BOOK: We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan by Elizabeth Norman (2013)

webandMost people — at least, I hope this is the case — have at least heard of the infamous Bataan Death March of World War II.  The build-up to that travesty began not long after Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese began trying to take the Philippines — a key piece of property in the Far East.  Over the next year or so, they bombed and invaded the region, finally ending up on the Bataan peninsula, where Douglas MacArthur’s troops were waiting for them.

Originally, MacArthur’s plan was to hold Bataan and the small island close to it, Corregidor, until the US Navy could bring in reinforcements and supplies (food, ammo, medicine).  Once those reinforcements arrived, he planned to attack north, defeat the Japanese, and push onward to victory.  USA! USA! USA!

Over the year before the battle began, though, as the US Navy struggled to get back on its feet post-Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began setting up thick blockades around Bataan, preventing any Allied ships from reaching the troops.  For months, the soldiers on Bataan lived on half-rations, without faltering in their fight against Japanese attacks.  When it became clear no reinforcements were going to make it in, the US ordered MacArthur to evacuate himself to Australia, leaving his men behind.

“I shall return!” he declared famously.  Infamously, it took him three more years.

Meanwhile, the US ordered the men left on Bataan to continue to fight, even as they began literally starving to death.  As medical supplies ran out, their bodies broke down further as malaria, dysentery, and other tropical diseases raged through their systems.  They were told not to surrender.  And for four months, they didn’t.  When they finally lacked the strength to hold up their guns, however, the commanding officer of the ranks deserted by MacArthur gave up — it was the largest surrender in American history.

The Japanese took the surviving troops prisoner — both Americans and Filipino — and began to march them to POW camps north of Bataan.  The Japanese soldiers believed surrender to be the ultimate act of disgrace, and they treated their prisoners accordingly.  The starving, sick, already-dying men were beaten, beheaded, stabbed, shot, and otherwise tortured the entire march.  By the time they arrived at their destination, some 2,500-10,000 Filipino soldiers and anywhere between 100-650 Americans had died along the trail.

That’s more or less what I already knew when I picked this book up.  What I DIDN’T know was that there was another group of Allied soldiers on Bataan and Corregidor — a group of 78 Army and Navy nurses.

In the fall of 1941, the Philippines was an exotic, exciting place to be.  Nurses from all over enlisted in the military and requested to be sent there, where they’d heard most of their “duties” would involve dancing with handsome GIs and partying.  Most of them had next-to-no training in medicine, which worked out just fine because nobody in the Philippines seemed to be in any danger of actually getting hurt.

Until all hell broke loose.

Caught in the battle, the nurses rapidly set up field hospitals in the jungles of Bataan, sometimes right in the middle of the fighting, and eventually moved to Corregidor, where they set up cots and surgeries down inside a set of underground, concrete tunnels.  As the bombs fell and the bullets flew, these mostly-young, very naive women began witnessing horrors they could never have imagined.  The Angels of Bataan, as they came to be known, were the first US military women to serve in a hot zone, as well as the first US military women to be all, “Oh, the HELL with this nonsense!” and trade their impractical-white-dress uniforms in for the same khaki overalls the men were wearing.

After months of bloody battle, the women too were herded into interment camps when Bataan and Corregidor fell.  There they lived out the rest of the war — about three more years.  That’s three years of terror, disease, starvation, and torture.  Most of them continued to serve as nurses in the camps, establishing infirmaries and trying to maintain a regular schedule — as much for their own sanity as for the injured troops.

In the last year of their internment, rations were cut dramatically for the women as well as the men, down to fewer than 700 calories a day by the time they were finally liberated in 1945.  Most of the nurses had lost upwards of 30% of their body weight, and were wracked with disease to boot.

When the survivors finally got home, they were immediately whisked away as poster-girls for victory — look at our amazing gals, who survived POW camps and still look great in lipstick!  Exhausted and ill, they were carted around for weeks putting a pretty face on war for their government until the novelty wore off.  And then they were discarded, with the Army and Navy refusing to honor their (female) leaders with the medals they so clearly deserved after such unbelievably courageous service.

It wasn’t until 2001 (!!) that Maj. Maude Davison, credited by many for keeping the women alive by making them continue to serve as nurses throughout their imprisonment (thus maintaining their spirits, thusly maintaining their lives), was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal; other leaders of the corps still haven’t received formal recognition.

This incredibly well-written and compelling book uses letters, diaries, and interviews with the survivors to tell the other story of Bataan — the women’s story.  And it is, in a word, amazing.  If you’re at all interested in military history, WWII, or just in incredible stories of survival and perseverance, this is a don’t-miss.

In fact, it’s just a don’t-miss, period. You should know about this. USA women!  USA women!  USA women!

Thank you, Angels of Bataan, for your service and your inspiration.

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4 Responses to “BOOK: We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan by Elizabeth Norman (2013)”

  1. Lanai Tillman Says:

    Goodness! Even reading just your review of this book got me all choked up. 😢 What a terrible situation. This reminds me of that movie with Glenn Close? about the women in the Japanese camp who formed a choir to keep their spirits up.

    Best wishes, Lanai

    • megwood Says:

      Yes! VERY similar to that film (Paradise Road). Those ladies were in Sumatra, but also in a Japanese internment camp for years. I actually watched that again recently because of this book — excellent movie!

  2. RogerBW Says:

    I’ll definitely have to take a look at that. Thanks!

    (Incidentally, I’m now blogging. My name here should link to it. You may find some of it interesting.)

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