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 scalpel.

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 the scene:

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 their names.

"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 Corregidor."

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 decades.

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 soldiers.

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 wrote:

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)