Ethel Thor did not talk much about the three years she spent in captivity as an Army nurse in World War II, nor of the Japanese attack that started it all 72 years ago this weekend.
She’d say the men captured on the Philippines’ Bataan Peninsula suffered far more than she and the nearly 80 other female American military nurses who were taken prisoner in the war’s early days. She felt there was little more to say.
“We didn’t grow up around that,” said her daughter, Carla Kingsbury of Gig Harbor. “And even when we were adults, my mom just did not talk about it.”
Now, 11 years after Thor’s death, the stoic Tacoma woman’s days in captivity are coming back in focus through a Spokane author’s effort to share the stories of the so-called “Angels of Bataan and Corregidor.”
Author Mary Cronk Farrell felt drawn to Thor both because of their in-state connection, and because Farrell was inspired by a photo Life Magazine once published showing Thor at work in an operating room on the Bataan Peninsula.
Thor would become one of the dozen or so main “angels” Farrell featured in her work, “Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific.”
It’s due to be published in February by ABRAMS. It’s a photo-rich book aimed at teenage and young adult readers who might be interested in learning about the perseverance the female nurses showed in surviving almost unimaginable hardship.
“It’s not like this was one nurse captured by the Japanese,” Farrell said. “This was dozens and dozens of them. They were under horrific conditions and the fact they all survived was really interesting to me.”
She wanted to write their story when she learned about the angels through her cousin, who was studying to become a nurse. The writer was struck by the World War II nurses’ commitment to each other, and the way many of them “were told to just get on with their lives and forget what happened” when they came home.
The journey to captivity for Thor and the other nurses began on Dec. 7, 1941, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese launched a second offensive the same day on American positions in the Philippines, though it was Dec. 8 by the calendar in Manila.
Hard fighting followed. Thor and other military nurses operated out of combat hospitals. Five months after the first attack, about 75,000 soldiers in American-led units surrendered to the Japanese forces.
Tens of thousands of the American and Filipino prisoners of war would die in Japanese custody before the liberation of the camps in 1945.
The angels had better conditions than the male military prisoners of war. Thor was kept with civilian prisoners at a camp near Manila called Santo Tomas. The angels created a medical clinic in which they cared for fellow internees.
Linda Bradley, one of Thor’s three daughters, visited the site a little more than 30 years ago. She went with her mom and a small group of surviving nurses.
Bradley learned about the imprisonment and about the small pleasures the nurses shared in the Philippines before the war by listening in on her mom’s conversations with the women she knew from that time.
“When they saw each other, they talked, and if you listened, you could learn,” said Bradley, who now lives in Lakewood, Colo.
Thor came home to Tacoma after the war and married Carl Nelson. They raised three daughters on a farm in Spanaway. She died in 2002 at the age of 91.
Growing up, her daughters noticed that Thor loved caring for the people around her, and she was often unflinching in handling needles, cuts and burns.
As Bradley learned more about her mom’s past – graduating from St. Joseph’s nursing school in Tacoma in 1930 and joining the Army — she began to look at those qualities differently.
“When I was young, I thought my dad ran the household and my mom just did what he said. I didn’t realize how independent she was,” Bradley said. “I can look back now and say my dad only thought he ran the household”
In the 18 years late in life that Thor would spend at the Tacoma Lutheran Home, she’d make a point to visit and care for her neighbors.
“She was happiest when she was taking care of people,” said daughter Sandra Thor of Seattle.
All three daughters helped Farrell with her research by providing photos and sharing memories about their mom. They’d like to think the work will help another generation remember the nurses who served with their mother.
“There are so many people that have never known there were women POWs in the war,” Kingsbury said. “The whole thing is just pretty amazing.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646