Saturday, November 28, 2009

We Band of Angels by Elizabeth M. Norman

I love it when a non-fiction book is so fascinating that you can’t put it down. Such is the case with Elizabeth Norman’s We Band of Angels (subtitled: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese)

C.S. Lewis wrote of two elements in writing. The first is the words (Logos); the second is the craft of putting them together in a compelling way (Poema). I have found that World War Two books often have the words and facts straight, but lack compelling writing, That can hardly be said for this book because Norman has expertly woven her research and survivor interviews into a mesmerizing account of courage in the face of war-time atrocities.

On the same day that Pearl Harbor was bombed the Japanese navy also launched attacks on American naval and army bases on the Philippine Islands. Tens of thousands of soldiers were trapped on the peninsula of Baatan and the island of Corregidor. For months they obeyed Macarthur’s orders to “never surrender”. But by May of 1942, tropical diseases and lack of food had weakened the troops to such an extent that they were no longer able to resist enemy advances.

Knowing a little about the Bataan Death March and the thousands who were killed on that perilous trek, I was surprised to read that all 77 nurses who were captured survived their internment in POW camps. Because the Japanese had never seen women in army fatigues they couldn’t believe that they were on the bases for any other reason than to be “comfort girls” to the soldiers. Hence they were placed in civilian internment camps and not the deadly P.O.W. camps portrayed in films such as “Bridge Over The River Kwai”.

Several movies have tried to capture the saga of this book. My favorite is "So Proudly We Hail", but the nurses who survived Corregidor hated it for the way it romanticized and trivialized their loyal service to their country. Now that I’ve read the book I’ll have to re-watch the film and see what I think.

Part Two of this review is here.