We Band of Angels

We Band of Angels Book Review 

While my favorite source for reading material is my local public library, it is by no means my only source. I also frequent book sales and used book stores. One of these was my source for the book We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. This is a well written and documented history of female nurses trapped in the Philippines at the beginning of World War II.

Quite a few things stand out after reading Elizabeth M. Norman’s We Band of Angels. First, the incredible hardship faced by the nurses, troops and others caught by the Japanese. Even though all the nurses survived, they endured much. Shortly after their bases were bombed, the nurses followed the troops into the jungle. They struggled to operate in the war theatre. Bombs were not just nearby but also hit the makeshift hospitals. As the military retreated, so did the nurses. Eventually, the Americans surrendered.

We Band of Angels: Prisoners of War

Second, the survival after surrender stemmed in great part by the discipline and organization of the commanding officers. The nurses ended up spread apart as P.O.W’s (Prisoners of War). The majority spent over three years living in Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manilla. In addition to manning the camp hospital, nurses sewed and worked plots of garden. Before liberation, all internees were living on well under 1000 calories a day. One meal served per day. Scurvy and beriberi led the malnutrition diseases. But a host of maladies from measles to dysentery to whooping-cough took a toll as well. The nurses, weak themselves from hunger, stayed on the job.

Finally, the appreciation by the nurses of a sunset or the stars resonated with me. Throughout unfathomable conditions this appreciation of nature kept many going. Material goods were gone, they were all starving and sick but they still appreciated the wonders of the Earth. In fact, the natural wonders may have kept them sane.

Contrast in Treatment

The contrast between the internment camps run by the Japanese and my knowledge of both Relocation Centers and the handful of U.S. based P.O.W camps is stark. Admittedly, the relocation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast to interior camps is not parallel. The nurses depicted in Norman’s We Band of Angels were caught behind enemy lines. The thousands of Japanese Americans interned were taken from their homes, American homes. The situation with the mostly German P.O.W.s is a more direct comparison. But in both the case of relocation and the enemy soldiers, neither group faced starvation. In fact in some cases individuals were granted day passes to leave the camps. Furthermore, the internees of Camp Amache outside of Granada, Colorado produced a surplus of food.

National Museum

A few years ago I spent a few hours in the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. This museum is one of the best in the country. When I return to New Orleans in March I plan to revisit the museum and discover more information about the nurses in We Band of Angels. Elizabeth M. Norman did an excellent job of piquing my interest in this chapter of military history. If you would like to read the book, it has recently been reprinted and can be found through Barnes and Noble or Amazon.


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