Bari, Italy · November 8, 1943

In this date in 1943, 13 U.S. Army flight nurses, 13 young enlisted medics, and 3 flight crew boarded a Douglas C‑53 trans­port in Sicily for a 90‑minute flight to Bari on the Italian main­land. As a unit of the 807th Medical Air Evacu­a­tion Squa­dron, the team’s assign­ment was to ferry wounded soldiers to hos­pitals farther from the front lines. But a winter storm and a crash landing in a remote part of enemy-occupied Albania kicked off a danger­ous 800‑mile, months­long trek to freedom for the only group of flight nurses and medics to have sur­vived so long behind enemy lines in Europe. Bravery, luck, and the heroics of the Alba­nian under­ground led to a happy ending, with 23 rescued on Janu­ary 9, 1944, and the remaining 3 on March 21.

Not all nurses’ stories had a happy ending, though. Of the 54,000 women who served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and the 11,000 who served in the Navy Nurse Corps during World War II, a very small per­cent­age died while on active duty (201 Army nurses and 40 Navy nurses). Remark­ably, of the almost 80 military nurses cap­tured and interned by the Japa­nese in the Philip­pines, all sur­vived their three years of increas­ingly hellish treat­ment and months of near star­va­tion. (The nurses lost, on average, 30 per­cent of their body weight during intern­ment.) Affec­tionately known as the “Angels of Bataan and Correg­i­dor,” these amazing women, spread between two intern­ment camps, con­tinued to treat the sick and dying around them. In the Los Baños intern­ment camp, a multi­national POW and civilian intern­ment camp on an aban­doned college cam­pus, 11 Navy nurses func­tioned as a nursing unit until their rescue by a mixed force of U.S. Army Air­borne and Fili­pino guer­rillas on Febru­ary 23, 1945.

At the Santo Tomas Intern­ment Camp, formerly the campus of the Univer­sity of Santo Tomas in Manila, 57‑year‑old Capt. Maude C. Davi­son took com­mand of the Army nurses, main­tained a regu­lar schedule of nursing duty, and in­sisted on her nurses wearing their khaki blouses and skirts while on duty. More than 3,700 civil­ian men, women, and chil­dren, including the nurses, were liberated on Febru­ary 3, 1945, by a “flying column” of the U.S. First Cavalry Divi­sion as it fought its way to Manila. Upon returning state­side, the Army awarded their nurses, among other deco­ra­tions, the Bronze Star for valor and a Presi­dential Unit Cita­tion for extraor­dinary heroism in action. The Navy nurses were likewise awarded Bronze Stars upon their return.

Finding letters my aunt wrote while overseas in World War II and attending a 45-year reunion of her original hos­pital unit inspired me to meet and inter­view almost 200 U.S. Army and U.S. Navy nurses for my book No Time for Fear: Voices of Ameri­can Military Nurses in World War II. Many books have been written by and about the very first flight nurses, nurses impri­soned by the Japa­nese in the Philip­pines, African Ameri­can nurses who served in a segre­gated mili­tary, and nurses on duty in North Africa, Europe, China, Burma, India, on hospi­tal ships, and in the jungles of the South Pacific. My per­sonal collec­tion of more than 100 books by and about World War II nurses includes these favorites: Lady Don’t Stop Here, by Esther Baer Moseley, a book cen­tered on Army flight nurses serving in the CBI; We Band of Angels, by Eliza­beth M. Nor­man, about the captured mili­tary nurses from Bataan and Correg­i­dor; and Pure Grit, by Mary Cronk Farrell, written for young readers about the nurses interned by the Japa­nese in the Philippines. Two books focus on the harrowing escape by 26 flight nurses and medics playing hide-and-seek from the Ger­mans following their crash landing in a remote part of occu­pied Albania: Albanian Escape, by Agnes Jensen Mangerich, and Out of Albania, by Law­rence Abbott; both were pas­sen­gers on the doomed 807th Medi­cal Air Evacu­a­tion flight to Italy. Mildred A. Mac­Gregor recounts her war­time ser­vice in Eng­land, North Africa, France, and Ger­many in World War II Front Line Nurse, and Page Cooper writes about the contri­bu­tions of the Navy Nurse Corps, which served in all war zones, in Navy Nurse.—Diane Burke Fessler

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U.S. Military Nurses at Their Bravest—As Japanese Prisoners of War

Army nurses being evacuated from Manila, February 11, 1945-1Army 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 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.

Freed Los Baños POWs, February 23, 1945Chief Nurse Cobb 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. Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, Supreme Com­mander for the South­west Pacific Area, had grown ever more alarmed about the plight of the thou­sands of Los Baños prisoners who, with deliv­er­ance so near, 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 U.S. para­troopers, 300 troops in amtracs (amphib­ious tractors), and 800 Filipino guer­rillas is con­sidered as one of the most successful rescue operations in the history of World War II.

Right: Chief Nurse Laura Mae Cobb (1892–1981) and ten other Japa­nese-internee Navy nurses speak to Vice Admiral Thomas Kin­kaid after their rescue from Los Baños. 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.

11th Airborne Los Baños Rescue, February 23,1945. Includes Interviews with Rescuers