Earlier this year I read Return from the River Kwai and was troubled by its definition of heroism as “survival”. This book reflects a truer definition of the word since it depicts people working under horrendous circumstances and yet giving selflessly of their time and energies. Gleaning from government documents, diaries, letters and first hand interviews, Norman tells the amazing tale of military nurses who were serving in the Pacific to get away from their hum-drum lives in the U.S and how they got much more than they bargained for.
Before their actual capture the nurses were running a hospital under jungle trees. “The allies faced two enemies on Bataan: the Japanese with their bombs, bullets, and long bayonets, and a second adversary, more powerful and unforgiving than any army that has ever taken the field…. The effects of malaria, dysentery, dengue fever and half a dozen other conditions were aggravated by the growing problem of malnutrition.” (p. 50, 51)
General MacArthur had left Bataan for Australia in March of 1942. At the end of April and beginning of May he managed to get two small planes and a sub close enough to Bataan to evacuate a handful of the nurses.Fifty-four remained to face the Japanese on May 6 when surrender became inevitable. The next three years were spent in a concentration camp in Manila. Here again, the nurses showed unbelievable courage as they cared for the sick and dying. Malnutrition, not bullets, was the chief cause of death now. The nurses themselves suffered terribly from beriberi and various tropical diseases.
“And the work was hard. It took all the women’s energy just to change a simple dressing or administer a standard treatment. Any exertion exhausted them, and before moving on to the next patient they would have to sit and rest their painfully swollen legs. But every day they reported for work. They worked because they were nurses, and the sick called them to duty. It was good work, honorable work, especially among the dying, where they were needed most. In a way the work sustained them, for it gave them something most of the others in the camp did not have – a mission, a reason to get up in the morning…” (p. 200)
The nurses interviewed for this book did not want to be called heroes. They claim they were “just doing their job”. But, I, for one, salute them for unusual courage and faithful service to their country throughout the war. In addition to being a well-told story, this book contains photos, a helpful timeline and a thorough bibliography.