Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Last Angel

When Bataan and Corregidor surrendered in the spring of 1942, more than 75,000 Americans were captured by the Japanese.  It remains the largest capitulation of U.S. military forces in our history.  The vast majority of the military personnel who marched into captivity were men, but there 77 female nurses--66 Army and 11 Navy--who where taken prisoner as well.

What they endured over the next three years could be charitably described as hell.  Disease and deprivation were rampant; at Cabanatuan (where most of the male prisoners were detained), thousands died before the camp was finally liberated in early 1945.  The military nurses, held primarily at Santo Tomas prison, fared slightly better, but they still had to contend with severe food shortages; outbreaks of dysentery, scurvy and other illnesses, and maltreatment by Japanese guards.  But they remained true to their calling; throughout their imprisonment, they attended to the 4,000 men, women and children who were captives at Santo Tomas.

They were called the "Angels" of Bataan and Corregidor because they cared for thousands of sick and wounded GIs during the battles that preceded our surrender.  Now, the last of those remarkable women has passed.  Army Lt. Mildred Dalton Manning, a nurse who served in both battles, died last Friday in New Jersey.  She was 98.  From her obituary in The New York Times:

Mrs. Manning — Lt. Mildred Dalton during the war — and her fellow nurses subsisted on one or two bowls of rice a day in the last stages of their imprisonment. She lost all her teeth to lack of nutrition.

“I have been asked many times if we were mistreated or tortured,” she wrote in a remembrance for her files, made available on Saturday by her son, James, who announced her death. “Physically, no. A few people might get their face slapped if they failed to bow to a Japanese guard. Humiliated, yes. We would be awakened at 2 in the morning for head count or searched for contraband.”
“From time to time they would round up a number of men and take them out of camp and they were never heard from again,” she continued. “Our internment was nothing compared to the Bataan Death March and imprisonment our soldiers went through. They were tortured and starved.” 

Mrs. Manning was accurate in that assessment, but her detention was anything but a picnic.  Some female prisoners at Santo Tomas were repeatedly raped by the Japanese, and by the end of their captivity, the nurses were subsisting on less than 1,000 calories a day.  She lost all of her teeth due to malnutrition.

Amazingly, all of the nurses survived their captivity.  After returning to the United States, they were awarded the Bronze Star and given a copy of a congratulatory letter from President Roosevelt.  A few remained in the service, but most returned to civilian life.  On a war bond tour, Mrs. Manning met and married an editor for the Atlanta Constitution.  They later moved to Jacksonville where she worked as a nurse while raising her family.

In an interview decades later, Manning admitted she was still traumatized by her wartime experiences.  For decades, she feared dark places--a reminder of the tunnels on Corregidor, which became makeshift hospitals during the final phase of the battle.  Mrs. Manning also built extra shelves in her home to store more food, fearing she might run out--a reaction that was hardly surprising, given her long years in a Japanese prison, existing on starvation rations.

Still, the last surviving "Angel of Corregidor counted herself among the fortunate. "I came out so much better than many of my friends," she told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 2001.  "I have never been bitter and I have always known that if I could survive that, I could survive anything."
ADDENDUM: Mrs. Manning's story was among those told in the book "We Band of Angels," by Elizabeth Norman.  Published 12 years ago, it's an excellent account of the nurses who served on Bataan and Corregidor.  According to the Times, Ms. Norman is preparing a revised version of the paperback edition with a new chapter on Mrs. Manning, the last of the angels from a dark chapter in our military history.                


Ed Bonderenka said...

I am reminded of the Donna Reed character from "They Were Expendable".
I always wonder about her character's fate at the end of that movie.

rspung said...

that's not true. the american portion of the bataan fighting force was one-tenth of that- less than 8000. most of the military personnel captured were filipinos.