradise, a place of palm groves, white gardenias and purple bougainvillea, frangipani and orchids -- orchids everywhere, even growing out of coconut husks. At the five army posts and one navy base there were badminton and tennis courts, bowling alleysand playing fields. At Fort Stotsenberg, where the cavalry was based, the officers held weekly polo matches. It was a halcyon life, cocktails and bridge at sunset, white jackets and long gowns at dinner, good gin and Gershwin under the stars.

Word of this good life circulated among the military bases Stateside, and women who wanted adventure and romance -- self-possessed, ambitious and unattached women -- signed up to sail west. After layovers in Hawaii and Guam, their ships made for Manila Bay. At the dock a crowd was often gathered, for such arrivals were big events -- "boat days," the locals called them. A band in white uniforms played the passengers down the gangplank, then, following a greeting from their commanding officer and a brief ceremony of welcome, a car with a chauffeur carried the new nurses through the teeming streets of Manila to the Army and Navy Club, where a soft lounge chair and a restorative tumbler of gin was waiting.

Most of the nurses in the Far East Command were in the army and the majority of these worked at Sternberg Hospital, a 450-bed alabaster quadrangle on the city's south side. At the rear of the complex were the nurses quarters, elysian rooms with shell-filled windowpanes, bamboo and wicker furniture with plush cushions and mahogany ceiling fans gently turning the tropical air.

From her offices at Sternberg Hospital, Captain Maude Davison, a career officer and the chief nurse, administered the Army Nurse Corps in the Philippines. Her first deputy, Lieutenant Josephine "Josie" Nesbit of Butler, Missouri, also a "lifer," set the work schedules and established the routines. For most of the women the work was relatively easy and uncomplicated, the usual mix of surgical, medical and obstetric patients, rarely a difficult case or an emergency, save on pay nights or when the fleet was in port and the troops, with too much time on their hands and too much liquor in their bellies, got to brawling.

For the most part one workday blended into another. Every morning a houseboy would appear with a newspaper, then over fresh-squeezed papaya juice with a twist of lime, the women would sit and chat about the day ahead, particularly what they planned to do after work: visit a Chinese tailor, perhaps, or take a Spanish class with a private tutor; maybe go for a swim in the phosphorescent waters of the beach club.

The other posts had their pleasures as well. At Fort McKinley, seven miles from Manila, a streetcar ferried people between the post pool, the bowling alley, the movie theater and the golf course. Seventy-five miles north at Fort Stotsenberg Hospital and nearby Clark Air Field, the post social life turned on the polo matches and weekend rides into the hills where monkeys chattered like children and red-and-blue toucans and parrots called to one another in the trees. Farther north was Camp John Hay, located in the shadow of the Cordillera Central Mountains near Baguio, the unofficial summer capital and retreat for wealthy Americans and Filipinos. The air was cool in Baguio, perfect for golf, and the duffers and low-handicappers who spent every day on the well-tended fairways of the local course often imagined they were playing the finest links this side of Scotland. South of Manila, a thirty-mile drive from the capital, or a short ferry ride across the bay, sat Sangley Point Air Field, the huge Cavite Navy Yard and the U.S. Naval Hospital at Canacao. The hospital, a series of white buildings connected by passageways and shaded by mahogany trees, was set at the tip of a peninsula. Across the bay at Fort Mills on Corregidor, a small hilly island of 1,735 acres, the sea breezes left the air seven degrees cooler than in the city. Fanned by gentle gusts from the sea, the men and their dates would sit on the veranda of the officers club after dark, staring at the glimmer of the lights from the capital across the bay.

Even as MacArthur's command staff worked on a plan to defend Manila from attack, his officers joked about "fighting a war and a hangover at the same time." A few weeks before the shooting started, nurse Eleanor Garen of Elkhart, Indiana, sent a note home to her mother: "Everything is quiet here so don't worry. You probably hear a lot of rumors, but that is all there is about it."

In late November of 1941, most of the eighty-seven army nurses and twelve navy nurses busied themselves buying Christmas presents and new outfits for a gala on New Year's Eve. Then they set about lining up the right escort.

Monday, December 8, 1941, just before dawn. Mary Rose "Red" Harrington was working the graveyard shift at Canacao Naval Hospital. Through the window and across the courtyard she saw lights come on in the officers quarters and heard loud voices. What, she wondered, were all those men doing up so early? And what were they yelling about? A moment later a sailor in a T-shirt burst through the doors of her ward.

They've bombed Honolulu!

Bombed Honolulu? What the hell was he talking about, Red thought.

Across Manila Bay, General Richard Sutherland woke his boss, General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander in the Pacific, to tell him that the Imperial Japanese Navy had launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Later they would learn the details: nineteen American ships, including six battle wagons, the heart of the Pacific fleet, had been scuttled, and the Japanese had destroyed more than a hundred planes; through it all, several thousand soldiers and sailors had been killed or badly wounded.

After months of rumor, inference and gross miscalculation, the inconceivable, the impossible had happened. The Japanese had left the nucleus of the U.S. Pacific fleet twisted and burning. America was at war and the military was reeling.

Juanita Redmond, an army nurse at Sternberg Hospital in Manila, was just finishing her morning paperwork. Her shift would soon be over. One of her many beaus had invited her for an afternoon of golf and she planned a little breakfast and perhaps a nap beforehand. The telephone rang; it was her friend, Rosemary Hogan of Chattanooga, Oklahoma.

The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.

"Thanks for trying to keep me awake," Redmond said.

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Meet the Author

Elizabeth M. Norman, R.N., Ph.D., is a professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She is the author of Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam, and co-author with Michael Norman of Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath, which made The New York Times list of top ten nonfiction books in 2009 and was named a 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize finalist. Her awards include an official commendation for Military Nursing Research from the U.S. Department of the Army.

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We Band of Angels 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 reviews.
mtmNE More than 1 year ago
Very moving book. I am embarrassed that my knowledge of WWII history was so lacking. I had no idea about what happened in the Philippines at that time.
wabisabi More than 1 year ago
Not only does this book tell you what the nurses endured during their time as prisoners of war but it shows you that being a prisoner of war affects you for the rest of your life. The Japanese starved their prisoners and this temporary malnutrition had a lifelong affect, making it virtually impossible to completely forget their years of imprisonment. These ladies were amazing - nursing other prisoners while they, themselves, were suffering from beri beri, dysentary, malaria, and other horrible diseases.
BookishBlonde More than 1 year ago
I can rate this book while still reading because this will be the second time I've read it. If you're a nurse or have served in the military this is a must read. When the Japanese invaded the Philippines during WWII ninety-nine American army and navy nurses without any combat training found themselves suddenly behind enemy lines. They spent months working under appalling conditions in hidden field hospitals in the jungles of Bataan, moving frequently to stay ahead of Japanese. Eventually an evacuation was executed. However, when these nurses learned that only they were to be evacuated while the injured men in their care were to be left behind with only a handful of medics to see to the most basic care the vast majority of them refused to get on the ships and stayed behind to continue caring for their patients; over seventy of these nurses voluntarily remained on Bataan. After some months they and their patients were captured and became part of the infamous Bataan Death March. The nurses survived the Death March and endured three years of captivity in a POW camp. We Band of Angels is a story of dedication, compassion, and courage. This is a part of our history that has received too little attention, give these women and nurses the recognition and honor they deserve and read their story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book tells of the bravery and steadfastness of American nurses (the Angels mentioned in the title,) and other American citizens as they were held prisoner in a makeshift camp in Manilla during WWII. Within the camp, the prisoners were made to provide for themselves as to food and other necessities. You will feel desperation for their situation, a thrill of joy as the group is liberated by American forces sent to save them, and pride as you realize the resolve it took for them to survive. A very human side of the war.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My sister has been recommending this book to me for a couple years. I decided to go to nursing school a short time ago, and upon finding out this was ABOUT nurses, I immediately felt an obligation to read it. These women are truly amazing, this is what nursing is all about. The love and compassion and fierce loyalty they had for themselves and for their patients, is what I aspire to achieve in the future. This isn't just for history buffs or nurses, I think all women should read this book. It will really make you feel proud of being a woman.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was surprised to learn about women in WWII. These women were put through extrodinary conditions I will never face. One nurse became the most decorated woman in the United States military. This is an excellent book for young and old nurses alike. This book shows the nuts and bolts of critical care nursing and what life was like for women in uncharted territories such as being exposed to combat.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great Book.If author ever writes a sequel, I would like to contribute. Ressa and Geneva Jenkins (Younger sisters of my mother)were both Angels of Battan. When two navy planes were sent to rescue the nurses, the sisters agreed to go on seperate planes. Ressa escaped to Australia. Geneva was on the plane that suffered damages and waited in the jungle with others. After the plane took off without them, they were captured by the Japanese and taken to Santo Thomas.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A must read for anyone interested in WW2 history in the Pacific or in the history of Women on the front lines
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a nurse i was honored to read about the true heros of my profession. I met on veterans day 2012 Mrs Diane Carlson Evens,RN, and heard of her life as a nurse in Veitnam and her life following the war. I learned of her fight to get, not only her and her contemporaries recognized for there service to our country, but also all women who had been in war. She is the founder and Chair of the Vietnam Women's Memorial. Talking with her light in me a passion to find out and learn about these women and to bring voice to there stories. I found this book very informative and truly a blessing to read. These women were angels, then and today. Nurses in war are Angels for in that moment they are a little peace of heaven because of there dedication amd love for there patents. Thank you for righting this book to set the story streaght.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am half through this book. Very good writing. The author holds your attention.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was a wonderful glimpse into a woman's view of the war and the horrors they faced in the Battlefield Hospitals.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This books is gripping and hard to put down. Also, it is educational in regards to the true course of World War II in the South Pacific, and the ensuing lack of respect for what the nurses went through there. It is amazing that the military was able to get away with how the nurses were treated after the war. This is a must read book for all nurses. It is inspiring and has helped me put perspective on my career of 23 years. My mother, who is a nurse read it. She remembers being drafted in WW II (although she did not go) was very inspired by this. Her two friends who are of the same age have read it and enjoyed it. It really speaks to many facets of the war and the times. A great read!
USMCproudmom More than 1 year ago
What an amazing tale of sacrifice, duty, honor and grace. The nurses in this true story are true heroes! It is too bad that their individual and collective actions were not acknowledged sooner. They truly paved the way for those of us women veterans who came later. My heartfelt thanks and gratitude for their service.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
These ladies are great heros of WWII. Left to fend for themselves and they came out on top with class.
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kcsTX More than 1 year ago
Elizabeth Norman has crafted a highly readable, very enlightening book on the little know plight of the U.S. Army and Navy Nurses trapped in the Philippines for the duration of WWII. The courage, dedication and fortitude of these women should stand as and example to all.
MPED More than 1 year ago
As an R.N., I was humbled by this story. What the nurses and soldiers experienced was gruesome, and life changing. We should be proud of our armed forces around the world.
dmcjr4 More than 1 year ago
An incrredible story of World War Ii in the Phillipines before the Phillipines,Bataan and Corregidor fell, and the suffering these nurses endured and the prisoners they cared for....Truly INSPIRING !!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago