We Band of Angels
© 2001 Elizabeth M. Norman
When Japan invaded the Philippines and besieged the Bataan peninsula, the Filipino-American army wasn’t the only entity enduring months of dwindling supplies and attritive warfare. Stationed alongside soldiers and sailors were nurses, farm girls from the United States who never intended to go to war, but found themselves in the middle of one. We Band of Angels uses letters, diaries, and interviews with still-living nurses to recount their increasingly desperate experience, as they set up emergency medical stations behind the lines, a few dozen women tending to thousands of patients as bombs fell and monkeys helped themselves to the scant food and medicine available. It is unusual and attractive in being a non-military memoir of the fall of the Phillipines, the siege of Corregidor, and later imprisonment, and rather lively.
On Bataan and Corregidor, there were no secure rear quarters; the warzone was everywhere, and bombs were just as liable to fall into hospitals as they were vehicle pools. Unlike the soldiers, these nurses — civilians, really, whose programs were nationalized — had never trained for conditions this hostile, but they took them on just the same. They tended the injured after every bombardment and raid, and did their best to keep disease from utterly destroying their comrades despite being the walking wounded themselves, caught in the grips of malaria but attempting to do what good they could. When forced to evacuate, they left part of their hearts behind in the patients abandoned in beds. Some would return to the United States following the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, while others would spent years held prisoner by the Japanese. Those who returned were aghast to find themselves hailed as saintly heroes; what they they done, other than stick to their duty and make the best of an awful situation? After the Philippines were liberated, those imprisoned met the same fate, idolized and put to good use selling war bonds and inspiring an increasingly war-fatigued populace.
Their irritation at being used is shared by a sometimes prickly author who resents women being treated any differently than men. When nurses were evacuated to Corregidor shortly before Bataan was abandoned, she fumes against the male egotism that wanted to protect the women, a bizarre judgment given that she had just shared everyone’s speculation about a Nanking-style desecration, and the fact that soldiers were being evacuated. (The judgment is proven tragically faulty when later a nurse is raped by the imperials, and others endure deliberate sexual taunting by the swaggering invaders.) Norman’s scorn for her subject culture doesn’t manifest itself too often, however, and the story of the nurses themselves is so fascinating that misplaced political griping does’t diminish it. Her core grievance is that the women were idolized as Women — tender, doting nurses or damsels in distress — and not given their proper respect as working professionals, ladies of intelligence, skill, and steadfast devotion to their vocation. It would be a fairer complaint if levied against modern audiences, but for those living the world crisis, seeing all of Eurasia under the command of totalitarian governments, no doubt legends carried more traction than staid reports. There is a time for stories about knights fighting dragons, sustaining faith in a fight against monstrosity. Norman’s book does give them that respect, taking a fuller measure of their character, one we are now safe to appreciate far from the peril of the hour.