By
Now With Alex
updated 3/29/2013 2:50:33 PM ET 2013-03-29T18:50:33

In World War II, the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor played an integral role in gaining respect for women in the military.

In 1942, 77 Army and Navy nurses were taken prisoner after the final American outpost in the Philippines fell to the Japanese.  The last survivor, Mildred Dalton Manning, died on March 8th at the age of 98.

When Mildred enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps in 1939, she was stationed just north of Manila and became part of a group of nurses known as The Angels of Bataan and Corregidor.  In 1941, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese waged an assault on the Philippines, destroying everything but one U.S. commander plane.  General Douglas MacArthur ordered forces to retreat to Corregidor or the jungles of Bataan. There were 11 Navy nurses left behind to care for those too critically injured to relocate. Those 11 were subsequently captured and sent to internment camps.

The remaining Army nurses helped transport the wounded across the bay where they set up temporary care centers in underground tunnels on the island and makeshift field hospitals in the jungles. Though the Japanese were bombing the hospitals in Bataan (injuring two nurses with shrapnel), the Angels persevered. Elizabeth Norman, professor of nursing history at NYU and author of “We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese,” recounts that “watching women endure the same danger and hunger seemed to inspire the troops to continue the fight.”

The Japanese were quickly approaching the hospitals in Bataan, so a commanding official sent the nurses to Corregidor Island, despite protests that they were deserting their patients. Crossing the bay, the nurses came under heavy attack, becoming, as Professor Norman noted, “the first group of American military nurses sent onto the battlefield for duty.”

Mildred Manning was one of the nurses who originally retreated to Bataan but was then sent to Corregidor island where she continued to work with the injured in underground hospitals that were constantly under fire.  In anticipation of the Japanese storming the beaches of Corregidor, the Americans surrendered on May 6th, 1942.

The 66 captured Army nurses were brought to a civilian internment camp back in Manila. They were forced to work in the prison hospitals and care for Filipino women, children, and men, while American soldiers were sent on the Bataan Death March or taken away, never to reappear. While a prisoner of war, Lieutenant Mildred Dalton lost all of her teeth due to lack of nutrition, but fought on.

The nurses expected to die at the hands of the Japanese when they invaded Corregidor, but according to one, the Japanese soldiers were taken aback because they didn’t know what to do with “captured women in uniform.”

In 1945, the 77 captive Army and Navy nurses were liberated and the Army nurses received Bronze Stars for their valiant heroism.  They were later flown to California where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt expressed his gratitude for their service. But despite these accolades, women were still excluded from taking up official combat positions. Until now.

On January 24, almost 71 years after the fall of the island of Corregidor, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a repeal of the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule. Enacted in 1994, this rule barred women from joining units that would be engaged in direct combat, specifically, in units below the brigade level. Now, women have the ability to serve in select units at the battalion level and have access to 237,000 more jobs–5,000 of which are Marine ground combat positions.

The action comes after a November 2012 lawsuit filed by women in the military and the ACLU against the Pentagon. In their complaint, they cite what women like Mildred Manning and many others had been doing since the Revolutionary War: putting their lives on the line and serving in combat roles without getting official recognition.

Though the passing of Mildred Manning brings the living legacy of the captured Angels of Bataan and Corregidor to a conclusion, the strength and courage of these women lives on in every brave modern woman serving in an official combat role. Through strength and patriotism, Manning and her comrades “set the example for the rest of the services. Their story told the world…that women are tough, they can serve in combat and they can survive” (Army Nurse Corps historian Lt. Col. Nancy Cantrell).

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