Military forces of the Japanese Empire appeared unstoppable in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, invading first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as American military bases in Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.
The United States was grotesquely unprepared to fight a World War in 1942, and dedicated itself to beating Adolf Hitler. General Douglas MacArthur abandoned the “Alamo of the Pacific” on March 11 saying “I shall return”, leaving 90,000 American and Filipino troops without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the Japanese offensive.
Some 75,000 American and Filipino troops surrendered on April 9, abandoning the Bataan peninsula to begin a 65-mile, five-day slog into captivity. Starving and sick with any number of tropical diseases, Japanese guards were sadistic in the 100-degree tropical sun. Marchers were beaten, decapitated or shot at random and bayoneted, if too weak to walk. Japanese tank drivers swerved out of the way to run over those who had fallen and were too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive.
Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, thousands perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.
The American nurse Margaret Elizabeth (Doolin) Rowley came to the Philippines the late 1920s, a twenty-something widow and single mother to her young son, Charles. There she met and fell in love with John “Jack” Utinsky, a former Army Captain working as a civil engineer. The couple was married in 1934, and settled down to a life in Manila.
As the likelihood of war came to the far east, the US military ordered American wives out of the Philippines. Utinsky refused and took an apartment in Manila, while Jack went to work on the Bataan peninsula.
Margaret was forced aboard the last ship to leave as Japanese troops occupied Manila on January 2, 1942, but sneaked off the ship and returned to her apartment. Years later, Margaret Utinsky wrote in her book, “Miss U”:
“To go into an internment camp seemed like the sensible thing to do, but for the life of me I could not see what use I would be to myself or to anyone else cooped up there. … For from the moment the inconceivable thing happened and the Japanese arrived, there was just one thought in my mind—to find Jack.”
The weeks came and went while Margaret remained undiscovered. She ventured out in mid-March and sought help from the priests of Malate Convent, there using contacts to gain false identity papers as Rena Utinsky, a fictional nurse from the non-belligerent state of Lithuania.
On the eve of the American surrender, Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright ordered all military and civilian nurses off the Bataan peninsula, and onto the island of Corregidor.
77 Americans of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps and a handful of civilians were captured a month later with the fall of Corregidor, becoming the largest group of female POWs, of the war.
The group was sent to Santo Tomas prison camp in July, joining a group of Navy nurses who had been there, for six months.
Conditions were horrendous in these camps, with disease, starvation and cartoonish levels of violence from sadistic guards. Up to and including summary execution. Army nurse Mary Bernice Brown-Menzie entered into captivity weighing 130-pounds in 1942. By the time of her liberation in February, 1945, she weighed 75.
Brown wrote in her diary of one prisoner who was tied up for three days and nights in the burning sun before being shot in the back, and left to die. ““Whether he died instantly or wounded and bleeding lived on until he finally died, we will never know. But this cruel, heartless and brutal treatment filled us all with deep grief and sorrow.”
Carlos and Tina Makabali Jose talk about their mother, Adelaida Garcia Makabali, a nurse in Bataan and Corregidor. H/T BataanLegacy.org
Margaret Utinsky used her false identity papers to secure a position with the Red Cross by this time, and went to Bataan looking for Jack. Dismayed by conditions among survivors of the Death march, Utinsky began to do little things for the thousands of prisoners of Camp O’Donnell. Money. Quinine. A little medicine.
Learning that Jack was dead, Utinsky became part of a small clandestine network, determined to do what they could for American POWs and Filipino resistance movements. Code named “Miss U”, she joined with 22-year-old Filipina hairdresser Naomi Flores (code name “looter”), American club owner Claire “High Pockets” Maybelle Snyder, a number of Filipino priests and a Spaniard named Ramon Amusategui.
Suspected of aiding POWs, Utinsky was arrested and brought to Fort Santiago prison. There she was sexually assaulted and tortured, for thirty-two days. When confronted with that ship’s passenger log showing her real name, she claimed she had lied in order to secure work as a nurse. Imagine being beaten, and then beaten again, and again. For thirty two days. When that failed to gain a confession, her jailers decapitated five Filipino prisoners, in front of her cell. Another night, an American POW was tied to the bars of her cell and beaten so savagely that chunks of his flesh, wound up in her hair. Even beating the man to death in front of her was not enough, and she was thrown into a dungeon. For four days, without food or water.
She was finally released, provided she sign a statement attesting to her “good treatment”.
Utinsky was six weeks in hospital, recovering from the ordeal. Doctors wanted to amputate a leg infected with gangrene but she refused. The place was teeming with Japanese spies. She feared what she might give up, while under the influence of gas. In the end, the gangrene was cut out, without benefit of anesthesia.
Amusategui was found out and executed. Flores and Utinsky took refuge in the mountains, working with guerrilla groups for the remainder for the war. By the time it was over, Utinsky had lost 45 pounds, 35 percent of her body weight, and lost an inch in height. Her face was aged twenty-five years and her once auburn hair, turned white.
Back in the camps, POWs fashioned nurse’s uniforms made from khaki, under the leadership of Veteran Army Captain Maude Davison. Despite themselves suffering from disease and starvation, each was expected to finish her shifts, providing what care they could for the “The Battling Bastards of Bataan.”
It was the same for Navy nurses, led by Lieutenant Laura Cobb. In 1943, these women volunteered for transfer to Los Baños. The work gave them purpose. A reason to live.
Following the December 14, 1944 massacre at Palawan, United States Army Rangers and their Filipino allies staged a daring raid on Cabanatuan on January 27 and Camp O’Donnell, three days later. Santo Tomas was liberated on February 3, 1945 along with nearby Bilibid Prison and Los Baños on February 23.
Emaciated, tormented by tropical disease and without a day’s survival training between them, every one of the 66 Army nurses, eleven Navy nurses and one Nurse Anesthetist: Angels of Bataan and Corregidor lived to tell the tale and continued to perform their nurse’s duties, to the end.
On the inside, most would have told you the men they cared for were the heroes of this story. They never sought recognition. After the war, many of those men credited their survival to the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor. It was they who sought the recognition these women so richly deserved.
Today, none of the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor are believed to survive. Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Cantrell is an historian with the US Army Nurse’s Corps “They were a tough bunch,” Cantrell said in an interview with Soldier’s Magazine. “They had a mission. They were surviving for the boys … and each other. That does give you a bit of added strength.”
Without order and work we will never survive.
This camp is guarded, you see, by Japanese
but we run it ourselves. And I was the one
(though many take credit) who labelled the quinine
Soda Bicarbonate so it wouldn’t be taken
and the one who said we’d care for the internees
imprisoned with us: Aussies, Brits, French —
other enemies of the Rising Sun, men, women,
children, all of them civilians. In khaki clothes
we’ve made by hand, we work our shifts.
No days off for heat waves or monsoon.
Only the bedridden are excused. These girls
are unprepared, call me Battle-Axe, but I know
how to whip them into shape. No whining.
No complaints We may be short on emetine
or anesthetic and have no reserves of insulin,
but what we do isn’t free choice. It’s a higher calling.
From ANGELS OF BATAAN, Susan Terris (Pudding House