History column: Three Tennessee nurses became heroes in Bataan

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Army nurses rescued from Santo Tomas in 1945

Army nurses rescued from Santo Tomas in 1945

When Japan invaded the Philippines after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there were about 100 American nurses on the island of Luzon. Three were from Tennessee.

One was Nancy Gillahan, who was from the Humphreys County community of Danville (a place later flooded when TVA created Kentucky Lake.) The other two were sisters Geneva and Ressa Jenkins, natives of the Sevier County community of Jones Cove.

In December 1941, all three were second lieutenants in the U.S. Army and stationed in Manila. A day after the Pearl Harbor attack, they awoke to the sound of explosions, and from that moment, they began treating Americans and Filipinos wounded during the Japanese invasion. Like most Americans, the three nurses were moved to the Bataan peninsula during the weeks after the invasion. There, two makeshift hospitals were set up, one of which was largely strewn about on the jungle floor.

For about six months, these nurses worked with doctors under extremely difficult conditions.

“It was pretty hard for the first month of the war,” Gillahan later said. “We worked 14 to 18 hours a day and sometimes got no sleep at all.”

The nurses slept outside, hid under operating tables during Japanese air raids and ate everything from horse to python meat. They treated everything from burns and shrapnel wounds to diseases such as dysentery and malaria.

In April 1942, the nurses were moved to the island fortress of Corregidor, where a hospital had been set up in the maze of underground passages known as the Malinta Tunnel. As the Japanese closed in, several attempts were made to evacuate them at the last minute.

Nancy Gillahan was taken out of the Philippines on a submarine; Ressa Jenkins by aircraft. However, the aircraft meant to take Geneva Jenkins out of the Philippines had a mishap as it tried to take off, apparently because the plane had too many passengers. Geneva Jenkins thus became one of the 78 American nurses who spent more than three years as a prisoner of war.

Back in the U.S., Ressa Jenkins and Nancy Gillahan made public appearances on behalf of the Red Cross.

“I would not take anything in the world for my experience,” Gillahan said at the time. “I traveled and saw more in six months at Uncle Sam’s expense than I could manage in a lifetime of my own savings.”

The experiences of Geneva Jenkins and the other female American POWs — now known as the “Angels of Bataan” — has been well documented. Imprisoned along with about four thousand Americans and other foreigner nationals who had been living in Manila, those nurses worked shifts around the clock at a hospital where several doctors (who also had been imprisoned) saw patients.

The nurses weren’t abused or tortured. However, like the many other inmates of the internment camp, they seriously wondered if they would ever see home again.

“I didn’t see any atrocities, but I heard plenty about them,” Geneva Jenkins later said.

After the Japanese army took over the operation of the internment camp, food rations were reduced to about 700 calories a day. In the winter of 1944-45, many prisoners in the camp, especially the older ones, began to starve. One 50-year-old man died after repeatedly giving his children his daily food ration. All the nurses survived, but they lost, on average, about 30% of their body weight by the end of the war.

“I weighed 88 pounds when we were liberated and about 120 before we were captured,” Geneva Jenkins said in an interview many years later.

The “Angels of Bataan” were released in February 1945, when the U.S. army liberated Manila. Geneva Jenkins was honored during a special ceremony at the Sevier County Courthouse a few weeks later.

All three of these ladies are gone now. Nancy Gillahan Baker died in 1962, Ressa Jenkins Curry in 1986 and Geneva Jenkins in 1988.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no historical markers to honor these three woman and nothing in Tennessee named for any of them.

Bill Carey is the founder and executive director of Tennessee History for Kids (www.tnhistoryforkids.org).

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