From the “DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP” flag at the U.S. Naval Academy to museum ships resting at a pier, historical objects tell Navy stories. They speak about heroism and hardship, great events and daily life, about courage, faith, and perseverance. The denim dress of World War II Navy nurse Lieutenant Margaret “Peggy” Nash is such an object.
I was the director of the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington, when I saw Nash’s dress for the first time. In 1997, my museum was planning an exhibit on Navy nurses, and I visited the collection of the Navy Nurse Corps Association, then located in nearby Port Orchard, to look for items to borrow. I thought the faded, wrinkled fabric of Nash’s dress, with its distinct horizontal wear line, revealed hardships few people endure.
But what story did the dress have to tell? What had Peggy Nash experienced while she wore it during the three years she was a prisoner of the Japanese in the Philippines? Nash had passed away in 1992. To answer my questions, I turned to two oral histories she had recorded and wartime articles from her hometown newspapers. I found a story of courage and suffering by Peggy Nash and ten other Navy nurses. Their service to their fellow internees and their country was so remarkable that it garnered a Bronze Star Medal from both the Army and the Navy.
Margaret Nash’s story began in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where she was born in 1911. She graduated from the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Wilkes-Barre in June 1932. A flood of the Susquehanna River devastated her community in March 1936, and she volunteered her skills as a registered nurse to help the town recover. Afterward, her uncle suggested she might consider becoming a Navy nurse. Peggy replied: “Sure I’d love it, but don’t tell my mother.” Mother and daughter were very close and would remain so throughout their lives.
A month later, Peggy Nash began Navy nurse training at the Norfolk Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia; she was 25 years old. After completing six months of on-the-job training, she qualified as a Navy nurse in October 1936. Nash served first at Norfolk and then at the naval hospital in Newport, Rhode Island. In early 1940 the Navy assigned her to duty on Guam. Following temporary duty at Mare Island, California, she sailed for Guam in October 1940.1
Nash was a surgical supervisor nurse and worked in the operating room of the naval hospital. Guam proved to be a tropical paradise, and she enjoyed her work and life there. She met newly commissioned U.S. Naval Reserve Ensign Edwin A. Wood Jr., who was the executive officer of the minesweeper USS Penguin (AM-33), homeported in Guam. After dating for about seven months, they became engaged, with a wedding date set for February 1942.
Life changed rapidly and unexpectedly for Nash in September 1941. As she later recalled: “I was in the OR, we were doing a caesarian section when our chief nurse came in and said, ‘You’d better let your senior nurse take over. Your orders are in.’ I was shocked, and I said, ‘Well, why don’t we finish this operation?’ and she said ‘You don’t have time. You have to be aboard [ship] in two hours. Mary [Navy nurse Mary McHale] is packing all your clothes and you and Mary are being transferred to Manila.’”2
‘No Time for Fear’
Nash’s assignment in the Philippines was at the Canacao Naval Hospital at the Cavite Navy Yard, about eight miles southwest of Manila. She was on duty there when the Japanese attacked the Philippines on 8 December 1941. On 10 December, Japanese bombers destroyed the Cavite shipyard. The hospital was about a half mile away, and Nash and the other nurses took shelter under their quarters as the bombs fell.
“That was really our first experience with casualties,” Nash said, “[T]hey were coming in every vehicle available . . . four and five in a car . . . . when I walked in the hospital and looked at the ward I said: ‘Oh my God, this is really war. . . .’” The situation worsened as more casualties arrived. “Once I ran to the operating room and saw doctors operating on the steps and on the floor. It was like a nightmare there. . . . We worked like that into the night. Corpses filled the morgue. There was no time for fear.”3
For the remainder of December, the chaotic military situation forced the Navy to move its medical personnel and patients around the Manila area. Nash recalled establishing small dispensaries in various places, even in a nightclub.
On 22 and 24 December the Japanese Army landed in force on Luzon. Unable to hold out against them, General Douglas MacArthur moved his headquarters to Corregidor and on 26 December declared Manila to be an open city. That same day, as Japanese bombs fell around them, Nash, the other Navy nurses, and their patients went to a hospital established by the Army at Santa Scholastica College. On Christmas Day 1941, Nash sent a cable to her mother telling her she was safe. This was the last accurate news Mrs. Mary Nash would hear of her daughter for seven months.
Captives of the Japanese
As U.S. forces retreated, the Navy nurses were forgotten and left behind at Santa Scholastica. They did not realize their situation until Japanese troops arrived and took control of the hospital. “On January 2, 1942, we were officially prisoners of war,” Nash said.4 Their captivity began four months before the American fortress of Corregidor surrendered on 6 May 1942.
The Japanese, unfamiliar with uniformed personnel who happened to be women, treated the nurses as internees rather than prisoners of war. Nash and the other nurses continued to take care of their patients, always under the close watch of armed guards. Most of time they realized their dangerous situation, but not always. When two Filipinos from Nash’s ward escaped from the camp, the Japanese threatened to shoot the ward doctor, corpsman, and nurse; only later did Chief Nurse Laura Cobb tell Nash that she had been on the execution list.
In early March 1942 the Japanese transferred Nash and the other Navy nurses to a civilian internment camp on the grounds of the former Santo Tomas University in Manila. By August, the 45-acre camp held some 3,200 civilian women, children, and men of all nationalities who had been in the city when the Japanese seized it. The camp’s civilian administrative committee had established a hospital in an industrial building. The Navy nurses were among the few medical personnel in the camp, and they volunteered to assist.
Nash later remembered that the Japanese treated the Navy nurses with respect because of their continual work with the sick. “Of course,” she said, “if you were to do anything that was against their regulations, they’d shoot you. So you had to be very very careful.”5
Nash’s family had little idea what had happened to her. On 23 June 1942 the Navy Department notified her mother that Peggy was missing in action following the surrender of the Philippines. In early July Mrs. Nash’s spirits were raised when she saw a newspaper photograph of nurses in Australia who had escaped from Corregidor; she was positive one of them was Peggy. But on 29 September 1942, the State Department informed her that her daughter was “safe and well” at Santo Tomas.6
Nash was far from being well. A Japanese photo taken in September 1942 shows a noticeably gaunt Nash. She had contracted dengue fever with high fever, chills, and a rash. The prisoners’ situation at Santo Tomas was difficult. “Food was scarce, and we never had enough to eat,” Nash recalled.7
Overcrowding at Santo Tomas caused the Japanese to establish another civilian internment camp at Los Baños, some 25 miles southeast of Manila, in May 1943. The Japanese sent 800 young men, internees from Santo Tomas, to make the 40-acre site of the abandoned agricultural college habitable. Nash and the other Navy nurses were asked to go, and they did. Nash recalled the five-hour train ride in overcrowded, stifling boxcars: “As we stopped at different stations, they [the Japanese guards] would open the doors to let just a little air in. It was suffocating and maliciously unhuman.”
Nonstop Nursing, Improvised Equipment
On arrival at Los Baños, the internees found primitive conditions; almost everything that could be carried away had been taken. Nash and the nurses established a 25-bed hospital with an operating room and a dispensary; Nash was in charge of the latter. Because so much standard medical equipment was unavailable, she used a hot plate to sterilize surgical instruments. When an Australian unexpectedly showed up with a sterilizer, she asked where he had gotten it. “Peggy, don’t ask,” he said, and she never did again. This same Australian later responded to Nash’s need for a dressing carriage to carry her supplies from bed to bed. He made one for her with the unauthorized use of the wheels from the camp commandant’s bicycle.
The internee population at Los Baños grew; Nash and the other ten nurses took care of everyone, even a Japanese guard who had an appendectomy. The clinic would see as many as 200 patients per day. Jungle rot was common, and like everyone else in the camp, Nash contracted it.
At the Nash home in Wilkes-Barre, Mrs. Nash received her first letter from Peggy in December 1943. Peggy managed to sound optimistic about her situation and her chances of returning home. “We are kept busy here, working in the camp hospital. . . . It may help you to know I am not so fussy about my food any more. . . . We manage to keep well on our diet of native food.” An even briefer letter arrived in June 1944: “Safe and well. Received letters and packages. God keep you safe. Love.”8
The captives received or raised adequate food through 1943, but in August 1944, the Japanese administrators began to reduce their food supply. Breakfast consisted of a bowl of weevily, glutinous rice gruel called lugaw with milk on it and sometimes a banana; Nash recalled that it tasted like wallpaper paste. She was envious of the monkeys outside the barbed wire who had access to all the bananas they wanted. Supper was a stew of local vegetables.
The internees rarely had meat or protein, and Nash attributed this lack to the prevalence of beriberi in the camp. Beriberi almost killed her in September 1944; her arms and legs swelled and her temperature rose to 106 degrees. The medical staff concocted a crude typhoid vaccine that saved her life.9
By autumn 1944, starvation had become very real at Los Baños. While the internees struggled to stay alive, U.S. and Allied forces were advancing across the Pacific. On 20 October 1944, the U.S. Sixth Army landed on Leyte Island. Several days later in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, arguably the largest naval battle in history, the U.S. Third and Seventh Fleets decisively defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy, ending its ability as a fighting force.
A few days before Christmas 1944, the Nash family received a photograph of Peggy that again gave them hope. U.S. soldiers had captured a Japanese headquarters building in Leyte and found a portfolio of Japanese photographs; one showed an American nurse tending a patient. When a naval officer reviewed it, he immediately recognized Peggy Nash; Commander R. F. Armknecht had served with her in Guam. Unlike the Australia photograph, this time the photo identification was correct. The downside was that the place or date of the photo was not known, so no one could be sure of Peggy’s current condition or location.10
‘We Were Living from Day to Day’
Christmas 1944 was grim in Los Baños. At a camp Christmas service, a Catholic bishop said, “One thing’s for sure, we won’t be here this time next year.” Nash knew what he meant. “We all understood the message. Either we would be rescued or we would all be dead, and we all knew it.”11 In the new year the internees’ situation at Los Baños became more desperate. Though there was ample food in the Los Baños area, the Japanese refused to allow the prisoners to have it. The camp held about 2,500 people, and two or three died every day.
“In January 1945 we were living from day to day,” Nash said. “We were at the stage where we could hardly walk. . . . When I had to go up to roll call, I could hardly make it there.” There was a lot of gallows humor, Nash remembered, and people would say to each other, “If you’re going to die, dig your own grave, because we’re too tired to dig one for you.”
In savage fighting, U.S. and Filipino forces began pushing the Japanese from the Philippines. On 3 February 1945 U.S. troops liberated the starving internees at Santo Tomas in Manila, but Los Baños remained behind enemy lines. As American forces advanced, the Japanese guards abandoned Los Baños for a week. “Filipinos were bringing food, and we had no idea what had happened,” Nash said. “But in week they [the Japanese] were back and meaner than ever.”
Learning of Japanese intentions to execute all the internees, U.S. and Filipino forces planned a risky rescue mission. In a precisely coordinated attack, U.S. Army troops of the 11th Airborne Division and Filipino guerrillas stormed Los Baños by land and parachute on 23 February 1945.
On her way to morning roll call, Nash heard airplanes, looked up, and saw white spots in the sky. What she thought were leaflets turned out to be American parachutes. Emerging from the jungle, Filipino guerrillas overwhelmed the 40 to 50 guards, and Army amtracs (amphibious tractors) crashed through the camp gates. “Dear God,” she thought, “today we either live or die, but at least this suffering is going to be over.”
But the prisoners would not be safe until they could be evacuated from Japanese-held territory. This required moving more than 2,000 starving, sick, and confused men, women, and children some two miles to the beach of Laguna de Bay, from which the amtracs would take them to freedom. Under cover of arms, the internees moved by truck and foot to the beach.
Depleted in health and stamina, Nash retained the spirit and strength for a final act of heroism. As she fled the camp, she carried one of the two newborns, a nine-day-old baby girl, in her arms. “Protect the babies with your life,” Chief Nurse Laura Cobb told her. The beach was not secure, and the evacuees came under Japanese fire. “The bullets were flying all around when we climbed out [of an amtrac] on the beach, so I put myself on top of the baby to protect her.” Carrying baby Elizabeth, Nash got into another amtrac; it began to flood as its door closed, and Nash had to hold the baby over her head. After an hour’s ride across Laguna de Bay, Nash and the baby reached U.S.-held territory, and Nash knew they were finally safe.12
Weight Down to 78 Pounds
Nash and her sister Navy nurses were not finished with the war. The Army took them to the hospital it had established in Bilibid prison in Manila. “There was still so much fighting, and corpsmen were bringing in casualties.” The situation reminded her of all the wounded men she had treated in Cavite three years earlier. The hospital was without nurses, so despite their own physical and mental exhaustion, the Navy nurses treated wounded soldiers for another ten days until Army nurses arrived.
Returning to the United States required island-hopping by small plane. Leaving one island, Nash’s plane came under Japanese fire. “Somebody is shooting at us,” she said. An aviator tried to reassure her it was only hailstones.
Nash arrived in San Francisco on 10 March 1945 and went to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland. Medical examinations showed the extent to which three years of captivity had damaged her health. Tropical diseases had almost killed her, and she had lost 29 percent of her body weight, shrinking from 110 to 78 pounds. She now had “all the food in the world, but [I] couldn’t eat it. Everything I ate, I would throw up. I was still swollen from the beriberi, and they discovered I had tuberculosis. I can remember someone saying I didn’t have long to live, as though I couldn’t hear.”13
Slightly recovered, Peggy Nash returned to Wilkes-Barre on 26 March 1945 for her first visit in five years. The city was proud of its hometown hero, and some 25,000 people thronged its streets to see her. A 50-car parade, complete with color guard and marching band, escorted Nash from the train station to her mother’s home. The war had ended for her, though she said she and the other nurses were ready and willing to return to duty.14
The Navy thought otherwise and assigned her to St. Albans Naval Hospital on Long Island, where she spent a year recuperating. She was medically retired as a lieutenant commander on 1 April 1946. Nash moved to Berkeley, California, where she worked at the Student Health Center at the University of California until she retired in 1973. She passed away at her home in Walnut Creek, California, on 25 November 1992 at the age of 81 and was buried in her home church cemetery in Wilkes-Barre.
In a post-rescue photo of Nash and her sister nurses, a white wear line runs horizontally across the front of the denim dress I saw in 1997. The line was worn into the fabric as Nash stood for thousands of hours at her dressing carriage, caring for the sick. For me this plain garment holds as much significance as a tattered battle flag, because it represents the courage, suffering, and spirit of American service women and men as they fought and won a great war for freedom.
1. Wilkes-Barre Record, 15 August 1940.
2. Oral history of Margaret A. Nash, Military Women’s Memorial, Arlington, Virginia, 1.
3. Diane Burke Fessler, No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II (Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1996), 80.
4. Nash oral history, 3.
5. Nash oral history, 8
6. Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, The Evening News, 29 September 1942.
7. Fessler, No Time for Fear, 82.
8. Wilkes-Barre Record, 23 June 1944.
9. Nash oral history, 12.
10. Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, The Evening News, 26 December 1944.
11. Fessler, No Time for Fear, 83.
12. Bruce Henderson, Rescue at Los Baños (New York: William Morrow, 2015).
13. Fessler, No Time for Fear, 101.
14. Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, The Evening News, 27 March 1945.