Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Army Military History
Sternberg, the largest and best-equipped medical facility in the Philippines, became the center for military and civilian casualties.
“Girls, we’re at war,” the hospital commander told Sternberg’s nurses. “Each of us has a job to do. I’m sure you’ll do yours well.”
A deluge of wounded soldiers and airmen arrived by ambulance and train from Forts Stotsenberg and McKinley. “I often slept on the operating room table,” said Army Nurse Madeline Ullom, “or put a little pad in the corner, someplace to go to sleep.”
Of all the Army nurses at Sternberg, Frances Nash may have been the best prepared for combat duty. The gutsy Georgia farm girl had made up her mind to become a nurse and applied to nursing school as a teenager. She learned life-and-death nursing in the emergency room of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, one of the largest public hospitals in the country.
Most Americans in the 1930s believed nursing was not a proper place for innocent girls fresh out of high school. Some mothers felt shamed by their daughters’ nursing duties, which included exposure to naked men, emptying bedpans and doing “other disgusting things for people.” Virtuous unmarried women were expected to remain ignorant of male anatomy and the nature of sexual relations. Knowledge itself was deemed proof of impurity.
Still, despite the risk to their reputations, the hard work and pay as low as 16 cents an hour, girls like Nash swarmed to nursing schools. For those who couldn’t afford college, nursing school provided job skills and income during the Great Depression.
Grueling years of patient care earned Nash her cap and pin in 1932. She worked in Grady’s emergency room and surgery until she joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1935. Arriving in Manila in 1940, she was confident and outgoing, a popular face at Sternberg Hospital, where she worked with Ethel Thor.
And yet the seemingly unending stream of wounded men coming into surgery devastated Nash. She and her cohort kept going by riveting their attention on their patients. One nurse, her eyes red and swollen, worked on after receiving the news that her boyfriend had become an early casualty of war. Another got news that her fiancé had died of a head wound in the hospital at Fort Stotsenberg. Despite their lack of readiness for war, the nurses plunged in with body, mind and heart.
Peggy Nash’s Story
Dec. 10, 1941. Day Three. Cañacao Naval Hospital, near Manila
Peggy Nash (not related to Frances Nash) and the other nurses at Cañacao Naval Hospital braced themselves, wondering if and when they would come under attack. As before, they were at lunch in their quarters near the hospital when the air-raid sirens blew. Peggy Nash and the others carried their food into the crawl space under the building. Balancing plates on their laps, they put up a good front, giggling and trading nervous quips. When the sirens stopped, silence reigned for long minutes. The nurses relaxed, thinking someone had neglected to give the all-clear signal.
Suddenly the roar of planes filled their ears, followed by blasts of bombs exploding. Antiaircraft guns growled from the nearby navy yard. Peggy Nash shuddered in silence as wave after wave of explosions shook the building above and the ground beneath them.
Several nurses mouthed prayers. One buried her head against her propped-up knees, fingering rosary beads in trembling hands. The bombardment lasted five minutes . . . 10 . . . 15 . . . a timeless monotony of pounding upon pounding.
After 45 minutes of earsplitting explosions, the silence felt equally deafening. The nurses crept from their hiding place. Half a mile across Cañacao Bay, swelling clouds of smoke darkened the sky. Sporadic flames flared. Cavite Naval Shipyard was demolished.
They ran to the hospital, where casualties streamed in, Navy and civilian. Peggy Nash saw both military and civilian wounded coming four or five in a car, some even on the roof. Patients arrived on splintered doors, dirty carpets, blankets, woven bamboo mats and twisted corrugated roofing. The entire hospital became an emergency ward, every doctor a surgeon. This left Peggy Nash and the other nurses to administer needed medications without doctors’ orders. Scattered two to a ward, they worked in tandem, one going down a row of wounded with a syringe of tetanus vaccine, the other following with morphine. As they finished with each row of wounded, they started on the next.
The stench of burning flesh nauseated her, as did the sight of mangled bodies–oily, dirty and bleeding; arms and legs at weird angles, some dangling by a shred, others only jagged stumps. As bodies left for the morgue, corpsmen lifted patients from the floor into beds without changing the linens. It couldn’t be helped.
“It was amazing how cool the nurses were. I never thought I could be like that,” Peggy Nash said later. “The patients were two or three in a bed, and on chairs between beds. As we readied patients for surgery, sometimes we came to a bed and the patient was already dead.”
“Could I have a glass of water?” a child asked, as she walked by. She promised to bring it. “By the time I got back, he was dead. That just about killed me.”
“The next time I looked out the window, it was dark, and there was fire all around, and the sky was red with flames and smoke. Manila was burning. I thought to myself, if the Japanese came and dropped another load, this suffering would all be over, mine included.”
On an errand to the operating room, she saw doctors operating on every table, on the floor, and even the steps. “It was like a nightmare in there, but I couldn’t stop to help because I had to get back to the ward. We worked into the night. Corpses filled the morgue. There was no time for fear.”
An award-winning journalist, Mary Cronk Farrell‘s books have received many accolades and a SPUR Award. She lives in Spokane, Wash.
For More Information:
Buy the Book, “Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific“:
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