Mama Josie and the Angels of Bataan

World War II both brought many and shone a light on many horrors. (See my post on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) But among the awfulness there were shining stars. This is the story of Mama Josie and the Angels of Bataan.

The Angels of Bataan stepping off an ariplane

Early Life

Josephine Nesbit was born on the family farm in  Butler, Mo on December 23, 1894. Nesbit was the seventh of ten children. Farm life was hard. Even the children rose at dawn and did chores. 

Both her parents died before she turned twelve. Orphaned first her grandmother and later a cousin in Kansas took her in. She left high school at 16.

Nursing as a Career

Her sister was a nurse. After Nesbit spoke to her sister’s supervisor, she chose to become a nurse. Nesbit became a registered nurse in 1914. 

An army recruiter came to Kansas City in 1918. He wanted nurses to join the Army Nurse Corps to help with the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Nesbit joined the Reserve Army Nurse Corps.

By 1941 Nesbit had been an Army Nurse for twenty-two years. She’d enjoyed the travels of a peace-time nurse.

On her second tour, Nesbit was a lieutenant and second-in-command at Stenberg General Hospital in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. She was responsible for the nurses’ work schedule. Known for her sensible military demeanor and maternal affection for her staff, the American nurses called her Josie. Her Filipina nurses called her “Mama Josie.” She called her staff “her girls.”

Manilla was a dream location—a city on a beautiful topical island with great weather and plenty of free time to enjoy the locale.

World War II

On December 8,1941, Nesbit was the acting chief nurse because the chief nurse, Captain Maude Davidson, had been injured in a night raid. Information about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor trickled in by radio. The nurses’s reactions escalated from denial to concerned about family and friends in Honolulu to near panic.

Nesbit told the staff, “Girls, you’ve got to sleep today. You can’t weep and wail over this because you have to work tonight.”

Less than nine hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed the Philippines. They destroyed most of the American B-17 bombers on the ground at Clark Field. The hospital filled with patients.

The Angels of Bataan

By Christmas, they’d retreated north and east to the steamy jungles of the Bataan Peninsula. They set up a field hospital with eighteen open-air wards. 

For four months the nurses dressed wounds, fought mosquitoes, malaria and dysentery, while the bombs fell all around them. Food supplies dwindled. They cut rations from three meals a day to two. Over the four months in Bataan, they cared for 6,000 sick and wounded soldiers.


In April 1942, Bataan fell to the Japanese, the nurses, along with the 80,000 Allied troops were ordered to retreat to the island of Corregidor.

Col. James E. Gillespie, the medical commander, ordered Nesbit to get her American nurses to his office by 20 hundred hours and only take what they can carry. When Nesbit asked what about her Filipina nurses, he stated only the American ones. Nesbit refused to go. Gillespie got permission to evacuate all the nurses — Americans, Filipinas, and the civilian women working with them. 

Malinta Tunnel

Malinta Tunnel hospital where Nesbit and the Angels of Bataan worked.

On Corregidor, the hospital was in Malinta Tunnel. Originally built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers as a bomb-proof storage & personnel shelter, it became a 1000 bed hospital. There was a main tunnel and 25 lateral tunnels. Medical personnel and patients were subject to fetid air and constant concussive bombing. 

On May 6, Corregidor Island fell. The Japanese took the remaining Allied soldiers, nurses, and their civilian staff prisoners of war.


Among the captured Allied forces were 11 Navy nurses, 66 army nurses, and 1 nurse-anesthetist. The nurses were taken to Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila. The Japanese cut their rations to 700 calories per day. Disease was rampant.

Nesbit and her former superior, Maude Davison, ran the camp hospital that ministered to soldiers, nurses, and captive civilians from August 1942 to February 1945. They established routines and required the nurses to work four-hour shifts every day. When a nurse was too weak to work, Nesbit often substituted herself for that nurse’s shift.

Nesbit took care of “her girls.” She’d find bits of cloth for underwear and tiny pieces of meat for extra protein.


Image of the Angels of Bataan during or shortly after liberation

In January 1945, Allied forces took over the Philippine Islands. Soon, 3,700 prisoners of war were liberated. The nurses had lost an average of 30% of their weight. Some were too weak to stand. But all 77 nurses had survived.

After the War

Nesbit retired from the military on November 30, 1946, as a major with 28 years of service.

She married a soldier, William Davis, in June 1949. Davis had also been interned in the war. They lived in California.

Nesbit wrote the Veterans Administration when it slighted nurses who had been POWs. She reminded them of the sacrifices these women made. And she sent cards and notes to every nurse from her Philippine staff for every birthday and Christmas for 49 years.

She was unable to attend the ceremony celebrating the Angels of Bataan in Washington DC in 1992. But she sent a note “embracing her girls.”


Nesbit died August 16, 1993. They scattered her ashes off the San Francisco coast.


Nesbit earned 11 ribbons and medals during her service.

They featured a romanticized version of the Angels in the 1943 movies, “So Proudly We Hail,” starring Claudette Colbert and “Cry Havoc,” starring Margaret Sullivan.

The Angels of Bataan were the first large group of American women in combat and the largest group of American woman taken prisoner in combat. They proved their value and valor.

In 1980, former soldiers who had survived POW camps dedicated a bronze plaque at the Mount Samat shrine “in honor of the valiant American military women who gave so much of themselves in the early days of World War II.

You can find a list of books about these women on the Mighty Girl’s blog.

Horror and Heroism

The horrors of war often bring out heroes, many of them never fomally recognized. But their fellow soldiers and nurses know. And now you know about Mama Josie and the Angels of Bataan.

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