American Nurses Joined the Military in the Philippines

Army Air Force Nurses wtith gas msks
Army Air Force Nurses with gas masks – U. S. Army


Regarding women’s role during the war, most people talk about Rosie the Riveter. People forgot that there were other women involved in WWII. While our men were fighting on the front line, the Battling Belles of Bataan were right there helping the men in combat taking care of the sick, the wounded and the dead. They faced the same horrible condition as the men in the battlefields. They endured one of the most horrific experiences in history.

Here are their stories. . .

They were mostly daughters of farmers and blue-collar workers and looking for adventure, fun and possibly romance. They were ambitious young women who wanted to experience life outside the confines of their humble existence so they joined the military as nurses. Hearing the good life in the tropical paradise called the Philippines, they decided to sign up to sail west in the fall of 1941.

They were met at the dock at Manila Bay with a band in white uniforms playing. After a brief ceremony of welcome with their commanding officer, they were chauffeured to the Army and Navy Club where soft lounge chairs and tumbler of gin were waiting. The following days were easy work and life was pure pleasure with dinners, dancing and parties after work. They were having the time of their lives with very little to do.

Then on the morning of Dec. 8, 1941, war came to the Philippines. Within hours after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese started bombing the Philippines. After Baguio, the Japanese attacked Clark Air Field and Fort Stotsenberg. Suddenly, the American nurses found themselves at war. No more of the fancy dinner dates, dancing and romance. Instead they were faced with mangled, bleeding bodies of the wounded.

For the first time, they started real work since they arrived. Nothing in their experience had prepared them for the wanton slaughter of war. With each raid, the nurses were made to work harder and longer, and soon they were so tired, so enervated by the surgeries and rounds of duty, they turned numb with fatigue.

With the enemy controlling both the sky and the sea, Manila could not hold any longer so MacArthur declared Manila an open city and ordered a retreat of all the forces under his command to Bataan and the island fortress of Corregidor. The eighty-seven-member staff from Manila hospitals were ordered to evacuate to field hospital sites in Bataan. Food, medicine and much needed provision were left in Manila during this hasty retreat. By New Year’s eve, there were still a few nurses left in Manila, the nurses of the U.S. Navy.

Nurse at Bataan Hospital
Nurse at Bataan Hospital – U.S. Army


In Bataan, the nurses set up “field hospitals”. With the help from a local planter loyal to the American who hired carpenters, they were able to furnish the “field hospitals”, mostly just beds where the sick and the injured laid on the ground, under the canopy of trees and forest vegetation. They improvised as resources became strained.

Since most of the women had grown up on farms, they knew how to live lean, without amenities and used to hard work. During the day, they carried out the battlefield nursing and at night, they worked under blackout conditions using flashlights and kerosene lamps. They slept on bamboo cots, worked nonstop shifts, and lived by their wits. They learned how to live in the jungle. Sometimes animals wandered around in the darkness, wild pigs would brush against their legs, and gecko came diving out of the trees. One night a nurse hiking between beds was smacked in the forehead by a snake swinging from a branch. (I would have a heart attack at that!)

They waited for the help that never came. By March 1942, they stopped worrying and accepted the inevitable. In the late evening of March 11, General Douglas MacArthur left for Australia with his family under order from Washington. General Jonathan “Skinny” Wainwright assumed command of sixty thousand troops on Bataan. By the end of March, their patients had grown to 4,500. Food and supplies were running short. The nurses were so busy, they changed only the most bloody and foul of dressings. In the operating room, they administered only minimal amount of anesthetics and muscle relaxants mostly until the very last moment before the surgeon lowered his scalpel. With bombers constantly overhead, no supplies could get through. The nurses were told to make what they had to last.

Just before the Fall of Bataan on April 9, the nurses were told that the army would surrender the next day and they did not want women when the Japanese came. They were ordered to evacuate to Corregidor. Many of them said leaving their patients was the hardest thing they ever did. The order was only for American nurses, Filipino nurses not included. Josie Nesbit, an American head nurse, had grown attached to her Filipino nurses who called her “Mama Josie” and she stood her ground, insisted that even the Filipino nurses should be given refuge at Corregidor or else she won’t go. Colonel Gillespie called headquarters and finally got the permission to evacuate all nurses. Nurses from Hospital #1 were able to escape while those from Hospital #2 seemed trapped. Finally all made it to Corregidor dirty, disheveled, some of them wounded from the hospital bombings. After roll call and a meal, the nurses tumbled onto their cots, two to each, and feet to face fall asleep. Behind them Bataan was falling.

The army nurses set up hospital at Malinta Tunnel. At first, the nurses thought it was better than the open-air hospital in Bataan but after two weeks underground with constant bombing overhead, they thought it was a different kind of hell.

Malinta Tunnel Hospital – U.S. Army Signal Corps



Near the end of the April and early May, some nurses were relieved of their assignment and were transported to Australia on their way back to the United States. Still a lot of them stayed behind.

The few lucky one selected to return home were used by the administration to prop up the flagging morale of a nation at war. A movie, “So Proudly we Hail” was made about them. The movie was not what they experienced at all and they hated the movie and were embarrassed by it.


Source: “We Bands of Angels” by Elizabeth M. Norton


More to come. . .





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