We Band of Angels


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by Elizabeth Norman

Ninety-nine nurses were to become known as the “Angels of Bataan.” In her book, We Band of Angels, Elizabeth Norman, through letters, diaries and testimonies tells the stories of these heroes who started out in “good” conditions, then experienced the results of the Battle of Bataan, relocation to Corregidor and endurance as prisoners-of-war. Below is an excerpt from chapter one, before “real” war came to the Philippines.

In the fall of 1941, while the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy secretly stockpiled tons of material 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 alleys and 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. "But that simply isn't funny."

"I'm not being funny," Hogan insisted. "It's true."

As the reports of American mass casualties spread through the hospital that morning, a number of nurses who had close friends stationed in Honolulu broke down and wept.

"Girls! Girls!" Josie Nesbit shouted, trying to calm her staff. "Girls, you've got to sleep today. You can't weep and wail over this, because you have to work tonight."

Some slipped off alone to their rooms while others rushed to a bank to cable money home. Two women apparently resigned to whatever fate was going to bring, shrugged their shoulders and strolled over to the Army and Navy Club to go bowling.

At Fort Mills Hospital on the island fortress of Corregidor, Eleanor Garen and the rest of the night-shift nurses headed for the post restaurant for a cup of coffee or a glass of Coke. Their custom was to sit and relax after work, but on this particular morning they were chatty and impatient. Would war come to the Philippines? they wondered.

The news so concerned Eleanor that she took out a pencil and slip of paper and started a shopping list—supplies  she considered important in case of an emergency: Noxema face cream, tooth powder, a comb, bath towel, shampoo, Kleenex, chocolate candy and another pair of lieutenant's bars.

At Fort McKinley Hospital just outside Manila, the day-shift nurses, doctors and medical staff were issued steel helmets and gas masks. Two women coming off the night shift stuffed their helmets and masks in their golf bags and headed for the links.

None of the nurses knew it, of course, but the war was already on its way to them.

Excerpt. From We Band of Angels by Elizabeth Norman (Atria, 2000).