Although the Bataan Campaign was mostly a male operation, there were a number of brave women who served in the medical service as nurses on Bataan, military and some civilian volunteers, Filipina and American. They are remembered as the Angels of Bataan.
Most of these military women on Bataan were US Army nurses. One Navy nurse accompanied them, along with 25 Filipina civilian nurses. These civilian nurses had volunteered for duty in US Army hospitals in Fort Stotsenberg and Fort McKinley, as there was no Army Nurse Corps in the Philippine Army at the time. Unfortunately, these Filipina nurses are rather forgotten in the accounts of the campaign, and have not received much recognition, unlike their American sisters.
The first of All the Angels of Bataan arrived on the peninsula by motor convoy at the town of Limay on Christmas Eve. Twenty four Army nurses, 25 Filipino nurses, and Lieutenant Ann Bernatitus, Navy Nurse Corps, prepared a field hospital in a collection of run-down barracks. “Their Christmas celebration consisted of cleaning floors, washing windows, assembling cots, and setting up a hospital facility from stored supplies. The equipment at hand was certainly not modern. The nurses noted that most items were wrapped in 1918 newspapers! This makeshift hospital became General Hospital No.1, and patients began arriving within days. Since this would be the field hospital closest to the fighting, all battle casualties were brought there for surgery and recovery.” (Note: Hospital 1, initially at Limay from late December, 1941, and relocated a month later to the “Little Baguio” area near Mariveles.)
The next day, Christmas, 20 more Army nurses were sent to Bataan from Manila by harbor ferry to the town of Lamao, south of Hospital No.1. They established Hospital No.2 near Cabcaben as a convalescent hospital for patients who were strong enough for evacuation from Hospital 1. Hospital 2 was a much more primitive open ward operation, the first for the US military since the Civil War, with no tents or buildings. This jungle facility covered a three acre area – a canopy of trees was all that sheltered thousands of patients.
All the Angels of Bataan performed critical medical services at Bataan’s two field hospitals. More than 1,200 battle casualties requiring major surgery (traumatic amputations and head, chest, and abdominal wounds) were admitted to Hospital 1 within the first month of operations.
Navy nurse Ann Bernatitus recalled the difficult conditions in these primitive facilities: “Every operating table would be filled. They would come in from the field all dirty. You did what you could There were lice; I kept my hair covered all the time. He (Dr. Cary Smith) did a lot of leg amputations because we had a lot of gas gangrene out there. I remember one patient we were operating on. Dr. Smith didn’t want to sew him back up. He had died. I remember telling him that I didn’t want him to do that if anything happened to me. He said, ‘I’ll sew him up just to shut you up.’ We were washing the dirty dressings that they used during an operation. We would wash them out and refold and sterilized them and use them again.”
In addition to enduring the endless stream of casualties and the terrible conditions, the enemy also threatened the field hospitals on Bataan. On March 29, Japanese aircraft bombed Hospital 1, despite red cross markings on the facility, hitting the wards and killing or wounding over one hundred patients. A number of nurses were wounded. One nurse recalled the terrible event: “”The sergeant pulled me under the desk, but the desk was blown into the air, and he and I with it. I heard myself gasping. My eyes were being gouged out of their sockets, my whole body felt swollen and torn apart by the violent pressure. Then I fell back to the floor, and the desk landed on top of me and bounced around. The sergeant knocked it away from me, and gasping for breath, bruised and aching, sick from swallowing the smoke from the explosive, I dragged myself to my feet.” The sight that met her eyes was appalling. Patients had been blown out of their beds. Bodies and severed limbs hung from the tree branches. Although the nurses knew that nothing could be done to prevent further air attacks, they carried on.”
On April 7, Japanese aircraft bombed Hospital Number 1 again, directly hitting one of the wards and killing many already seriously wounded soldiers. Hospital 2 was spared such bombings, though bombs fell all around it.
There was some help for the All the Angels of Bataan from an Angel on Corregidor. It was from 21-year old Helen Lang, who was a civilian nurse. She was visiting an aunt in the Philippines on her first trip overseas when the war began, and soon volunteered to help the Fil-Am forces. Initially assigned to Corregidor, she volunteered for duty on Bataan as they needed more help there, and soon experienced the aerial bombardments: “At Bataan it was very hard,” remembered Ms. Lang. “We were bombed day and night. The hospital was just four tents. It was bombed seventeen times… Afraid? Usually I was – but that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that we couldn’t do our work. My own work wasn’t so much before; sometimes I’d been ashamed of being only a nurse. On Bataan I learned to be proud, to believe it was the best work anyone could do – but the Japs wouldn’t let us do it…I didn’t want to hate them. But after they bombed the hospital so many times…”
As the campaign continued and the health of all on the peninsula deteriorated from tropical diseases, including malaria, dysentery, beriberi, dengue fever, as well as malnutrition, the numbers of those admitted to the hospitals swelled. Each hospital was built to accommodate 1,000 patients but by the end of March, was treating over 5,000 patients. These hospitals were staffed with 67 officers, 83 nurses, 250 enlisted men and 200 civilian employees. (Note: The civilians were from refugee camps located nearby.)
In April the number of admissions climbed, as the Japanese began their final offensive. When Bataan surrendered on April 9, over 9,000 were on the roster at Hospital 2.
When the end of the campaign for Bataan came, the nurses were ordered to Corregidor. But many of them did not want to leave the wounded behind, despite the uncertainty of what might happen to them as women captives of the Japanese. Chief Nurse 1st Lt. Josephine M. “Josie” Nesbit, known as “Mother Joe” by her nurses, requested permission to remain on Bataan with her patients. Her request was denied. Author Elizabeth Norman interviewed many of the nurses later and recalled: “During my interviews, it was not their own fears or suffering that most haunted them, it was the memory of a certain evening on Bataan in April 1942 when they received word that the peninsula was about to fall to the enemy and they were ordered to leave their patients, just leave them there on bamboo beds in the middle of the jungle in the path of the advancing enemy, thousands of wounded and bleeding and feverish men, unarmed and utterly helpless….Fifty years later, I watched them weep inconsolably in the telling.”
But on one point related to the evacuation from Bataan Chief Nurse Nesbit was adamant: that she would not leave Bataan unless her Filipina nurses came out too. In this she won.
Nesbit’s after action report said that, all in all, there were 88 women in the evacuation convoy destined for Corregidor. This included 53 Army nurses, 26 Filipina nurses, one American civilian nurse, one hospital dietitian (Ruby Motley), one physiotherapist, one Red Cross field director (Catherine L. Nau), and five civilian women (presumably including several military wives sent over from Corregidor earlier to help out).
The nurses “respite” on Corregidor did not last long and the conditions on the Rock deteriorated under extensive Japanese bombardment and assault. Some were evacuated by submarine and seaplane before Corregidor fell, but most ended up as prisoners of Japan. They endured difficult conditions until liberation in early 1945.
The service and sacrifice of these nurses are remembered in various ways. A number of books were written, such as “We Band of Angels,” by Elizabeth Norman. There are some motion pictures made during the war when they were captives, such as “Cry ‘Havoc’” (1943), “So Proudly We Hail” (1943), and “They Were Expendable” (1945). And in the Philippines today where they served there are a couple of memorials.
At the memorial shrine atop Mt. Samat on Bataan is a bronze plaque memorial dedicated April 9, 1980, which reads “TO THE ANGELS– In honor of the valiant American military women who gave so much of themselves in the early days of World War II. They provided care and comfort to the gallant defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. They lived on a starvation diet, shared the bombing, strafing, sniping, sickness and disease while working endless hours of heartbreaking duty. These nurses always had a smile, a tender touch and a kind word for their patients. They truly earned the name–THE ANGELS OF BATAAN AND CORREGIDOR.”
Another memorial established at Limay remembers the Filipina Angels of Bataan.
“WWII FIL-AM NURSES MEMORIAL
IN HONOR OF THE FORGOTTEN FILIPINO NURSES WHO WORKED SIDE BY SIDE WITH THEIR AMERICAN SISTERS WITH GALLANTRY AND STEADFASTNESS AT TWO BATAAN BATTLEFIELD HOSPITALS CARING FOR THOUSANDS OF WOUNDED SOLDIERS AND CIVILIANS UNDER TERRORIZING WAR, THINKING LITTLE OF THEIR OWN PERSONAL SAFETY.
THE FIRST GROUP OF FIL-AM NURSES ARRIVED IN LIMAY CAMP HOSPITAL #1 ON DEC. 24, 1941 AND MOVED A MONTH LATER TO THE LITTLE BAGUIO AREA OF MARIVELES. SIMULTANEOUSLY, HOSPITAL #2 (JUNGLE HOSPITAL) WAS BUILT NEAR CABCABEN.
THE FIL-AM NURSES WERE EVACUATED TO CORREGIDORBEFORE THE SURRENDER OF BATTAN ON APRIL 9, 1942 WITH THE HARDEST FEELING OF BEING SEPARATED FROM THEIR PATIENTS. THE AMERICAN NURSES ENDED UP PRISONERS AT U.S.T. INTERNMENT CAMP WHEN CORREGIDOR SURRENDERED ON MAY 6, 1942.
DEDICATED NOV 7, 2003
TO PRESERVE THE BATAAN HISTORY BY EDNA BAUTISTA BINKOWSKI, THE FAMILY OF THE LATE CURTIS B. NORRIS AND THE SOROPTIMIST INT’L OF BATAAN.”
There is also a memorial to All of the Angels of Bataan on Corregidor Island, though it does not list the names of the Filipina nurses. Sadly, their names seem lost to history, at least on the internet.
So when mention is made of the brave Angels of Bataan, remember them well, and remember All of the Angels of Bataan when you do.