Japan's War Prison For Female American Nurses Abroad Was Shockingly Brutal

Over the course of WWII, there were countless tales of tragedy, heroism, and triumph: The Invasion of Normandy. The Battle Of Midway. Oskar Schindler saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. 

Although these are among the more well-known events, the story of the Angels of Bataan stands as one of the greatest tales of survival throughout WWII. While stationed in the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines, 77 members of the US Army Nurse Corps and US Navy Nurse Corps were captured by Japanese forces. Soon after, they were interred as prisoners in and around Manila, where they not only strengthened one another to survive their terrifying ordeal, but also bravely continued to serve as a nursing unit, dressing soldiers' wounds and tending to those who had become sick.

But their time within the Japanese camps was not easy, and for many years their own battle took its toll. They survived extreme hunger, Japan's notorious wartime torment, and three years of prison. But the story of how the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor, as they're now known, endured these horrors while selflessly helping and serving others is absolutely remarkable, and should not be forgotten.

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  • The Angels Were Stationed In The Philippines Before Japan Made Their Strike On Hawaii

    Originally stationed in the Philippines in 1941 when WWII broke out, the Angels of Bataan were female army nurses who enjoyed being stationed at Manila because they were able to "see the world" while also enjoying the beautiful natural landscape.

    While the nurses got along with the Filipino natives for the first three weeks, everything changed on December 8th, the day which will forever "live in infamy."

    After almost the entire American fleet was destroyed in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Josephine Nesbit, one of the veteran nurses who would eventually help keep the Angels together, told the women, "Girls, you’ve got to sleep today. You can’t weep and wail over this, because you have to work tonight." Soon, bombs would start dropping on the Philippines, but the Angels were prepared.

  • The Attack On The Philippines Was Devastating And Sent The Angels Into Crisis Mode
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Attack On The Philippines Was Devastating And Sent The Angels Into Crisis Mode

    Just days before Pearl Harbor, it seemed the women had a life of leisure: there were hardly any medical concerns, and some days they were able to sunbathe and play tennis.

    Less than 12 hours after the event, the Philippines became the next target. Bombs were dropped on Manila by Japanese Zero fighter planes, and soon the hospitals were swamped with casualties. Now, the nurses were being thrust head-first into WWII's horrors. 

  • They Were The First Large Group Of Women To Face Combat Conditions In WWII

    The Japanese assault on the Philippines was relentless. Bombs continued to fall all across Manila as the nurses desperately tried to save the lives of wounded soldiers. Eventually, US forces had no choice but to retreat into the Bataan Peninsula. Once there, the nurses set up makeshift cots and camps in order to continue their service. Over the course of four months, the nurses saw roughly 6,000 patients in 18 open-air camps, but most were eventually taken to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, from which they were eventually liberated.

    Along with soldiers' artillery wounds, the nurses were also faced with treating malaria and dysentery from their time in the jungle. They weren't being pushed from the frying pan into the fire; rather, they were being pushed into a slow cooker as the conflict raged on. 

  • The Angels Called Themselves The 'Battling Belles Of Bataan'
    Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Angels Called Themselves The 'Battling Belles Of Bataan'

    While the nurses performed their duties night and day in the sweltering jungle, the US and Filipino soldiers fought on as the Japanese advanced. The problem was, like the Angels, the soldiers on the island were not as adeptly trained as those in other campaigns, and were unfortunately outfitted with somewhat obsolete weaponry.

    Along with the constant threat of the next assault, there was the sweltering heat of the jungles, the 100% humidity levels, and the acrid dust storms that kept Allied forces from ever gaining the advantage. Despite the odds against them, the roughly 72,000 Allied members were determined to drive back the onslaught. Because of their determination, the soldiers gave themselves the moniker, "The Battling Bastards of Bataan" and the women referred to themselves as "The Battling Belles of Bataan."

  • The Japanese Used Captured American Nurses And Soldiers As Human Shields While Advancing On The Allies

    On April 9, 1942, the American soldiers stationed at Bataan were overpowered by the Japanese army and forced to surrender. With nowhere else to go, those remaining were ordered by Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright to Corregidor, two miles from Bataan. Despite direct orders, the nurses initially refused to go, instead opting to stay with their patients, but the threat of the Japanese was too dangerous. They had to go. 

    The Angels were moved around from field hospital to camps, and eventually the Army nurses were interned at Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, while the Navy nurses moved north to the Los Baños internment camp.

     

  • Several Nurses Kept Diaries Of Their Struggles
    Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Several Nurses Kept Diaries Of Their Struggles

    From witnessing the destruction of local civilians' homes, to experiencing their own personal emotional traumas, being imprisoned quickly took its toll on the Angels. In order to document these daily struggles (and perhaps in an effort to maintain sanity), several of the nurses kept diaries of their time in the Japanese camps. 

    In an entry discovered years later, one Angel documented a particularly brutal end to one of the American soldiers, who was tied and bound in the harsh heat of the jungle before being shot in the back. She wrote, 

    Whether he died instantly or wounded and bleeding lived on until he finally died, we will never know. But this cruel, heartless and brutal treatment filled us all with deep grief and sorrow.

    Ruth Straub, another Angel, described a Bataan field hospital, the horrible tragedies she witnessed toward humanity, and her intense hunger: 

    It is jungle land and everyone lives under trees. Rows of beds snuggled under the trees with narrow winding paths between them and the night sky overhead. [Japanese] overhead about 11:30 bombing . . . again. Many women and children killed, injured and burned. What will become of all of us? One soldier brought in a 4-month-old Filipino baby. Both parents were killed during the bombing. . . . I am so hungry--rice, cold salmon and tomatoes. Couldn't eat any of it.