Angels of Bataan and Corregidor

American Nurse POWs rescued from Santo Tomas Internment Camp, 1945

Victims of Circumstance / Santo Tomas Internment Camp – Help identify men, women, and children in photos; contact fellow POWs or their families (Warning: Music starts automatically upon download)

Whenever possible, the military medic and the military nurse operate from field hospitals situated safely away from the line of fire. In most cases, this plan works as expected. War, however, is unpredictable no matter how well planned and there’d be no need for field hospitals if it weren’t for war. Perhaps one of the most famous field hospitals was in the Filipino capitol city, Manila, during World War II. In the Santo Tomas internment camp, all the medics were really only eleven US Army nurses and they were all American prisoners of war (POWs), held captive by the Japanese. All their patients were POWs, too.

The problem started in Sternberg General Hospital, where a full contingent of military medics, nurses, and support personnel were stationed shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Sternberg General was being used as a military hospital, as were several other hospitals throughout the city. Medical personnel from both the US Army and the US Navy were stationed there.

During the Battle of the Philippines (1941-1942), the Sternberg was invaded by Japanese warriors and its staff and patients held captive. During the last days of 1941, 88 Army nurses escaped and fled to Corregidor and Bataan. The Navy nurses chose to stay behind and tend to the sick and wounded at Sternberg.

The Army nurses got split up and eleven were captured by the Japanese and imprisoned at the University of Santo Tomas, which had been converted to a POW camp after the Japanese invasion. Twenty years of a disciplined nursing regimen in the military made it impossible for 57-year-old POW Captain Maude C. Davison to sit idly by; she instructed her fellow nurse captives to put on their working uniforms and create an infirmary. The Angels of Bataan had arrived.

Three years later, control of the POW camp transfered to the Imperial Japanese Army; living conditions already harsh in captivity became much worse. Food rations were reduced to just 960 calories a day for almost a year before they were restricted even further, to just 700 calories per person per day in January 1945. The average Angel would lose 30% of her body weight during captivity. When finally freed on February 3, 1945, Capt. Davison’s weight had dropped from 156 pounds to 80.

News of the captured military nurses – the Battling Belles of Bataan – spread quickly throughout the US, where their predicament was known but details were sketchy. Using the nurses as a battle cry on the home front, the federal government distributed posters urging American citizens to “Work! To set ‘em free!” During their captivity, three movies were made in tribute to the Angels of Bataan:

  • Cry ‘Havoc’ (1943)
  • So Proudly We Hail (1943)
  • They Were Expendable (1945)

The full contingent of Angels of Bataan and Corregidor included 1 nurse anesthetist, 11 Navy nurses, and 66 Army nurses. The men whose lives were touched by the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor erected a bronze plaque in their honor on April 9, 1980. It’s at the Mount Samat shrine on the Bataan Peninsula. It reads:

TO THE ANGELS– In honor of the valiant American military women who gave so much of themselves in the early days of World War II. They provided care and comfort to the gallant defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. They lived on a starvation diet, shared the bombing, strafing, sniping, sickness and disease while working endless hours of heartbreaking duty. These nurses always had a smile, a tender touch and a kind word for their patients. They truly earned the name–THE ANGELS OF BATAAN AND CORREGIDOR.

On August 20, 2001, Major Maude C. Davison was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by the US Army in honor of her dedication to keeping her nurses living and working as US Army nurses even during the most brutal periods of captivity; she is attributed with saving their lives.

No such honor has yet been bestowed on US Navy Chief Nurse Laura M. Cobb.