Washington, D.C. April 9, 1983

On this date in 1983, National POW/MIA Recognition Day, 31 of the 67 Army and Navy nurses who had been captured by the Japa­nese in 1942 and interned at the Santo Tomas and Los Baños intern­ment camps in the Philip­pines were honored at a White House cere­mony by Presi­dent Ronald Reagan. It was the largest gathering of POW nurses since their liberation in February 1945.

The nurses honored that day were the first large group of U.S. mili­tary nurses to be sub­jected to actual com­bat and taken captive by the enemy. Having enlisted for peace­time duty in the Philip­pines, the nurses cared for mili­tary families at base hos­pitals. Their jobs and lives drama­tically changed when Japan attacked the Philip­pines on the same day Japan­ese planes rained death and destruc­tion on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Four months later, when 70,000 Amer­ican and Fili­pino service­men surren­dered uncon­di­tionally to the Japa­nese Imperial Army on the Bataan Penin­sula, 86 Army nurses, 26 Filipino nurses, and one Navy nurse escaped capture by retreating to Correg­i­dor, a 3½-square-mile island at the entrance of Manila Bay. There under 300 feet of rock and soil in the Malinta Tun­nel the nurses ini­tially cared for 12,000 peo­ple: 7,000 com­bat troops, 2,000 civil­ians, and 3,000 medical personnel and military administrators.

After Japanese forces began their assault on Corregi­dor in the early morning hours of May 4, 1942, the Army nurses, now reduced to 56 after two daring rescues, one by a Cata­lina sea­plane on April 29 and the other by a U.S. sub­marine on May 3, ended up as pri­soners of war on the cam­pus of the Uni­ver­sity of Santo Tomas. The Japa­nese had turned the 50‑acre campus into an intern­ment camp for nearly 4,000 civil­ian men, women, and chil­dren. Comman­der Maude Davi­son, 57 years old and a World War I vete­ran, estab­lished mili­tary rou­tine and disci­pline (khaki blouses and skirts while on duty) among the Army nurses. Eleven Cañacao Naval Hos­pital nurses who remained behind when Cavite Naval Ship­yard out­side Manila fell into enemy hands were also interned at Santo Tomas.

Due to increased crowding at Santo Tomas—the Japa­nese kept bringing in more and more civil­ian pri­soners from rural areas—the Japa­nese opened another intern­ment camp at Los Baños near the south­ern shore of Laguna de Bay, 40 miles south­east of Manila. There the Navy nurses, under the com­mand of 50-year-old Chief Nurse Laura Mae Cobb, opened a 25‑bed hos­pital and treated as many as 200 patients a day. As internees in two civil­ian camps, the mili­tary nurses cared for their patients while enduring with their co-prisoners deplor­able housing condi­tions, dis­ease (chicken pox, whooping cough, measles, diph­the­ria, beri­beri, hepa­titis, tuber­cu­losis), malnu­trition, and near death by star­va­tion—500 cal­o­ries per day at Santo Tomas and 900 cal­o­ries per day at Los Baños at the end of January 1945 just days before their liberation.

On February 4, 1945, the American flag again flew over Santo Tomas. The night before a tank equipped with a power­ful search­light crashed through the univer­sity’s main gate and a dis­tinctly Amer­ican voice called out, “Hello, folks!” More U.S. troops arrived bearing machine guns, artil­lery, and food, food, food. Six days after Santo Tomas’s libera­tion, 100 Army nurses from the States flew into Manila to relieve the ex-POW nurses. The Navy nurses at Los Baños were rescued three weeks later, on the morning of Febru­ary 23, 1943, just before their morning roll call, when 150 para­troopers from the 11th Air­borne Divi­sion floated from the sky, machine-gunned many of the 150–250 camp guards (other guards fled), and, in the com­pany of 800 Filipino guer­rillas and an am­trac (amphib­ious trac­tor) battalion, herded all 2,100 cap­tives to the lagoon’s beach 1½ miles away. Internees and troops made good their watery escape to American-controlled terri­tory and eventually to a relief center in Manila.

I was astounded when I first learned of the American military women captured and held as prisoners of war by the Japanese in World War II. It was hard to believe that I had never been taught about them in school. I promised myself I would write their inspiring story for teenagers, which is how my book Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific came about. By that time only one of the women remained alive, former Army nurse Mildred Dalton Manning. I visited her one winter morning at her apart­ment, where, at 98, she still lived on her own with a part-time care­giver. I asked her how she survived the horrors of combat nursing. “I guess you just buried your emotions. . . . But I know it affects you because I don’t even like to go into hospitals today. It always brings back memories.” Millie told me she was scared from the day the war started until the day she came home. “[I] never gave up hope, you just did your work and you just keep going, there’s nothing else you can do.” The nurses did not think of them­selves as heroes, always passing that distinction on to their patients on Bataan. “Seeing those soldiers with no place to go, and not able to get out of the way of any­thing. They couldn’t even get into foxholes. We couldn’t either. . . . It was devastating to watch. And I can’t bear to think about what happened to all those men the day after [we nurses evacuated Bataan] and the Japs came in.” The Army and Navy nurses were strong, inde­pendent, adven­turous women, but they were also care­givers. In prison camp they continued their mission, treating the wounded and sick, saving lives if they could, and comforting the dying. This purpose helped sustain them. Though weak from hunger and diseased from malnu­trition, they got up each morning and reported for duty. Their military training and the leader­ship of their chief nurses provided routine and esprit de corps, which also strengthened them and kept their hope alive. Pure Grit shows how these WWII POW nurses forged courage in the darkest places.—Mary Cronk Farrell

Enduring Courage and Strength: U.S. Military Nurses as Japanese Prisoners of War

WWII Army Nurse Corps recruiting posterWWII Navy Nurse Corps recruiting poster

Above: Recruiting posters for the Army Nurse Corps (left) and Navy Nurse Corps (right). At the start of the war in Decem­ber 1941, there were fewer than 1,000 nurses in the Army Nurse Corps and 700 in the Navy Nurse Corps. All were women. By the end of the war the Army and Army Air Forces had 54,000 nurses and the Navy 11,000. Again, all the nurses were women. Much larger numbers of enlisted men served as medics and corps­men. The men were in effect practi­cal nurses who handled routine care under the direction of nurse officers.

Japanese internment camps: Santo Tomas camp internees cheering their release, February 5, 1945Japanese internment camps: Emaciated survivors of Santo Tomas internment, February 1945

Left: Santo Tomas Internment Camp, on the campus of the Univer­sity of Santo Tomas in Manila, was the largest of sev­eral camps in the Philip­pines in which the Japa­nese interned more than 4,000 enemy civil­ians, mostly Amer­icans, British, French, and Scandi­na­vians, from Janu­ary 1942 until Febru­ary 1945. This photo, taken on Febru­ary 5, 1945, shows hun­dreds of camp inter­nees in front of the univer­sity’s Main Building cheering their release. Evacua­tion of the inter­nees began on Febru­ary 11. Sixty-four U.S. Army nurses interned in Santo Tomas were the first to leave and board air­planes for the United States. Flights and ships to the States for most internees began on February 22.

Right: Emaciated internees at Santo Tomas Intern­ment Center, Febru­ary 1945. Male internees lost an average of 53 pounds during the 37 months of their cap­tivity at Santo Tomas. Navy nurse Peggy Nash, a pri­soner at Los Baños, went from 130 pounds to 68 pounds. Forty-eight people died at the Santo Tomas camp in Febru­ary due to the lingering effects of near-star­va­tion for so many months. Most internees could not leave the camp because of a lack of housing in Manila, almost com­pletely destroyed in the battle to retake the Philip­pine capital. In March and April 1945 the camp slowly emptied out, but it was not until Septem­ber that Santo Tomas finally closed and the last internees boarded a ship for the U.S. or found places in Manila to live.

Japanese internment camps: Army nurses being evacuated from Manila, February 11, 1945-1Japanese internment camps: Army nurses being evacuated from Manila, February 11, 1945-2

Above: Freed after three years imprison­ment at the Santo Tomas Intern­ment Camp, Army nurses gathered their belongings and boarded trucks on Febru­ary 11, 1945, a little more than a week after the camp’s libera­tion, for flights back to the States. The former cap­tives were given new Army uni­forms to replace their worn-out clothes and were the recipi­ents of lip­sticks, shoes, and civil­ian clothing donated by other nurses. Santo Tomas, in addi­tion to its civil­ian internees (mostly Ameri­cans, British, Cana­dians, and Austra­lians of both sexes), was the ini­tial intern­ment camp for Navy nurses (11), Army nurses (66), and one nurse-anes­the­tist after the Japa­nese captured Manila (Janu­ary 1942) and the tadpool-shaped island fortress of Correg­i­dor (May 1942). To reduce over­crowding at Santo Tomas, in May 1943 the Navy nurses left to help estab­lish a new camp at Los Baños, some 40 miles south of Manila, with an initial set of 800 male internees.

Japanese internment camps: Freed Los Baños POWs, February 23, 1945Japanese internment camps: Admiral Kincaid and Navy nurses after rescue

Left: A truckload of some of the 2,147 Allied civil­ian and mili­tary internees from the Los Baños Intern­ment Camp after their Febru­ary 23, 1945, rescue, which occurred during the height of the Battle of Manila (Febru­ary 3 to March 3, 1945). Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, Supreme Com­mander for the South­west Pacific Area, had grown ever more alarmed about the plight of the Los Baños pri­soners who, with deliv­er­ance so close, might be killed by retreating Japan­ese sol­diers. (A nurse internee learned later that the Japa­nese had planned to exe­cute every­one in the camp the very morning of their rescue.) Lasting an hour or at most two, the Los Baños Raid by a com­pany of 150 U.S. para­troopers, 300 troops in amphib­ious tractors (amtracs), and 800 Filipino guer­rillas is con­sidered as one of the most success­ful rescue operations in the history of World War II.

Right: Vice Admiral Thomas Kin­kaid welcomes Chief Nurse Laura Mae Cobb (1892–1981), partially hidden behind Kin­kaid’s left shoulder, and ten other Japa­nese-internee Navy nurses after their rescue from Los Baños. Nurse Dorothy Still, seated at far left, was too weak to stand for the photo. (Still’s account of her captivity is told in This is Really War: The Incredible True Story of a Navy Nurse POW in the Philippines.) The nurses were known as “the sacred eleven” by camp inmates. After returning to the U.S., Cobb was pro­moted to Lieu­tenant Com­mander and awarded the Bronze Star, a Gold Star in lieu of a second Bronze Star, the Defense of Philip­pines Ribbon, a Distin­guished Army Unit Citation, and the Asiatic-Pacific Theater Ribbon with two Battle Stars.

Contemporary Media Account of Battle of Manila and Liberation of Santo Tomas Internment Camp