Army Nurse Survived Horrors In Far East
By Steve Haberman, Herald Staff
The Portsmouth Herald, Thursday, November 11, 1993
HAMPTON -- Children at the Hampton Academy Junior High School yesterday learned of the unique place the town holds in World War II history. They discovered that Rita Palmer James, a former Army nurse and Hampton resident, was the first woman to be awarded a Purple Heart, for wounds she sustained in that conflict.
James' brother, former Selectman Ansell Palmer, had asked her to put down recollections of that great war in a letter to students at her alma mater. Yesterday, Patricia Triggs read the letter at a special Veterans Day assembly at the school. It afforded the students an opportunity to see the greatest conflict of our time through the eyes of a very special woman.
JAMES finished nursing school in 1939 and immediately joined the Red Cross. That job entailed a year of service in the event of a national emergency, so as U.S. involvement in the war became imminent she signed up for the Army Nurses Corps and was stationed at Camp Edwards in Massachusetts.
"After several months an opportunity to transfer to the Philippines came along and, being young and eager to see the world, I volunteered," James wrote. She had no idea how that decision would change her life.
After sailing to the Philippines aboard an ocean liner that had been commandeered for military use, James arrived at Ft. Stotsenberg, about 60 miles north of Manila. From Hawaii west, she said the vessel was shadowed almost all the way by a Japanese submarine which she viewed "as a minor irritation, rather than the threat it was.
On Dec. 8 of that year she heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the radio. One of the other nurses said she would have to apologize about being stationed in the Philippines where nothing happened, but that attitude was shortlived. At noon that day, the Japanese air force destroyed Clark Field.
Horror of that first afternoon of war is burned in my memory -- the dead, the dying, the dismembered who filled every inch of our small hospital, are epitomized for me by a legless 16-yearold who had lied about his age to get into the Army," James wrote.
Shortly before Christmas James, her unit and patients were moved to Manila, then to Bataan where James and another nurse suffered shrapnel wounds, and then to Corregidor. She was evacuated from Corregidor on April 29, Premier Tojo's birthday.
"The bay was lit as though by fireworks from a nearly triumphant Japanese army and with the periodic ear-shattering booms from the big guns on Corregidor," James remembers.
The flight from the Japanese ended in a small general hospital in Impalutau in the mountains of the province of Mindanao, James said. "Among my most painful memories of Impalutau are the unaccustomed cold and the pain of hepatitis," she wrote.
The Japanese moved her around the island and finally back to Manila where she was reunited with the nurses she had worked with on Corregidor. She was allowed to work in a hospital run by missionaries but communications and her health steadily deteriorated. James suffered from beriberi because of the poor quality of their rations.
Then one day, to our immense joy, several Air Force fighter planes flew low over our camp, tipped their wings and waved," James remembers. "We were liberated by some of the First Cavalry Division troops who had endangered their lives by pushing ahead of their support."
True liberation was, however, days away as the Japanese attempted to retake the camp, killing many of those who had survived those difficult years.
After returning home, James attempted to return to Asia with the Army, but the rules at that time made that impossible. She was discharged and returned to school, later to settle in Minneapolis, Minn., where she currently lives.
"I have not successfully come to terms with everything that happened in those years," James wrote. "I learned some valuable lessons, a great deal about human nature under extreme conditions, and the recognition that little is gained and nothing is resolved by war. "
Letter to Ansell, From Sister Rita
By Rita Glidden (Palmer) James
Read by Pat Triggs Weeks at
Hampton Academy Jr. High School
November 10, 1993
Dear Ansell et al,
I am honored that you have included me in Hampton's Veterans' Day activities. I'll try to recreate my service record, but do remember, that my aging memory may make errors.
When I finished nursing school 1939, I received a form from the Red Cross asking me to join that organization. The agreement included doing a year of service, in the event of a national emergency. At the time of the first draft, for the Second World War, I was reminded of this and so I 'enlisted' and was sent to Camp Edwards in Massachusetts. After several months, an opportunity to transfer to the Philippines came along and being young and eager to see the world, I volunteered.
The journey overseas was markedly different for me than for most other veterans. We traveled on a President liner that had yet to switch from its civilian crew to Navy personnel. This heightened the enjoyment of the trip and certainly the quality of the food. The Japanese submarine that followed us from Honolulu west was viewed with minor irritation rather than as the threat that it was. We arrived in the islands in October 1941 and I was assigned to Fort Stotsenberg, about 60 miles north of Manila. There, on the far side of the International Date Line, those of us at breakfast, on December 8th, heard, on the radio of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. One of the listening women thought that when we returned to the States we would need to apologize for being in the Philippines where nothing happened. We were spared that fate, however, when at noon the Japanese air force destroyed Clark Field.
The horror of that first afternoon of war is burned in my memory -- the dead, the dying, the dismembered, who filled every inch of our small hospital, are epitomized for me by a legless 16-year old who had lied about his age to get into the army.
Shortly before Christmas, after we had evacuated our patients, we moved to Manila, then on to Bataan where the hospital and living quarters were out under the trees, and then Corregidor where we were housed in the smoke filled tunnels. Another nurse and I were showered with shrapnel when the hospital in Bataan was bombed and because of that we were chosen to leave Corregidor on a PBY [airplane] headed for Australia. We left Corregidor at night on April 29th, Premier Tojo's birthday. The bay was lit, as though by fireworks from a nearly triumphant Japanese army and, with periodic ear-shattering booms from the big guns on Corregidor. Attempting to take off from a lake in northern Mindanao the next night, the plane taxied onto sharp rocks which opened it up along the bottom with can-opener efficiency.
We moved to buses and any kind of transportation available, while the high-ranking Army and Navy officers among us, radioed Australia for help and kept us on the move to ever smaller airfields. The touring came to an end at a small general hospital at Impalutau, in the mountains of the northern Mindanao. Here we surrendered to the Japanese and we remained here for several months. Among my most painful memories of Impalutau are the unaccustomed cold and the pain of hepatitis. From here the Japanese navy moved us south to Davao and then north to Manila, where we were reunited with the nurses we had left on Corregidor and where we had the good fortune to be interned with civilians.
In Santo Tomas we worked half-day shifts in the hospital, set up by missionary doctors. For a while, we were able to borrow money and buy food from the Filipinos, but as the war got closer, all outside communications were shut off and life and health deteriorated. Everyone had BeriBeri, but we were much better off than the GIs who marched so many miles on less rice.
Then one day to our immense joy several air force fighter planes flew low over camp, tipped their wings and waved. We were liberated by some of the 1st Cavalry Division troops who had endangered their lives by pushing ahead of their support. For several days, during which the GIs gave us their food, we remained cut off from Allied troops and the Japanese very nearly retook the camp. A number of people, who had survived those years, were killed.
I have not successfully come to terms with everything that happened in those years. I learned some valuable lessons, a great deal about human nature under extreme conditions and the recognition that little is gained and nothing resolved by war.
After leave, at home, to fatten up, I went to the Air Evac School in San Antonio with the idea of returning to Asia but Army rules forbade this. After discharge I returned to school to study more life-enriching subjects.