The Nurses of Naval Hospital Cañacao, RP

by Thomas L Snyder

The Cañacao Peninsula juts into Manila Bay, and is an ideal location for mooring and repairing ships.  Originally a point of commerce between Chinese merchants and resident Spanish and Filipinos, the peninsula emerged as a shipbuilding and repair area, ultimately housing a Spanish navy base.

In 1871, the Spanish established a naval hospital on the peninsula.  When the Americans occupied the Philippines after the 1898 war with Spain, the hospital fell under United States Navy administration.  U S Naval Hospital Cañacao served sailors of U S Naval forces in China and the western Pacific until December 1941, when, as a result of damage caused by Japanese air attacks on U S bases in the Philippines, patients and medical staff moved to joint Army and Navy medical facilities in Manila.

As the untenable status of Manila became clear, General MacArthur declared it an open city and, by New Years Eve 1941, all Army personnel, including 80 Army nurses, were evacuated to the Bataan Peninsula and then to Corregidor.  The Navy nurses, for reasons unclear, were not part of this evacuation plan, and so were left to care for several thousand U S and allied prisoners of war and civilians in makeshift hospitals located first in Santa Scholastica School, later at the University of Santo Tomas and finally, at an agriculture school in Los Baños.

Navy nurse Dorothy Still Danner, in her oral history (Navy Medicine 83, No 3 (May-June 1992), said that while conditions were spartan at Los Baños, there was enough food largely because their location at the agricultural school permitted them to grow fresh vegetables.  The navy nurses hid medications, especially quinine used against malaria so the Japanese would not filch it, and otherwise used their ingenuity to care for their patients.

Late in 1943, however, conditions changed.  Previously administered by Japanese civilians, the facility came under control of the Army–and in particular, a Supply Corps officer by the name of Konishi, who was later tried, convicted and executed for war crimes, charges that arose at least in part from his treatment of the people at Los Baños.

By March 1944, as American forces advanced after invading the Philippines, the food situation became quite bad.  As a result, many internees and staff, including the nurses, suffered from such nutritional illnesses as beriberi.

On 9 January 1945, Japanese personnel abandoned the Los Baños area (they would return temporarily a week later), and the camp was declared “Camp Freedom”.  Liberation certain came on 23 Feb 1945 when American paratroopers and infantry arrived in force.

Nurse Danner recalls that soon after liberation, the nurses were feted in Admiral Kinkaid’s headquarters.

Eleven Navy Nurse POWs

Eleven Cañacao Nurses After Liberation

But they couldn’t eat the huge steak dinners they were served because “our stomaches had shrunk so much”.  The Army awarded all eleven Navy nurses of Cañacao (later, Los Baños) the Bronze Star; the Navy added a gold star in lieu of second award on the same day.  The Eleven of Cañacao were Goldia O’Haver, Eldene Paige, Dorothy Still, Mary Rose Harrington, Mary Chapman, Edwina Todd, Susier Pitcher, Margaret Nash, Bertha Evans, Helen Gorzelanski and Chief Nurse, Laura Cobb.

©2011 by Thomas L Snyder

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  • Alice Hadley  On 08 Mar 2011 at 20:54

    Navy Nurse Corp officers first went to Cañacao in 1911. This year is the centennial of NNC members going to Canacao, Philippines; Guam; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Haiti; Honolulu, HI; Samoa; and the Virgin Islands. Among their other duties, they established training schools in Guam, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands to train local populations in health and hygiene.

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