Mary Harrington Nelson was a Navy nurse stationed at an American base in the Philippines when it was attacked by the Japanese, the day after Pearl Harbor. Within a month, she was captured by the Japanese and spent the next three years in an internment camp, one of only 81 American military women to be taken prisoner of war.

The women--most of whom were Army and Navy nurses--were stationed in Bataan, Corregidor and other Philippine Islands when the war began, and America was losing. Sixty of them are still living and several, including Mary Nelson of McLean and Ruby Bradley of Falls Church, live in the Washington area.

Thursday evening, some 25 to 30 of them will gather at Bolling Air Force Base for their first official reunion since American troops liberated the Philippines in February, 1945. The women are scheduled to be honored at a Pentagon ceremony and to be received at the White House Friday, which President Reagan has designated POW/MIA day. It is a day of recognition--coming better late than never--for the women, who continued to nurse the sick during their internment. It can also be a day for remembering a tragic but heroic chapter in American history that has been forgotten, or never learned, by later generations.

Nelson was interned at first in Santo Tomas, a huge prison camp populated mainly by American and British civilians who lived and worked in the Philippines. Later, the Navy nurses were transferred along with 800 men to Los Banos, another prison camp that eventually numbered 2,000 men, women and children. The nurses set up hospitals in the camps and assisted interned doctors in surgery and childbirth. At Los Banos, civilian internees fashioned basins and beds out of sheet metal. "We had nothing," says Nelson. They picked seeds out of kapok trees to stuff pillows for the hospital.

The story Nelson and Bradley tell is one of courage and ingenuity in the face of grave adversity. People in the camps were plagued by various forms of dysentery, jaundice and dengue fever, and by severe malnutrition. The internees kept contraband radios to hear news of the war. At Los Banos, they set up libraries and courses taught by interned university personnel. They gardened to supplement their meager rations.

"The hungrier you got, the more you smoked," says Nelson. "Dried eggplant leaves stretches tobacco quite nicely."

Bradley was one of the first nurses captured after the Japanese took an American military post called Baguio and set up a POW camp nearby. She helped set up a dispensary, and she and a doctor smuggled drugs and surgical instruments from the old base hospital to the new one. Among the drugs was morphine left over from World War I. "Three days after that, we had an appendectomy. The Japanese thought it was wonderful we could do all this without any instrument."

When a pregnant woman went into labor, she used a tea strainer, some gauze and ether to anesthetize her. The baby was the first of 13 she helped deliver during her internment and in 1954, when she was featured on "This Is Your Life," both that child and his mother appeared.

Bradley spent the second half of the war in Santo Tomas. "A lot of people died in the last few months. There were several deaths a day, mostly the older ones, who just couldn't take it."

Los Banos, which was 20 miles behind enemy lines, was liberated when American troops parachuted in and Filipino guerrillas surrounded the camp. Some 2,000 prisoners, including a number of elderly, walked two miles to a lake where they were ferried to safety. Santo Tomas was liberated by armored troops.

"I think most of us were worse than we knew," says Bradley. She went from 110 pounds to 84. "I couldn't shed a tear until a year later when my father died. It was shock. We pushed ourselves to the limit."

Mary Harrington married a U.S. government employe who was interned with her. She left the Navy after becoming pregnant. Bradley was one of the few interned nurses to remain in the Army, serving in Korea during most of that war. She was promoted to full colonel and when she retired in April, 1963, was the most highly decorated nurse in the Army.

Years later, she attended a reunion of internees in San Francisco. They had invited the Japanese camp commandant at Baguio--"He did all he could," says Bradley--to the reunion. He brought medallions to give them but had trouble getting them through customs.

The inspectors had never heard of Bataan and Corregidor.