Steinhardt professor’s book shines light on WWII nurses

Courtesy of Atria Books
Courtesy of Random House

While glorifying war stories about soldiers is a familiar trend, Steinhardt professor of nursing Elizabeth Norman set out to tell the fascinating lives of an often forgotten group of war heroes.

On Oct. 29, Random House publication republished a paperback edition of Norman’s book, “We Band of Angels: the Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese.”

The book begins with the 99 nurses working in the Philippines who experienced a frightening transition from peaceful island life to the harsh realities of war.

In 1941, the Japanese overwhelmed the American and Philippine forces. That January, the Americans were forced into the jungles of Bataan to escape the Japanese. There, the Americans and the Japanese fought a land battle for 99 days.


“The army nurses [at Bataan] were involved in the combat life and the jungle hospitals,” Norman said. “On May 6, 1942, 77 American women became prisoners of the Japanese.”

These women, who served as nurses, would continue to be prisoners for the next three years.

Norman said she wrote the book because there is a “contradiction with putting nurses, whose mission was to save lives … in a world of war where the mission is to kill.” This contradiction fascinated her, so she decided to write about it.

By profiling the military nurses who fought a war of their own, Norman hoped to provide a different viewpoint to the war.

“[It’s a] true life adventure story,” Norman said. “These groups [of women] are special role models, because … they illustrate to young Americans [today] that each one of us can do things beyond what we think we can do.”

Lt. Col. Elizabeth “Betsy” Vane, an officer in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, said Norman’s book will be used in educating military nurses across the country and will also help catalog artifacts in the Army Medical Museum.

Vane also mentioned how ethics can play a key role in wartime nursing like those in “We Band of Angels.”

“We are to treat everyone the same, the enemy, the civilians and our own fighting men. You are to take them in the order of severity, regardless of their other statuses,” Vane said. “That is where ethical dilemmas arrive. What would you do if you have two ventilators and five patients who needed it?”

Norman agreed these stories should play a greater role in the education of modern day nurses. History, in her opinion, often ignores the stories of the average man and woman and the choices they have to make during trying times.

“That is too bad, because education is incomplete without exposure to groups like this,” Norman said.

The republished version of “We Band of Angels” will include a new chapter in the end titled “The Last Woman Standing,” featuring the story of Mildred Dalton Manning, one of the last surviving members of the Angels of Bataan.

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to “We Band of Angels: the Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese” as a novel when it is a non-fiction historical book. The article also incorrectly stated that the nurses became prisoners on Feb. 6, 1942 when in fact it was May 6, 1942. The photo was also incorrectly attributed to Atria Books. WSN regrets these error.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 11 print edition. Nathan Ho is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected] 




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