Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2006 | Reviews

We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese by Elizabeth M. Norman.

By Shalla Wilson

Old Capitol museum curator Shalla Wilson, 95BA, recently finished We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese (Simon & Schuster) by Elizabeth M. Norman.

Why did you choose this book?

I'm a historian, so I tend to read many history books, particularly ones on either World War II or the Civil War Era. I also lean toward books that highlight the forgotten stories of women and their roles in crisis or conflict. My mother was a nurse and I remember thinking to myself, "Mom would've liked this." She was very strong, just like the women in this book.

What's it about?

What started as an adventure for a group of U.S. Navy and Army nurses stationed in the garden paradise of pre-war Manila, Philippines, soon turned to horror after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. These women initially joined the military to add excitement to their lives, but they found themselves thrust into a horrific point in history. Forced into the jungles of Bataan and Corregidor, they set up field hospitals and did their best to care for wounded soldiers under desperate, unconscionable circumstances. They were trapped on these islands for three years, and this is the story of how they surviveda very small number of women among hundreds of thousands of men.

What do you like most about it?

The writing is intense and real. It's like reading a novel, and then you suddenly realize it's not fiction. Norman writes from a first-person point of view, representing the some 20 nurses she interviewed for the book. She weaves her narrative around excerpts from these interviews, as well as diaries and personal letters from the nurses. They vividly describe the maggots that wiggled in their rice and how they drank watery soup sprinkled with a few sparse leaves. This isn't a dry history textbook, it's engrossingand it's the way history should be recorded.

What would you say to recommend it to others?

First, I think it's important that the lesser-known stories of war are told, and many of those stories have to do with women. Not to sound overly sentimental, but I also really think this book says something about the American spiritand that message is still relevant in today's world. We get up and get going. It's not always easy, but here's a great story of men and women doing just that. Some lived and some died, but they kept going.