Hampton Nurse Tells Of Life In Prison Camp
By Richard Day, Red Cross War Correspondent
The Hampton Union & Rockingham County Gazette
Thursday, February 1945
Leyte, P.I. (delayed) "The Japanese did not molest me or any of the nurses or civilian women imprisoned with me" said Lt. Rita Palmer, A.N.C., who was released from Santa Tomas, Japanese internment camp in Manila on February 3rd 1945. "In fact, they did not mistreat men, women or children."
"They didn't bother with us very much" she continued, "so long as we went about our business and did not attempt to communicate with the outside or break their curfew regulations. In small groups they were quite friendly and sometimes even brought us fruit and candy."
"The food" she went on to say, "was excellent as long as we were under a civilian commandant. We had a vegetable garden, ducks, pigs and carabou and we grew papaya; and bananas. We were also allowed to send buyers out on passes to purchase food for us in the city."
"When the military took over, however," states Lt. Palmer, "the quality of the food deteriorated and rations were severely and repeatedly cut. If it hadn't been for the food and vitamins that were sent to us by the American Red Cross on the Gripsholm, many of us might not have pulled through. As it is, none of the Army nurses imprisoned at Santa Tomas succumbed to malnutrition, and though we are thin and tired now, we are alive and terribly happy and excited."
Lt. Palmer helped to keep up her own and fellow internees' morale by resuming her childhood interest in the violin and playing in the sixteen-piece orchestra which was organized by the prisoners.
This courageous young woman who says "When I think of the men who were killed and wounded to free us, I wonder if we were worth it," spent her long years of captivity improving her education when she was off duty from the American run hospital within the camp which care for the internees.
A complete first year college course was arranged by internees for those of their children who graduated from the Manila High School and had no place to continue their studies. The classes were held by a former professor, a priest, and others who had taught in peace time, and attended by many adults as well as the children for whom they were planned. Among other subjects, Lt. Palmer studied sociology, English and logic.
Lt. Palmer, who left the United States in September, 1941, is one of the group of nurses from Fort Stotsenberg who were moved to Manila on the day before Christmas of that year. On Christmas Day they withdrew to Corregidor and there she remained until after recovering from some slight shrapnel wounds she escaped on April 29th while the Japanese were celebrating their Emperor's birthday.
With a General and his wife, a Colonel, nine other nurses and two civilian women, Lt. Palmer was flown in a PBY to Lanao Lake in Mindanao. They went into hiding for the day and took off at dusk. The plane was so heavily overloaded that it didn't gain altitude in time and the bottom of it was ripped out on a rock. Forced to abandon their ship, the little group, under the guidance of the Colonel who spoke Japanese, went from airfield to airfield for ten war-ridden days searching for transportation to Australia. At last, they took refuge on a Spanish ranch and then realizing they couldn't hold out much longer, they went to a nearby U.S. Army hospital and surrendered there with its American chief and Filipino staff so as to insure their status as military prisoners of war.
They were held temporarily in the civilian internment camp for Northern Mindanao and on August 17th were shipped back to Manila in the rat-infested hold of a China coast freighter with some Japanese soldiers. "We owe a great deal to a group of Catholic priests who were with us" says Lt. Palmer. "They surrounded the women and did all they could to make us comfortable and look after us."
Lt. Palmer, whose Yankee spirit was considerably irked by having to bow from the waist to every Japanese with a scabbard which indicated that he was an officer -- and as time went on to all Japanese soldiers no matter what their rank -- is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Charles D. Palmer of Hampton, New Hampshire. She graduated from Hampton Academy [on June 12, 1936] and attended Simmons College, Boston, Mass. She took her nurse's training at New England Deaconesses Hospital, graduating in 1939 and worked there until she joined the Army in March, 1941.