The Nurses Who Were the Angels of Bataan

They were the first American women to see combat and yet, the story was “swallowed up,” said Elizabeth Norman, the author of We Band of Angels.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, 99 Army and Navy nurses carried on, caring for nearly 6,000 injured soldiers over four months, in makeshift jungle hospitals on the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines. Nearly two dozen women later returned to the states. The 77 women who remained were captured as POWs in 1942 by the Japanese and became the largest group of women POWs in U.S. history.

Norman highlights the women’s stories in We Band of Angels, one of 70 titles in the SDHC’s Lending Library and a timely read for International Women’s Day on March 8.


We Band of Angels by Elizabeth M. Norman


In the fall of 1941, the Philippines was a gardenia-scented paradise for the American Army and Navy nurses stationed there. On December 8 all that changed, as Japanese bombs rained on American bases in Luzon, and the women's paradise became a fiery hell. Here, in letters, diaries, and firsthand accounts, is the story of what really happened during those dark days, woven together in a compelling saga of women in war.

The book shines in highlighting the daily struggle faced by the imprisoned women to maintain community and care for their patients in the midst of bombings, starvation, injuries and disease all while caring for themselves in increasing inhospitable conditions.

Angels-3 - from
Newly liberated Army nurses pose before boarding a flight to the U.S., Feb. 20, 1945. They were taken prisoners by the Japanese on Bataan and Corregidor in 1942 and held for nearly three years. During captivity they cared for almost 4,000 other prisoners of war, while weak from disease and starvation themselves. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History)

A 1999 review by Publisher’s Weekly notes that Norman “makes excellent use of extensive quotations from diaries and interviews.” However, writes the review, “The few who escaped were cast by the American press more as belles than as professionals who had held steady in their devotion to their patients and their country in the face of bombing, starvation and the gruesome injuries and diseases of their charges.” This book aims to tell the real story of the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor.

On December 8, 1941, the day of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, news trickled in to the nurses’ post in Manila. By the end of the day, the Japanese bombed Manila and casualties streamed in to the “previously sleepy Sternberg Hospital.” Medical personnel retreated to the Bataan Peninsula to set up a field hospital. Nurses tended to 6,000 patients in four months. In April 1942, they moved to the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay for the next month. Then, they were captured as prisoners of war.

In January 1945, Allied forces retook the Philippine Islands and all 77 women, the largest group of women POWs in U.S. history, and the other POWs were liberated.

On the homefront, the nurses’ situation was romanticized in Hollywood movies, and one nurse, Helen Cassiani Nestor (who was 82 at the time of this 1999 interview), said they weren’t brave – they were just doing their job.

Books from the SDHC’s Lending Library are available through the Book Club to Go program.

For a $50 application fee, reading groups received up to 30 copies of a title and a discussion leader from our list of book scholars. Start your application.