'It Was Terrible'

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Former Army Nurse Reflects On Horrors Of Being A War Prisoner

By Lara Bricker, Staff Writer

Hampton Union, Tuesday, May 30, 2000

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
Rita G. Palmer
1st Lt. Rita G. Palmer

Only one small section of my ward remained standing. Part of the roof had been blown into the jungle. There were mangled bodies under the ruins; a bloodstained hand stuck up through a pile of scrap; arms and legs had been ripped off and flung among the rubbish. Some of the mangled torsos were impossible to identify.

We worked wildly to get to the men who might be buried, still alive, under the mass of wreckage, tearing apart the smashed beds to reach the wounded and the dead....

The bombing had stopped, but the air was rent by the awful screams of the new-wounded and the dying. Trees were still crashing in the jungle and when one nearby fell on the remaining segment of tin roof it sounded like shellfire.... I saw Rosemary Hogan being helped from her ward. Blood streamed from her face and shoulder; she looked ghastly.

"Hogan," I called, "Hogan, is it bad?"

She managed to wave her good arm at me. "Just a little nose bleed," she said cheerfully ..."How about you?"

... Then Rita Palmer (from Hampton) was taken from her ward. Her face and arms had been cut and her skirt and GI shirt had been blown (open).

In fact, Rita Palmer had more than a few cuts. "I remember coming to and having long beams of the roof over me and struggling out from under those," she said. "I have no idea how long I was knocked out. I could breathe all right, but one finger of one hand was incapacitated. I didn't even know about the piece (of shrapnel) in my chest for several hours. It didn't penetrate my lung. I had shrapnel in my legs too."

{From "We Band of Angels:
The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped On Bataan by the Japanese"

Elizabeth M. Norman -- 1999}

Rita Palmer doesn't like to talk about her three years as a prisoner of war in Santa Tomas in Manila. The memories don't come hack easily. She prefers that they don't sometimes.

"I haven't talked about it very much," the 82-year-old Hampton native said last week.

Palmer and Rosemary Hogan were the first two women awarded a Purple Heart for their service in World War II. They were awarded the military medal in San Francisco in 1945. Palmer keeps mostly silent about the honor.

"It didn't mean anything," she said. "They all did things so much more than we did."

Palmer never anticipated the deadly turn of events when she enlisted as an Army nurse with the rank of Second Lieutenant in March 1941. Following her graduation from the New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston, she saw the Army as an opportunity to travel and see the world. Opportunities for travel were not as accessible to young people during that time as they are today, her brother Ansell Palmer, 80, of Hampton, explained.

Rita Palmer wrote of her feelings in a letter to her brother.

"After several months an opportunity to transfer to the Philippines came along and being young and eager to see the world, I volunteered," she wrote.

With five other nurses, she left on September 26, 1941 and arrived in Manila on Oct. 23, where she was stationed at Fort Stotensburg, 60 miles north of Manila. Clark Field was close by and Palmer wrote of her memories of the first day of war.

"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," she wrote. Clark Field was evacuated and the troops and nurses were moved south to Manila and by Christmas she was on Corregidor.

"Everything they bombed," Palmer said last week. "We were scared in a way. We didn't have time to think about anything."

The nurses worked 18-hour shifts and soon ran out of medical supplies. They rarely slept.

"It was almost constant," Palmer said.

From there, she worked on the Bataan Peninsula where she was wounded, as described in the excerpt from the book. Her brother explained that she was then taken back to Corregidor and was one of 12 army nurses who were to be taken at night to Australia by Navy flying boats, PBYs. The planes needed refueling often and the flight stopped on Lake Lanao on the southern island of the Philippines, Mindinao. However, the plane's belly was ripped open by a rock and they were grounded.

"Her PBY had had it and couldn't make it from there," Ansell Palmer said.

For six months, the small group stayed on the island but were eventually captured by the Japanese and returned by a cargo boat to Santa Tomas prison on Manila. She was imprisoned for three and a half years.

"That was a long time," she admitted.

At first getting food was not that difficult, but soon they were eating only rice, cooked in milk.

"It was terrible," she said. "Then it got so bad, our health was so bad."

Palmer and the others were freed in 1945 after Gen. Douglas MacArthur's troops re-took Manila. She remembers the day the Air Force fighter planes flew over the prison camp and tipped their wings. It was their first sign of liberation. But some who had survived for the entire length of time were killed just before they were to be freed.

Meanwhile, Ansell Palmer was stationed in Hawaii in the Navy Air Corps, where he was repairing planes. What he knew of his sister was through his mother and he learned of her liberation when reading the base newspaper. He read that some of the nurses were being brought to Hawaii and after three hours of calling different places on the phone, he was able to get through and talk with his sister for the first time in four years.

Two hours later, he received a phone call from the officer of the day who informed him that a high ranking official had ordered Ansell Palmer to be sent to his sister in Honolulu "the fastest way possible."

It was February 23, 1945, which is also Rita's birthday. He was shocked when he saw her at only 85 pounds. She returned to Hampton in August 1945 and later went on to the University of Chicago, where she met her husband, Bud James, who also received a Purple Heart after he was wounded in Italy.

Today, Palmer lives in Minneapolis, Minn., and returned to Hampton last week to visit her brother. She hopes when people think about the nurses who served in World War Il, they realize the significance of using women in combat, which wasn't seen much before WWII.

Today, she said, women have more opportunities for their careers and in leadership roles. She credits the nurses with opening up the future for modern day women.

But she still is haunted by the vivid memories of war.

"I have not successfully come to terms with everything that happened in those years," she wrote in a letter to her brother. "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."

Courtesy photo Hampton native Rita Palmer was imprisoned in the Philippines for three and a half years during World War 11. She was one of the first two women awarded a Purple Heart.
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