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The untold story of ‘battling belles’

SINCE the Fall of Bataan 72 years ago today, much has been written about the brave Filipino and American men who staged their last stand at the Bataan peninsula at the outbreak of World War II, but little is known of the band of angels who fought at their side.

They are known as the Battling Belles of Bataan, according to historian Jose Custodio, and they cared for battle casualties during the Battle of Luzon in 1942 as well as sick prisoners of war during the Japanese Occupation.

Heroines all. Chief nurse Laura Cobb speaks with
Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid in February 1945
after she and her 10 nurses were rescued from
a Japanese internment camp in Los Baños,
Laguna. US NAVY PHOTO
“It’s unfortunate that we have not given the Battling Belles of Bataan the recognition they richly deserve,” said Custodio, a former curator of the Armed Forces of Philippines Museum.

Custodio said the Battling Belles of Bataan, whom the men called the Angels of Bataan, were a group of United States Army and Navy nurses who came to Manila before the war in the hope of meeting handsome military officers in the city that was then called the Pearl of the Orient.

“They were stationed either at the Canacao Naval Hospital [at Sangley Point in Cavite] or the Sternberg General Hospital in Manila [where the abandoned GSIS Bldg now stands],” Custodio said.

American author Elizabeth Norman confirmed in her book “We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese” that duty for the nurses was light and they sunbathed, played golf and tennis and basked in the attention of their Filipino maids.

“But they were slapped back to reality when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 8, 1941,” Custodio said. “The Japanese bombing was devastating and the nurses had to take care of hundreds of wounded from Clark.”

It was the start of a four-year struggle of survival for 88 Army nurses, who were under 57-year-old Capt. Maud Davison, and 11 Navy nurses, led by 49-year-old Navy Lt. Laura Cobb, he said.

Three weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, the nurses wheeled 224 Filipino and American soldiers on board the S.S Mactan and evacuated them along with 92 civilians to Australia, but only two Army nurses accompanied them while the rest of the Battling Belles stayed in Manila and Cavite.

When General Douglas MacArthur ordered a general retreat to Bataan and Corregidor, the Army nurses were sent to Bataan and they became the first group of American military nurses to be sent to the battlefield for duty.

The Navy nurses, on the other hand, stayed at the Sternberg Hospital until the Japanese captured Manila on January 2, 1942.

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