Interview with Professor Elizabeth Norman, the author of We Band of Angels
We Band of Angels:
The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped
on Bataan by the Japanese was published in 1999 after the author, Elizabeth
Norman, spent 8 years researching and interviewing American nurse POWs in the
Philippines. In the Foreword section, the author, who is a nurse and a professor
at New York University, describes who these women were:
The same day the Imperial Japanese Navy launched its surprise attack on the
United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii it also struck American naval
and army bases, airfields and ports in the Philippine Islands-December 8, 1941.
Caught in the air raid and the murderous invasion that followed were ninety-nine
army and navy nurses. Without any formal combat training or wartime preparation,
most found themselves on Bataan with their back to the sea, retreating from a
well-rained, well-supplied and relentless army. They were hungry and scared,
jumping into trenches during bombing raids, caring for thousands of casualties.
Before the enemy finally caught up with them on Corregidor, a handful of the
women-some two dozen-escaped on ships or small aircraft that managed to slip
through the enemy blockade. The main body, however- seventy-seven women, a group
in many ways representatives of American womanhood in the era between the great
wars-were captured by the Japanese and held behind concrete and barbed wire for
three years in prison camps.
As a unit the nurses of Bataan and Corregidor represent the first large group of
American women in combat and the first group of American military women taken
captive and imprisoned by an enemy.
Based on diaries and interviews, the author vividly describes the condition in
which these nurses performed their duty:
Whole areas of Bataan were leveled and the field hospitals were overwhelmed with
casualties. Now most of the nurses worked from daybreak till dark, stacking
patients on triple-tiered bamboo bunks in the wards. When these ran short, a
blanket on the jungle floor became a man s hospital bed. One evening, Sally
Blaine happened to look around her ward and, as if for the first time, noticed
that there were patients lying everywhere, so many it reminded her of the
railway panorama in Gone With the Wind, thousands of sick and bleeding men
spread out on the ground in the jungle as far as the eye could see.
Supplies were critically short. An average ward of three hundred patients shared
six medicine glasses, fifteen thermometers and a single tea spoon. The nurses
were so busy they changed only the most bloody and foul of dressings. They
stopped taking routine temperatures. A man literally had to shake with fever to
draw their attention and treatment. In the operating room, nurse-anesthetists
administered only minimal amounts of anesthetics and muscle relaxants, trying to
husband their ether until the very last moment before the surgeon lowered his
By late March, Hospital #1 at little Baguio had grown to 1,500 patients,
Hospital #2 to more than 3,000. Caring for this huge population were 67
officers, 83 nurses, 250 enlisted men and 200 civilian employees. (The civilians
came from refugee camps located just outside the hospital.)
The night before Bataan was surrendered, the nurses escaped to Corregidor and
continued to work in the hospital in the Malinta Tunnel. Corregidor fell on May
6, 1942 and American nurses became POWs of the Japanese. The author describes
At noon, while a bugler played "Taps," two American officers lowered the Stars
and Stripes form the pole outside the Malinta Tunnel and in its place raised a
white bedsheet. One of the officers cut a small piece of the flag as a memento,
then he set the rest of the Red, White and Blue on fire.
Underground the women prepared their remembrance. They ripped a large square of
cloth from a rough muslin bedsheet and, at the top, wrote the heading, "Members
of the Army Nurse Corps and Civilian Women who were in Malinta Tunnel when
Corregidor fell." Underneath in three columns the sixty-nine women signed
"We wanted to leave a record in case we disappeared," said Cassie. "We had no
idea what was going to happen to us."
Names of the Army nurses and civilian women
who were in Malinta tunnel
when Corregidor fell
The nurses were eventually imprisoned in Santo Tomas University in
Manila which had become a prison camp for some 3,800 civilians captured by the Japanese.
Although suffering from malnutrition and various diseases themselves, the nurses
kept working and were finally liberated by the American forces in February of
1945. They received a hero's welcome when they returned to the States.
The author ends the story of American nurses in the Philippines with the
inscription on the monument built by the men of the Death March:
In honor of the valiant American military women who gave so much of themselves
in the early days of World War II....They lived on a starvation diet, shared the
bombing, strafing, sniping, sickness and disease while working endless hours of
heartbreaking duty....They truly earned the name "The Angels of Bataan and
Interview with Professor Elizabeth Norman
You spent 8 years to write this book. You must have felt very strongly about
writing about these women. Why did you want to write about them?
In 1990, I published my doctoral dissertation which focused on fifty American
military nurses who served in the Vietnam War (1965-1973). During my research I
realized that the experience of working as a nurse in a combat zone is timeless
and universal. It does not matter whether the nurse is American, Japanese,
Russian or British. Their work, so far from home, exposes them to the worst of
war-- the serious maiming and deaths of young men. Soldiers are too busy
fighting and trying to stay alive. Only when the fighting stops do they had time
to consider the staggering losses. But nurses working over bloody stretchers see
the loss immediately.
I wanted to record and save the stories of the American women in the Philippines
because they endured the same hardships all nurses endure but they also became
POWs, a very unusual experience for nurses and women. They comprise the largest
group of female POWs in American history.
You interviewed some of the surviving nurses. What kind of experience was it to
meet them in person and to listen to their stories?
I interviewed 24 nurses and several of their family members. I was hesitant
about meeting these women because they are the same generation as my mother and
I did not know if they would be open and honest with me. I was also nervous that
they would not recall their experiences with the detail I needed. It had been
more than fifty years earlier!! I was wrong on both counts. The women welcomed
me. They felt that as a nurse I would understand their experience better than
others. They knew they were getting older and many has already died. If they
didn't share their story with someone, it would die with them. Finally, anyone
who has served in war knows that the memories do not fade. They remain strong
and detailed. These women remembered smells and colors and names after five
I found these women so humane. They loved to laugh and they truly loved one
another. They helped each other when needed. They did not get emotional over
little losses. It took a lot to make them cry. And they fiercely guarded their
legacy. If I wrote or said anything incorrect, they politely or firmly told me
so. They were wise women. I learned a lot about enjoying happy moments when they
occur and not getting upset when small stresses occur.
I found it fascinating that some of the nurses even took care of Japanese
soldiers who were wounded on Bataan. Given the fact that the Japanese bombed
the US field Hospital killing many patients, it was remarkable. I don't think many people
in Japan know about it. From what you observed during many interviews, could you tell how the
nurses felt about tending wounded Japanese soldiers?
There were few Japanese patients on Bataan and Corregidor. No one knows the
exact number but I would say less than 100 men. Every nurse I have
interviewed who has served in war has the same dilemma. When confronted with an
enemy patient their first reaction is to give them substandard care because these men
represent others who have hurt and killed people the nurses loved. But this
thought quickly vanishes. The nurses come to see the enemy combatants as just
patients needing care. Their professional code of ethics takes precedence over
any personal feelings and the nurses had no issues caring for wounded enemy
One of the most moving parts of your book is where you describe how the
nurses were still hunted by the memory of having to leave their patients. You
During my interviews, it was not their own fears or suffering that most haunted
them, it was the memory of a certain evening on Bataan in April 1942 when they
received word that the peninsula was about to fall to the enemy and they were
ordered to leave their patients, just leave them there on bamboo beds in the
middle of the jungle in the path of the advancing enemy, thousands of wounded
and bleeding and feverish men, unarmed and utterly helpless....Fifty years later,
I watched them weep inconsolably in the telling.
Did the sense of mission as a care taker make them strong during the war?
Of course it did. The sense of mission sustained them. Gave them a reason to
keep going each day. These women were strong before the war, but they had
excellent nursing leaders and the support of close nurse-friends who sustained
them when they wavered under the bombs or in prison camp.
Japanese people also have a famous wartime episode of Himeyuri Butai, a group
of young nurses in Okinawa. Do you know about these girls?
Yes I had read about their awful experiences on Okinawa. I visited Yasukuni
Shrine four years ago and saw photographs and read the stories of Japanese
nurses posted in the museum. It was fascinating and sad to read. How young they
were and what a terrible ordeal they endured.
We Japanese and Americans mourn over loss of our fellow countrymen/women and
try to find some meaningful lessons from tragedies in WWII. How do you think we
can transcend our nationality in that process, when each of us find ourselves
in an opposite position, the winner and the loser in that war? Do you think
stories such as the one you wrote about the American nurses can help us?
Stories such as We Band of Angels preserves important parts of history. I
learned and I hope my readers realize that ordinary people, men and women, can
accomplish amazing feats of survival. We should be proud of what these nurses
did. Nursing transcends nationality. So does war.
I have been writing a second book on the Philippines in World War II with my
co-author and husband Michael Norman. The book will be called, Tears in The
Darkness. We tell the stories of the American, Filipino and Japanese soldiers
who fought on Bataan. Part of our research involved several trips to the
Philippines to walk the Death March route and to interview Filipino veterans and
civilians who live on Bataan. We've also interviewed twenty-two former Imperial
Japanese soldiers who fought on Bataan.
One major lesson we learned from our
travels and interviews is that war produces no winners or losers. Everyone loses
in war. Every man, regardless of nationality, who set foot on Bataan suffered
terribly by the end of World War II. No one wins.
I have no doubt that if I could read this paragraph to the nurses today (only
three are still alive and they are in very frail health), they would heartily
agree with me.
(interviewed by Kinue Tokudome)