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

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 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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812984842
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/29/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 36,298
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.83(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

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 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.


Excerpted from "We Band of Angels"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Norman.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1.Waking Up to War3
2.Manila Cannot Hold16
3.Jungle Hospital #130
4.The Sick, the Wounded, the Work of War39
5.Waiting for the Help That Never Came50
6."There Must Be No Thought of Surrender"67
7.Bataan Falls: The Wounded Are Left in Their Beds83
8.Corregidor--the Last Stand96
9.A Handful Go Home112
10.In Enemy Hands130
11.Santo Tomas142
12.STIC, the First Year, 1942158
13.Los Banos, 1943169
14.Eating Weeds Fried in Cold Cream, 1944183
15.And the Gates Came Crashing Down201
16."Home. We're Really Home."219
18.Across the Years243
Appendix IChronology of Military Nurses in the Philippine Islands, 1940-1945273
Appendix IIThe Nurses and Their Hometowns279

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We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 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.
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.
MimiMA More than 1 year ago
One of the main characters grew up in my town and yet many people knew nothing of her. We Band of Angels became a "One Book, One Community" selection for Bridgewater, MA. The book is so well written and shows the amazing strength of these WWII women. The author, Elizabeth Norman, spoke to the townspeople and added other interesting facts to what we had already learned. Anyone who has some knowledge of WWII or had a relative serve, should read this book.
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.
caribird More than 1 year ago
I've just started reading it but loving it. I am a nurse and my grandmother was a nurse at Pearl Harbor after the bombing so this was the closest I may come to her story. It is written well with many details unique to these women there and as always the inspiration of how the human spirit rises above and survives unbelievable atrocities. I will probably recommend it for my bookclub as well as it brings up so many issues in life.
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.
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.
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 !!
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I have read this book three times, with each time being just as moving as the last. These are real heros who stories needed to be told. The author did a fantastic job. I am now buying another copy for my neighbor, who is a nurse.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This piece of history about women who did great and ordnary things in extrodinary cirunstance.
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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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting read regarding the nurses who were held as POWs in WWII. A must read for those that are interested in real life stories of WWII POWs, especially the nurses that were involved and their hardships they underwent as POWs.
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