“Will I die?,” asked a Chamorro youth as he lies on the operating table, having sustained gunshot wounds to his abdomen. Captain Wilma Leona Class Jackson, kindly responded that he wouldn’t, and the young man replied with resignation to his fate, “I don’t care if I do. If I die, I will not have to live under these Japanese.” He expired from his injuries.
Captain Jackson remembered this exchange at the naval hospital’s operating room the day the Japanese forces invaded Guam on Dec. 10, 1941. Some sordid, macabre details of atrocities on Guam she captured in a personal narrative, and how she and four other Navy nurses (Chief Nurse Marion Olds, Doris Yetter, Virginia Fogarty and Lorraine Christiansen) ended up as prisoners of war.
War was imminent
There had been a sense of foreboding for quite some time that war was afoot. This was not lost on those serving on Guam and in the Philippines who had an inkling that something was stirring up when their dependents had to be sent home.
And then Pearl Harbor was bombed. Hours after the event that jolted the nation, the Japanese were lobbing bombs on Guam and landing forces in blitzkrieg fashion.
“I wasn’t surprised at the Japanese attack, and I think for many of the people there it didn’t come as a surprise. The situation had been tense and the Governor had sent the families from the island several weeks previous to the actual outbreak of war. I think our first reaction was one of relief that we didn’t have the women and children there on island,” she stated in a 1943 narrative available in the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine (BUMED) archives, a copy of which is online courtesy of Roger Mansell’s Center for Research for Allied POWS, www.mansell.com. Moreover, an excerpt was made available by the BUMED monthly publication Navy Medicine in 1998 as a tribute to Captain Jackson — the fourth director of the US Navy Nurse Corps — who died that same year.
Captain Jackson was commissioned in the Navy Nurse Corps on July 6, 1939. She had been at the naval hospital in Philadelphia for three years and had been expecting to transfer to New York when she received her order mid-summer of 1940 that Guam would be her next assignment.
A 15-year veteran, Chief Nurse Marion Olds, who would be her superior on Guam, boarded the same ship with her at San Diego. They left in January 1941 and arrived on Guam on Feb. 5, 1941. Fogarty, Yetter, and Christiansen would not join the staff on Guam until September 1941.
In Jackson’s article, “I Was on Guam,” published in The American Journal of Nursing November 1942 issue, she said the Navy nurse staff was composed of five: one chief nurse and four staff nurses.
The usual term of duty on Guam was one year, she said, and after which nurses would transfer to the Naval Hospital at Cañacao in the Philippines. USN Lt. Cdr. Laura Cobb, who was one of the 11 Navy nurses interned at Santo Tomas and later in Los Baños, served on Guam at the time when the U.S. territory was hit by a strong typhoon in November 1940.
Jackson said, “Two of the nurses who served with me during my first months in Guam are now prisoners of the Japanese in the Philippines.” Although her journal article did not name these nurses, she may have alluded to Cobb who left the island sometime in February 1941.
While on Guam, Jackson said they were to train and supervise Chamorro women in practical nursing. Jackson had praises for her trainees, “these girls, could, did and do excellent practical nursing, and the bedside care given by some of them was as good as any I have seen given in any hospital.”
Meanwhile, she wrote that the hospital’s doctors were all medical officers of the U.S. Navy. She noted that the commanding officer was a competent surgeon, the executive officer was an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist “and did the operative and clinic work in those fields.” She said the chief of surgery did most of the surgeries. Moreover, junior officers would assist in surgery and visit wards under the direction of the chief of staff.
“Life on Guam was pleasant,” said Jackson adding that despite being busy at the hospital they could pursue recreational activities at the available facilities on island.
As to their duties, Jackson said Yetter had a previous teaching experience and had found herself “teaching under very different circumstances.” Christiansen was the OR nurse while Fogarty was assigned in the diet kitchen.
The day the Japanese came
Back on Guam, the hospital staffers had braced themselves for the worst following the bombing on Guam on Dec. 8th, hours after the Pearl Harbor attack. Captain Jackson related that the Japanese had raided the island twice on the first day. “The first raid consisted of nine planes. I had gone on duty after lunch and was making rounds in the hospital when we heard them come over again. They came low over the hospital attempting to get the communication building, which was not awfully far from our ward. The clatter was terrific but there really wasn’t anything to get excited about because there was no place to go. The island was completely and entirely unfortified and so I think most of us just went on with our routine things as they would be done in ordinary circumstances.”
The following day there were three raids with the last one marked by “plain strafing.” There were not many casualties that day and the Chamorros had begun fleeing out of Agana en route to ranches in the interior of the island as previously advised in the event of hostilities.
On the second day there had already been rumors circulating about casualties. “We heard the Penguin (AM-33) was sunk, all officers lost. Three of her officers presently arrived at the hospital. So that, at least, was untrue,” said Jackson in her narrative taken in 1943.
Further on the Penguin, she said it had been attacked by planes and the gunnery officer’s death was due to a machine-gun fire. “The captain, realizing that he couldn’t get the ship to sea and escape that way, had scuttled her,” Jackson said, adding that the captain had managed to bring the dead gunnery officer’s body ashore despite a broken arm. Jackson said the Marines picked them up and brought them to the hospital while the other crew members were brought in by their shipmates.
Captain Jackson believed the Japanese had landed on Guam on the “third morning of war.” She approximated it was about 3:30 in the morning when they heard gun shots. “I was awakened from sleep by the sound of shots and walked out of my room onto the Lanai and everything looked so peaceful it seemed very difficult to realize that war had broken out in the Pacific.”
The nurse next to her room, Virginia Fogarty, had been roused from sleep and had been thinking if the landing party had arrived. There was an ominous silence after the first round of shots. They waited for an hour and a half, and the shots resumed. Captain Jackson thought it was the landing party and immediately considered going to the hospital to make rounds.
It was not until 6 a.m. when they had finally received confirmation. A wounded Bill Hughes arrived at the hospital with his wife and brother-in-law. The trio were en route to Agana from the farm when they ran into a band of soldiers on the road. Initially, they had them mistaken for Marines on patrol until the soldiers “jumped onto the running-board of the car.”
Jackson said Hughes stepped on the gas and sped toward Agana as they narrowly escaped capture but not without sustaining bayonet wounds. His wife Joquina’s brother had been dead when they reached the hospital.
“I think the bitterest moment of my life came at sunrise when, standing in the door of the hospital library, I saw the Rising Sun ascend the flagpole where the day before the Stars and Stripes had proudly flown,” said Jackson.
The hospital staff watched as the Japanese arrived around 8:30 a.m. and set up their headquarters there.
“The Japanese had swarmed over the island like a plague of grasshoppers on December 10th,” she said.
Soon the casualties began arriving at the hospital and the nurses would soon find themselves preoccupied saving lives. Navy medical personnel were allotted one ward for tending patients as the Japanese utilitized the rest of the hospital facility, she said.
Meanwhile, the Japanese soldiers ransacked the Chamorro houses for their personal benefit. Jackson recalled, “They took food, they took equipment, sewing machines from the natives, everything!”
The Japanese choked off food supply on the island, requiring all store owners to furnish them with an inventory of all the supplies. “Everything was rigidly controlled by the Japs.”
Captain Jackson saw how the Chamorros had to line up under a scorching sun “waiting for permission to buy even a pound of rice.”
Throwing a wrench into their already complicated situation was the presence of some Japanese residents who according to Jackson “proved a very effective fifth column,” as they commandeered what the Chamorros had in their homes. Livestock were taken, some slaughtered on island, while others were shipped to Japan.
Meanwhile, back at the hospital, Jackson noticed that a great number of patients had bayonet wounds in the back.
“The men who had surrendered had been required to strip off all of their clothing except shorts, had been searched, evidently had been required to kneel at the feet of the Japanese and had been bayoneted in the back. That was typical. Any of the natives that had gotten in their way had been bayoneted without regard to age, sex or color,” she mentioned in her 1943 narrative a complete copy of which is available online courtesy of Robert Mansell via www.mansell.com or through the Navy BUMED Archives.
Zentsuji and Kobe camps
For quite some time, there had been talk about them being shipped to Japan. And it happened on Jan. 10, 1942. The five nurses were among the 477 military personnel who were shipped to Japan. Guampedia, citing a Roger Mansell’s research, shares a list of close to 500 prisoners of war taken to Japan in various internment camps: https://www.guampedia.com/wwii-prisoners-of-war-sent-to-japan/
The captives were loaded on Argentina Maru: the men were placed in the cargo hold, the patients in the steward’s cabin while the five nurses, the chief petty officer’s wife and her six-week-old baby were assigned the stewardess’ cabin.
During their five-day voyage, they were fed rice or spaghetti. “The rice was full of weevils,” said Jackson.
They pulled into harbor in Japan on the morning of Jan. 15, 1942. Except for the crew members that had all disembarked, they all remained on the ship until nightfall when they were all transferred onto a barge that ferried them across to land. It was a bitterly cold night as some were only covered in sheets.
From the port they took a bus ride to their camp, an old Japanese Army barracks, dirty and dingy. As it was wintertime when they came to Japan, their initial source of heat were charcoal braziers but they would later be issued warmer stoves.
Jackson noted that during their early days in the camp were spent sewing and mending clothes. For the nurses it had seemed like never-ending.
At Zentsuji, in the beginning, they had been given two meals a day of rice and soup with shreds of vegetables. Following a cleanup by the internees of the galley on camp grounds, they cooked whatever they were issued and were able to eat three meals a day. Jackson said they were given rice mixed with wheat germ twice a day and bread once a day. The small amount of vegetables they usually made into a soup.
Ten days from their arrival, the civilians were moved to Kobe including Mrs. Hillmers and the six-month-old baby, Bishop Miguel Angel Urteaga Olano and Brother Jesus de Begona.
When the remaining internees of the camp had been well settled, the Japanese had started classes in Nihongo which was attended by many officers and men, according to Jackson. Some officers, she said, also started other classes that they could benefit learning from.
“The general attitude of the men at the camp was excellent,” said Jackson adding that the men cultivated discipline, and maintained the neatness of the camp.
For the most part of their stay, the camp at Zentsuji had been relatively peaceful and there were no incidents of brutality that Jackson knew of. The internees observed discipline and order much to the satisfaction of the Japanese commandant.
Just as they had become accustomed to their camp, the nurses were to be transferred to Kobe much to their dismay. Captain Jackson said they arrived on March 13 and were taken to an old hotel which she said had been frequented by Indians and managed by an Indian. There they lived with citizens of allied nations.
Compared to Zentsuji camp, the hotel offered better accommodation: better beds, better food. They even had hot water up to three hours a day.
Jackson recalled they had books to read and a good selection of music to listen to. They studied foreign languages as well with the allied citizens. She also took note of how lucky they were to have had the Japanese amah in charge of their provisions. She was considerate and took care of them well, she said. And their luck did not end there.
The Swiss consul would later inform them that there would be an exchange of nationals and that the five of them would go home on the exchange ship with the diplomatic corps.
June 17, 1942 — Homebound
Not long after, on June 17, the journey to freedom began. Having been cleared at customs, they went to Yokohama, then to Tokyo to eat and back to Yokohama to board the Asama Maru. Their trip, for some reason, had been stalled much to their consternation. However, their journey home resumed on June 25.
From Yokohama, they sailed down to Formosa (Taiwan), then to Hong Kong where they picked up more prisoners of war. In French Indochina, they picked up diplomats then off they went to Singapore. Their voyage took them across the Indian Ocean to the Portuguese port at Lourenço Marques (Maputo), the capital of Mozambique.
Their staff nurse, Virginia Fogarty, who had married State Department official Frederick Mann, disembarked with him there en route to Brazzaville, Congo.
At Lourenço Marques, the Gripsholm diplomatic ship was waiting for the prisoners of war and diplomats. From there the Gripsholm sailed to Rio then to New York City. It was Aug. 25, 1942 when they pulled into New York harbor.
In its tribute to Captain Jackson, the Navy Medicine ran an article on her in its July-August 1998 issue, that talked about her life, career and accomplishments, citing her assignments across the nation as well as her legacy to the Navy Nurse Corps. She retired in 1958.
On March 23, 1998, she passed away at the VA Hospice in Dayton. She was 88.