1Lt. Josephine Nesbit
aka – Momma Josie
XO Nursing Dept
Sternberg General Hospital
Prisoner of War
Bataan Peninsula, Philippines
“They were the only good left in that whole place; they were the only way we knew there was still some good left in the world – they were Hope… the Angels of Bataan is what they were.” Col. J. O’Dowd, Survivor/POW – Bataan.
The Philippine Islands was good duty for a medical officer in 1941. There was lots of sun, sand, tranquility, and Golf, but other than a few patients, mostly Sailors and Soldiers convalescing from some minor issue, the wards were empty.
There was, however, plenty of time to enjoy the beach, the links and all that the island offered. Manila was like Waikiki only with less work and less Brass to worry about. It was the best-kept secret of the Pre-WW2 Army. I imagine few of the nurses had any idea how good they were going to have it when they got orders to some remote outpost in the Pacific.
The greatest challenge for most of them was learning the game of Golf, and fending off the waves of male officers who fancied themselves as potential suitors – I guess when providence sends you to paradise, you roll with it.
On Dec 8th, 1941 the news filtered down the chain of command… The Japs had Bombed Pearl Harbor. All eight U.S. battleships were put out of commission in one swoop, thousands of Americans were dead.
The detachment of nurses was understandably distraught. All of them surely knew someone stationed at Pearl or Wheeler. Their reactions ranged from sobbing hysteria to silent shock and numb disbelief.
Reports of mass casualties at Pearl Harbor and Wheeler Field came in followed by reports that the Japanese were already on the Philippine Islands and on their way to Manilla. No one wanted to believe the news, especially since they were on an isolated, very lightly protected, Island that was a key stronghold in the Pacific… and it was already under attack.
1Lt Josephine Nesbit, a tall, beautiful, confident woman, who wore a size 13 combat boot, and served as Executive Officer was responsible for daily command of the Nurse Detachment. Nesbit is reported to have taken control of the chaos through sheer volume and tone of her commands. She ordered them to “go to bed – close their eyes and sleep.”
“Girls, you’ve got to sleep today… You can’t weep, and you can’t wail over this… you will have to work tonight.” 1Lt Nesbit knew there would be little time for sleep in the future – Her girls were going to war.
Within hours, Zero’s appeared over Manila, and Nesbit’s “Girls” went into action as the wounded began to arrive. The war intensified over the next few months, and the decision to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula was made.
Nesbit’s girls were scheduled to be evacuated but refused. Instead, they set up an 18-ward open-air hospital in the jungle and continued to render medical care for everything from dysentery to gunshots.
1Lt. Nesbit maintained discipline and order by running the operation the same as any Army hospital. She required her nurses to work scheduled shifts, adhere to military courtesy and medical professionalism. In short, She kept her girls in the fight.
Over the months, they treated over 6000 wounded or sick Americans while surviving on less than one meal per day – but that was “good eatin” compared to what was in their immediate future.
The Bataan Peninsula was overrun and U.S. forces retreated to the Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor.
The Malinta tunnel was a defensive position consisting of deep underground tunnel complexes.
At best, the Malinta tunnel could be described as Hellish – Damp, dark uncomfortable and surviving on almost nothing, nurses were known to gather weeds and other vegetation, boil them in cold crème and supplement their patient’s diet with it. Constant shelling and deprivation of every kind were on the agenda every day, but Momma Josie’s girls kept giving all they had.
Corregidor fell to the Imperial Army on May 6th, 1942.
A new chapter in the careers of the Nurses began
– a chapter as Prisoners of War. Nesbit’s Girls stepped up to the plate and once again they performed as Soldiers.
Treated no better than the men prisoners, they continued to care for their fellow prisoners. Emaciated and exhausted the nurses found an upside to being “Skin and Bones”
– They could squeeze through parts of the barrier surrounding the Camp that a healthy human could never squeeze through.
Nurses would sneak out of the camp at night, forage for food and beg anything they could from friendly locals, then return to camp to continue to take care of dying men. Nurses commonly shared their meager rations with the men they treated. Using home remedies like crushed charcoal to treat dysentery, they worked medicinal wonders with little more than their wits and the will to keep their Soldiers alive.
Almost three years later the allies retook the Philippines to discover the wretched conditions our POWs were subjected to, and that there were 77 Nurses amongst the liberated Americans. They were still treating patients.
There is no accurate count of how many Americans survived because of the brave actions and personal sacrifice made by 1Lt Nesbit and her “girls” and few Americans even know they existed, but The men of Bataan and Corregidor would never forget them.
Our history is full of Women like Momma Josie, Captain Molly and Nancy Hart whose commitment to this republic and courage under fire rivals that of any man. I assure you, the female of our species will surprise you when pressed.
As a perpetual student of history, I can list a parade of American women who, like 1Lt Nesbit and her Girls, didn’t take a step back when faced with enemy fire and the chaos of battle. They stood their ground and performed as well or better than any male Soldier would have.