Over the course of World War II, 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 the entire war. 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 then interred as prisoners of war 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 starvation, Japan's notorious wartime torture, 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.
The Angels Were Stationed In The Philippines Before Japan Attacked Pearl Harbor
Originally stationed in the Philippines in 1941 when WWII broke out, the Angels of Bataan had never received formal survival or military training. Instead, they mostly consisted of volunteers to the service, women who were forbidden from combat, but still wanted to serve their country. They held no military rank, and were generally referred to as "miss."
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 during the bombing of 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
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 Pearl Harbor was attacked, 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 the horrors of war. Their commanders even ordered the nurse's to don steel helmets and gas masks as Japanese fighter planes approached.
Said Second Lieutenant Ruth Straub, “The hospital was bedlam – amputations, dressings, intravenouses (sic), blood transfusions, shock, death." According to her, the nurses "worked all night, hopped over banisters and slid under the hospital during raids.”
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 war raged on.
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 120,000 Allied members were determined to drive back the onslaught. Because of their determination, the soliders gave themselves the moniker, "The Battling Bastards of Bataan" and the women referred to themselves as "The Battling Belles of Bataan."