Lynn: I’m a nonfiction fan as readers of Booklist probably remember and already this year the numbers of interesting nonfiction is keeping me busy and happy. One of the early arrivals is Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific (Abrams 2014). There are many accounts of the war in the Philippines and the Bataan Death March but I’ve never encountered a book that focused on the unsung heroines of this time and place: the Army and Navy nurses who endured three years as prisoners of war. Once a plum assignment, the Philippines fell to the Japanese shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The 101 nurses, left behind when American forces pulled out, retreated with the troops to Corregidor and when it was overwhelmed in devastating attacks, were captured by the Japanese. Throughout their imprisonment, these truly brave women continued to do their duty, ministering to gravely wounded soldiers, coping with appalling conditions, malnutrition, disease and scant supplies.
Mary Cronk Farrell presents a picture of young women who never sought or expected combat conditions and behaved with selfless courage. Many had chosen nursing training and military service as one of the few options available to them in the privations of the Depression. Training, regular meals, a salary were enormous incentives to many of these young women whose families were struggling with extreme economic hardships. Few ever expected a war and even fewer ever imagined becoming prisoners of war. Farrell skillfully incorporates information gained from interviews, newspaper accounts, letters and articles to paint a stark and unforgettable picture of bravery and sacrifice. The story incorporates many individuals and at times, I struggled to keep them all sorted out. The stories come together though, especially when Ferrell describes the lives of these women after the war. Many of them suffered life-long issues from their captivity and, shamefully, they received little recognition of their bravery and no resources to deal with physical and mental problems. Few spoke or wrote much about their experiences and it was only in 1983 that official recognition was given, long after some of the women had died. Revealing and inspiring, this story is a long overdue and Ferrell tells it well.
Cindy: War is hell, certainly, but with every page turn I was overwhelmed with the challenges these women faced. Their dedication to duty is not an anomaly in the armed forces but working under attack while malnourished with few necessary supplies and medicine is one thing. Doing so while suffering temperatures of 106 with dengue fever or malaria or any of a number of other diseases and their assorted difficult symptoms without complaint is worthy of more medals than these nurses ever were awarded. I was 3/4 through this book when I journeyed off to a Memorial Day parade this morning. I watched veterans march and ride in classic cars with signs bearing the details of their service. They were smiling and waving flags, whether they could walk or not, sometimes a WWII veteran accompanied by a younger relative veteran of the Korean War, Vietnam, or Afghanistan or Iraq. Only a handful were women. I watched their faces and wondered what stories they could tell? What events they cannot bear to remember or cannot ever forget? As Farrell reports, most of these nurses (and the men who were POWs too) had nightmares the rest of their lives. As this Memorial Day draws to a close I am still fumbling for words to close out this post. Perhaps, a simple “thank you” is the best way to end.