These women come from the same stock as those before them, those who came to America for a better life, who crossed the oceans, prairies and mountains in search for freedoms. It’s what our country is made of, courageous, independent go-getter’s who fight for those values. Women have always been an integral part of progress made and it’s because of the elevating of their stories that they have gotten the long-overdue recognition deserved. Always on the side-lines with a smile, women just to it, whatever it is that needs to be done.
History keeps rewriting itself because of the new stories, new discoveries revealed. We need these stories, just like we need to know our ancestors histories. It’s what gives us empathy and compassion. These women had the grit and determination to survive the horrors of war. Among those horrors was the Malinta Tunnel, dug deep into the bowels of Corregidor Island and to an underground hospital, after escaping Bataan. A dozen nurses, the most vulnerable, had escaped to Australia on a submarine. Most had volunteered to stay. All 77 survived the war and no doubt were instrumental on the survival of other POW’s, many civilians, at the camp hospital. They found ways to prepare weeds, roots, flowers using cold cream, to supplement the dwindling daily calories.
Hollywood romanticized the nurse’s situation, however, the survivors said there was nothing romantic about it. For the Army and Navy nurses serving throughout the Pacific bases before the war, it was a paradise where they enjoyed golf, dining and romance under the stars, having few patients to attend to. Life was about to get real, really fast with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ten hours later, Japanese Zero Fighter planes began bombing Manila. Medical personnel retreated to the Bataan Peninsula where they set up a field hospital in the steamy, mosquito infested jungle.
Across 18 open-air wards, the Angels tended to 6,000 patients over the course of four months. Even as they bandaged wounds, bombs fell around them with sickening regularity. After the fall of Corregidor Island, as POW’s, they were removed to Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila. Over the next two years, the ranking nurses maintained morale by imposing structure within their ranks, requiring nurses to work at least four-hour shifts each day, even as rations were cut.
Bataan fell in April of 1942, and it was obvious that Corregidor would not hold much longer. Knowing that there was not enough time to evacuate all of her nurses, Captain Maude C. Davison, the chief nurse of the Philippine department, joined Colonel Wibb Cooper, the ranking medical officer, in creating a list of twenty nurses who would receive priority for evacuation. Her nurses later noted that, although Davison insisted that the selections were random, she had sent home all of the women who were ill, injured, or otherwise unlikely to be able to withstand lengthy captivity.
When the women were rescued, there was brief fanfare: they received Bronze Stars for valor, and many of them were welcomed home with local celebrations. But little more was done for them, even though they were still weak from their ordeal. Davison, who had to take medical retirement in 1946, was recommended for the Distinguished Service Medal; however, the War Decorations Board refused to grant it, saying that Davison’s heroism had not been an independent action, but was at the direction of the male medical officer. The nurses were also denied many of the benefits granted to men returning from the war, since they were not considered combat forces, and many veterans’ service organizations like the VFW and the American Legion did not even accept female members until three decades later.
Arlington National Cemetery Nurses Memorial
Fortunately, in recent years, more has been done to remember and recognize these inspiring women. In 1980, former soldiers who had survived POW camps dedicated a bronze plaque at the Mount Samat shrine located near the summit of Mount Samat, in the town of Pilár, Province of Bataan, in the Republic of the Philippines, in honor of the valiant American military women who gave so much of themselves in the early days of World War II.” After years of campaigning, Davison was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal on August 20, 2001. It’s about time.
As the first American women to see combat on foreign soil, they paved the way for today’s female soldiers. They also remain legendary among all nurses, 70 years after their remarkable story began.