POW nurses tell their story
By THEODORA AGGELES
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000
Women have long been left off history pages, but for the American nurses who were held prisoners of war during World War II, their omission from the historical record was no mere oversight. The nearly 100 military nurses who were taken captive were deliberately silenced by the U.S. military:
"As sure as I'm standing here, that guy (at reorientation in Little Rock, Ark.) stood up and said, "Now you're going off to your assignments and whatever you do, just keep it (combat and POW experiences) to yourself, don't talk about it.' They absolutely told us that. They treated it as if it was a stigma."
This revelation is included in All This Hell, a book that finally cracks the dome of silence surrounding these nurses.
Their experiences unfolded decades ago, but the memories echoing through All This Hell remain fresh. Finally encouraged to speak, these nurses have plenty to say, and their tales are more frightening than any Hollywood horror flick.
The "Angels of Bataan and Corregidor," who spent three-and-one-half-years as POWs in the Philippine theater, tell stories of brutal treatment, sleeping with rats, rations of wormy-rice, burying dead in mass graves as a result of starvation, malaria, gas gangrene and battle casualties. They triaged and treated thousands of wounded often with "tears running down their cheeks." And while caring for the wounded and ill, they sometimes were suffering from beriberi, dysentery and dengue or "break bone fever" themselves.
On Corregidor, the nurses performed amputations, removed shrapnel and sutured wounds, while suffering from the tropical heat inside a makeshift hospital in the Malinta Tunnel. Sunk deep under rocks, the tunnel reeked with the odors of injured, dead and shell-shocked soldiers. The nurses worked 12 to 20-hour shifts, stopping only to dump sweat from their shoes.
And they did all this with no military training and for half the pay of a man of equal rank.
Monahan and Neidel-Greenlee's book, based on interviews with survivors as well as archival records, including letters, diaries and journals, introduces us to these American heroines. After 40 years of little or no recognition, All This Hell pays tribute to their strength and fortitude. The POW nurses did more than endure captivity. Army and Navy nurses offered hope and compassion under merciless conditions. Their stories are worth telling, worth reading and most importantly, worth remembering.
- Theodora Aggeles is a nurse and writer who lives in St. Petersburg.
ALL THIS HELL:
U.S. Nurses Imprisoned by the Japanese
By Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee
The University Press of Kentucky, $22.50
Meet the authors
At the Times Festival of Reading, a two-day festival which begins on Veteran's Day, Nov. 11, several authors will present books that focus on the World War II generation, including Evelyn M. Monahan & Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee (All This Hell), Peter Maas (The Terrible Hours), and Bob Greene (Duty).
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