By Mary Cronk Farrell
PURE GRIT: HOW AMERICAN WWII NURSES SURVIVED BATTLE AND PRISON CAMP IN THE PACIFIC is a story that was almost lost forever.
Oral histories recorded by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Army Nurse Corp became indispensable to my research for PURE GRIT. Yet, these first-hand accounts of the capture and imprisonment of American military nurses didn’t get recorded until forty years after the fact. A good number of the seventy-eight POW nurses had died before there was any effort to preserve their stories.
In 1945, when the women arrived home after their three years as POW’s in the Philippines, their superiors had them sign statements agreeing not to speak of the atrocities they had seen.
“They treated it as if it was a stigma,” said Lieutenant Colonel Hattie R. Brantley.
After four grim years of war, Americans wanted heroines to raise their spirits. They didn’t want to hear about Americans surrendering to the enemy. In the 1940’s people had no framework to understand women who had acted with courage and grit on the battlefield and as prisoners of war—in short, women who had acted like soldiers.
Newspaper reporters and civic leaders categorized the nurses in familiar women’s roles, either exaggerating their femininity or imagining salacious behavior. Post-war doctors and psychologists treating POW’s focused on men. No woman had earned the Combat Infantry Badge, and history would remember the men who had.
In 1991, Army Nurse Ethel Thor told a reporter, “I’ve never talked to anyone about it. I guess I saw so many who lost their lives—I feel it isn’t right for me to be sitting here now.”
Her three daughters pieced together their mother’s story bit by bit. One day the rice for dinner burned and stuck in the bottom of the pan, Ethel told her daughters, In the camp when they were starving, that crusty part on the bottom of the pan was like candy.
Once looking for Christmas decorations in the attic, one of the girls found a 1942 copy of LIFE magazine with a picture of her mother assisting in surgery during the Battle of Bataan.
The eldest, Linda Bradley believes the POW nurses thought if family members heard what had happened to them during the war, either they wouldn’t believe it or they’d be horrified. Neither option could be borne.
“It’s sad. Looking back, we didn’t really know her as a person,” Linda Bradley says. “If we’d ask her questions, she’d say yes or no. But no details. If you asked her something and it made her cry, you didn’t ask her again.”
Only one of the POW nurses, Mildred Manning Dalton remained alive while I was writing PURE GRIT, and it was a great honor to interview her. She was ninety-nine this past March when she died.
Spending five years researching and writing about these brave women, going over each word of the oral histories and meeting a number of the nurses grown children, I almost feel as if I’d known them. They certainly have inspired me with their strength, courage and dedication to duty. My hope is that readers of PURE GRIT will feel the same.
PURE GRIT comes out in late February, just in time for Women’s History Month, which is March.
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By Mary Cronk Farrell