In 1942, the Japanese captured 77 American Army and Navy nurses. This event marked the beginning of what would be one of the most important but little-known stories of bravery and suffering during World War II.
Amazingly, each woman survived three years of hunger, illness, and fear as prisoners of war. All the while, they continued to nurse the thousands of others imprisoned along with them. “They were a tough bunch, and they had a mission,” Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Cantrell (a historian with the Army Nurse Corps) says.” They were surviving for the boys and each other. That does give a bit of added strength.”
It seemed like paradise when the American Army and Navy nurse first arrived in the Philippines during the war. It was beautiful, and the work was light. There was ample time for golf, fine dining, and partying with soldiers. “Teaching and office work held little appeal,” says Elizabeth M. Norman, author of We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan. “The former was taking care of another’s children, while the latter was someone else’s man.” Although they were proud of their professionalism, no one could have predicted that they would see combat
All that changed was on December 8, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The nurses were nervously talking when Josephine Nesbit spoke up. She was on her second tour in the Army Nurse Corps and was second in command for the nurses in the Philippines. She declared, “Girls, you have to go to bed today.” “You do not have time to cry and weep over this. You have to get up tonight to work.” She was right when she said that.
Japanese planes started bombing Manila that night. The nurses witnessed the flood of combat injuries flooding into their wards for the first time. The nurses evacuated to Corregidor, Bataan, and set up two open-air jungle hospitals. Malaria and dysentery became more common, but nurses continued to stay at their jobs, caring for the sick and injured as best they could.
In April 1942, Bataan was destroyed, and Corregidor fell. Captain Maude C., the chief nurse in the Philippine department, and Colonel Wibb Cooper (the ranking medical officer) created a list with twenty nurses who would prioritize evacuation. Later, her nurses noticed that Davison claimed that the selections were random but that she had sent home all the women who were either ill or injured and would not be able to endure long captivity.
U.S. Army Nurses from Bataan and Corregidor, freed after three years imprisonment in the Santo Tomas Interment Camp.
Image: Amity Girl
After the Allies surrendered to Japan, Davison led the remaining nurses to Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Manila, one of the notoriously brutal Japanese prison camps. They joined 11 Navy nurses under Lt. Laura M. Cobb’s command, stayed in Manila to help the patients who could not be moved. The nurses in the camp agreed to continue providing medical care for their fellow prisoners. Davison kept the same discipline at the prison camp as she did while stationed there in Manila. She set daily shifts of four hours and allowed her captors to cut their food intake to 700 calories per day. Lieutenant Mildred Dalton Maning said later that she has always believed that if they can survive that, then anything is possible.
By January 1945, the Japanese were close to losing. The situation in the camp was so helpless that the only food option available to the nurses were flowers, weeds, slugs, and roots. Patients were dying regularly from malnutrition. Prisoners were only allowed rations up to one cup of rice that too a couple of times a day. Manning recalled it being the “year we starved to death.” When the camp was liberated on February 3 of 1945, nurses had lost an average of 30% of body weight.
Davison had dropped to 80 pounds which were 130 pounds before the imprisonment, and had to be taken to the hospital. Everything considered, not a single nurse died on Santo Tomas. “There were 77 American women who became POWs, and there were 77 who walked out in 1945,” says Norman. “This is unprecedented, particularly for women who had no formal survival training.”
The rescue of the women was met with little fanfare. They were awarded Bronze Stars for valor and welcomed home by local celebrations. Despite being still severely wounded from the ordeal, little was done to help them. Davison was forced to retire from medical care in 1946. The War Decorations Board recommended Davison for the Distinguished Service Medal. However, it was denied because Davison’s heroics were not independent actions but under the command of a male medical officer. Many of the benefits that soldiers got returning from the war were denied to nurses. Also, many veterans’ service organizations such as the VFW or the American Legion did not accept female members until thirty years later.
There has been more effort to honor and recognize these inspirational women. Former soldiers who survived POW camps in 1980 dedicated a bronze plaque to the Mount Samat shrine in memory of the valiant “American military females who gave so much of their lives in the early day’s World War II .” On August 20, 2001.
Davison received the Distinguished Service Medal posthumously. While none of the nurses are alive today, they would have been proud to know that their part in history had been published in books like We Band of Angels. It is only a matter of time. Helen Cassiani Nestor, a former Army nurse and prisoner-of-war, said that nobody has ever told the entire story, and only personal experiences have been noted. She adds, “There’s still a lot of discussion about the role of women in combat. Our group proved that we could go into the field and carry on and do a good job. People need to know that
Sources: Amity Girl