Elizabeth Norman delivers everything I want from narrative nonfiction in her 2000 book We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. It’s engaging and obviously well-researched, including many interviews with the women themselves. I absolutely loved it.
What happened in the Philippines during World War II isn’t something we learn much about in school. At least I didn’t. Instead, I remember learning about France, Germany, and other European countries, as well as Pearl Harbor. But what happened to the Filipino people and the U.S. troops stationed there is horrific.
Norman takes the opportunity to explain it from a woman’s perspective. And in my eyes that only adds to the meaning of the story. She delves into the details of many women’s experiences. Most of them came to the Philippine military bases with a hunger for adventure. Plus, the location was known as a cushy posting, complete with lots of golf, tennis, beaches, and social life. Not to mention abundant tropical weather.
However, in December 1941 all of that changed. The Japanese bombed Manila and the other Philippine islands shortly after they bombed Pearl Harbor. The American nurses were suddenly in a battle zone and this is where the story gets tense and unrelenting. Hospitals filled up with gravely wounded GIs. And eventually most of the medical corps actually began to work in two areas outside the city of Manila.
One is a peninsula called Bataan, and the other is a tiny island called Corregidor. On Bataan, the hospital wards were actually makeshift open-air locations. Everyone had to learn to make do in the unique situation. On Corregidor, they lived and worked in a group of tunnels. These locations and the heroic medical professionals give Norman lots of stories to tell.
Each nurse inspired me, especially reading in a year when so many medical professionals are going above and beyond their own call of duty. They came from small towns and big cities, from all over the U.S. And yet they banded together to survive the onslaught from the Japanese.
Additionally, they were taken prisoner because the Japanese army was so much stronger than our military forces in Southeast Asia. As a result, much of the story happens in internment camps and is unbelievably challenging in its own right.
Norman blends the women’s stories together effectively, while also explaining what made them each special. Some had sweethearts stationed with them, others met them during their posting in the Philippines. Those romantic details were touching and a lovely balance to the war atrocities.
A section of the book happens after the war and was equally fascinating. After serving honorably and being held prisoner, it was hard for the women to readjust to stateside life. Of course, Norman follows this part of the journey. She also discusses how their bodies aged differently due to their time in the POW camps.
Her ability to connect with each part of the story is what makes this book so memorable. I felt like I slipped into the skins of the “angels,” whether they were carefree, terrified, or recalling long-ago moments. If you like heroic stories in uncommon locations, especially those that add dimension to an often-told story, We Band of Angels is for you.
Pair with The Leper Spy: The Story of an Unlikely Hero of World War II by Ben Montgomery, which tells the story of a Filipino woman who spied for the Allies during this time.