WE BAND OF ANGELS

The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese

By Elizabeth M. Norman

Random House. 327 pp. $26.95

In the 1930s and very early '40s, there weren't many opportunities for single American women to get out and about. You could apply to teach in a foreign country or be a missionary--or join the armed services and be a nurse. Some did just that; it was a way to stay respectable but see the world. Lucky nurses found themselves in the Philippines, where, in contrast to their hard beginnings on farms or in impoverished small towns, they found themselves, according to the author of this history, "with Filipino houseboys, maids, chefs, gardeners and tailors looking after their every need."

These women worked their shifts as nurses, of course, but the feeling was that each girl needed a uniform, a bathing suit and an evening dress to live the life properly; their days and nights were filled with easy pleasure. They'd lucked out in their young lives. Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Hawaii. (In the Philippines, because of the international date line, it was Dec. 8.) Just a few hours later, they bombed Baguio, a Filipino mountain resort with an Army outpost, and, a few hours after that, Clark Airfield and Fort Stotsenberg. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his staff were literally out to lunch at the time, dining comfortably while scores of U.S. airplanes sat harmlessly on the ground and were bombed to smithereens.

The Pacific war had gotten off to a bad start, and it would only get worse. Hospitals filled to bursting with civilian and military injured. Soon the Japanese invaded. U.S. forces retreated to the Bataan Peninsula and set up vast field hospitals in a jungle infested with snakes, rats, iguanas, water buffalo; insects spread malaria and dengue fever to the increasingly demoralized wounded and their care-givers. By Dec. 24, MacArthur had left Manila for Corregidor--a fortress island. By March 1942, MacArthur was safe and sound in Australia, delivering inspiring speeches and memos about how the forces he'd left behind should never surrender.

Of course, the Americans trapped on Bataan and Corregidor would have to surrender. But there was a real question about what to do with the nurses. They "had been the first group of military women in combat," the author writes, "and now they were about to become among the first to fall into enemy hands." Beyond the natural demonization of the enemy that goes on in any war, there was real reason to fear the Japanese army. The memory of the Rape of Nanking was still fresh--an orgy of killing where "thousands of men, women and children were shot, stabbed, raped, beheaded, disemboweled, mutilated, burned alive, buried alive, hung, castrated and beaten to death." What would become of the American nurses?

A couple of seaplanes took a few of them to safety (although one seaplane blithely took off, leaving its nurses stranded). The ones evacuated were the oldest, the sickest, the most emotionally frail and the cutest--some had boyfriends on MacArthur's staff. The others were evacuated from Bataan to Corregidor--forced to leave their patients behind. Inevitably, that island fell. In early June 1942, the Japanese occupied the Philippines and removed the nurses to the civilian internment camp of Santo Tomas in Manila.

In just a little over six months these women had turned from plucky young girls on a mild adventure to authentic heroines. Their dreamworld of ball gowns and frangipani turned into a nightmare past description, past comprehension. Finally, in February 1945, Santo Tomas was liberated. After almost three years as prisoners of war, the nurses were free. Free to go home, to what?

Elizabeth Norton is a professor of nursing at New York University; her specialty is nursing history. She brings a quiet, scholarly voice to this narrative, but events boil up under her laconic tone. She tells us right away that the 20 surviving nurses she interviewed were surprisingly unintrospective, much more able to say what they did than what they thought or felt. But how could anyone give voice to her own thoughts under those harrowing circumstances?

The underlying story here is about how frail the world is. One minute you're dancing under the stars, and the next moment bombs are falling, and then you've got malaria, and there's nothing to eat. Then (if you're lucky) you are "home" again, whatever that means, and people are inquiring (indirectly) whether you've been raped.

Although every page of this history is fascinating, the most touching pages, ironically, come at the end. After their heroism, each of these women--if they survived--turned into a little old lady. They'd spent the last two-thirds of their lives cooking meals, raising children who never had a real clue what they'd been through. They'd been true heroes, but how does that translate into ordinary life? Do they remember the war as the worst part of their lives, or the most intense, or the most glorious? Were they more alive then? They don't say, and the author won't ask. The reader can only speculate about the exquisite fragility of their lives--and ours.

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.

UPCOMING IN BOOK WORLD

The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:

FOOL'S ERRAND, by Louis Bayard. In this novel, set in Washington, a young man searches for an elusive love. Reviewed by Richard Lipez.

SALINGER: A Biography, by Paul Alexander. Reviewed by Wendy Law-Yone.

NATHANIEL'S NUTMEG: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History, by Giles Milton. Reviewed by Leo Carey.

VICTORY DEFERRED: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America, by John-Manuel Andriote. Reviewed by Jose Gabilondo.

CLOSE RANGE: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx. Short fiction by the award-winning author of "The Shipping News." Reviewed by Carolyn See.