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How Two Kansas WWII Nurses Survived as POWs: The Unyielding Spirit


Black and white image of a group of WWII army nurses in the back of a truck.
"Angels of Bataan" - Credit: United States Army Center of Military History

How Two Kansas WWII nurses survived as POWs

Discover the unyielding spirit of two Kansas WWII nurses who survived as POWs in the Philippines. Read their incredible journey of resilience and courage.

BLANCHE KIMBALL


Blanche Kimball was born in the small town of Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1901, a place known for its military history and close-knit community. Growing up in this environment may have predestined she would be drawn to a life of service. After graduating from Leavenworth High School, Blanche went on to Kansas City to study nursing at Bethany College.


On May 29, 1929, at the age of 28, Blanche enlisted in the United States Army. At that time, the world was between wars, but tensions were simmering globally. She was stationed in various posts, honing her skills and preparing for whatever the future might hold.


The future came calling in the most dramatic and challenging way when World War II erupted. In 1941, Blanche found herself stationed in the Philippines, a crucial American outpost in the Pacific. At the time, with its serene beauty, the Philippines was considered a premier station for someone looking to travel, adventure, and romance. Weekly polo matches and cocktails at sunset were commonplace.


A vintage high school class photo
Blanche's Sophmore Class at Leavenworth High School

Many of the Army nurses worked at Sternberg General Hospital. Their days were spent treating non-emergency cases, rarely a difficult shift was had - unless soldiers with too much time on their hands and too much liquor got into a fight. Then overnight the world changed.


Fun Fact: Sternberg General Hospital was named after Brigadier General George Miller Sternberg. Dr. Sternberg was stationed in Kansas in the 1860s. While in Kansas, he became an avid fossil hunter. Sternberg Museum at Fort Hays State University is named after General Sternberg's nephew - whose name was also George.

The morning of December 8, 1941, started like any other on the post that soon changed when news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor began to spread. Nine hours later, Japan attacked the Philippine islands. The American and Filipino troops, including the nurses, and civilians were thrust into the throes of war.


As the battle for the Philippines intensified, Army and Navy nurses (and doctors) worked tirelessly under harrowing conditions. They provided trauma medical care in makeshift jungle hospitals, often under bombardment, providing care to the wounded with limited supplies and in unbearable heat. All the while, many suffered from exhaustion, malaria, infections, and dysentery themselves.


Despite their efforts, the situation became untenable. By May 1942, Japanese forces seized control of the Philippines. While American and Filipino soldiers were sent on the infamous Bataan death march, the Army nurses surrendered. At the time, they were the largest group of American women taken captive and imprisoned by an enemy. The nurses, as well as civilians, were taken to Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila.


At first, the nurses were kept away from the main prison camp. Instead, being held at a small convent. During this time, the women took time to heal and mend. After a couple of months, the nurses were then moved to the main camp with over 3,000 individuals being held as prisoners of war.


Despite the hardships of little food, and overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions the nurses went about finding routines. During the days they worked 4-hour nursing shifts, and in the evenings they entertained each other with stories and talent shows. In Elizabeth Norman's book "We Band of Angles" fellow nurses fondly recalled Blanche's talent of reading play cards to tell others their fortunes.


CHIEF NAVY NURSE LT. LAURA COBB


Like the Army nurses, twelve Navy nurses were also taken as prisoners to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp. However, the Navy nurses surrendered in January 1942, earlier than their Army counterparts. Leading these brave women was Lt. Laura Cobb, the Chief Navy Nurse.

Lt. Cobb was originally born in Atchison, Kansas, but her family moved to Mulvane when she was an infant. She graduated from Mulvane High School and then entered the nurse training program at Wesley Hospital in Wichita, where she graduated in 1918.

Lt. Cobb enlisted in the US Navy as a nurse on July 5, 1918, serving until July 21, 1921. She had a brief stint at the Canacao Naval Hospital in Manila at the end of World War I. After three years working in civilian hospitals, Lt. Cobb rejoined the Navy in April 1924. As tensions rose and rumors of war spread, she requested to be transferred overseas, a request that was granted.


A group of nine women stand around a man in a military uniform
Lt. Laura Cobb speaks with Admiral Thomas Kincaid

After a short term in Guam, she arrived in the Philippines in February 1941 and was once again assigned to the Canacao Naval Hospital in Manila, this time as Chief Nurse. When the Japanese attacked the Cavite Navy Yard on December 10, 1941, Lt. Cobb and eleven other navy nurses stayed with the wounded in Manila until the US military surrendered to the Japanese on January 2, 1942.

By May 1943, the population at Santo Tomas had grown to well over 4,000, prompting the Japanese to set up another camp at Los Baños. Upon hearing this news, Lt. Cobb and the navy nurses volunteered to move to the new camp. They were eager to have their own hospital again, one they could run the "Navy" way.

Lt. Cobb's quiet and professional demeanor was a source of reassurance to the other nurses and earned respect from the Japanese. However, she noted that the Japanese "refused to recognize the Navy nurses as members of the armed forces." To protect valuable medical supplies, Lt. Cobb instructed the nurses to mislabel quinine, vital for treating malaria, as mere soda bicarbonate. This clever tactic ensured the precious quinine was preserved for those who needed it most.


LIBERATION & AFTERWARDS


Finally, after three long, unimaginable years, in February 1945 the Philippines was liberated by American forces. The joy and relief of freedom were tempered by the haunting memories of suffering and loss. Remarkably, all 77 Army and Navy nurses survived their time at the camp.


After liberation, the nurses were first taken to Guam and then flown back to the United States. Blanche returned home in March 1945. Arriving at the Kansas City Airport, she was greeted by her parents. The Kansas Highway Patrol escorted the family back to Topeka where Mayor Frank Warren held a reception.


Unfortunately, the happiness was short-lived. Four months after returning home, Blanche's father Arthur passed away. She then became her mother's caregiver. On October 31, 1946, Blanche was discharged from the army. During Topeka's disastrous flood of 1951, Blanche was the nurse on duty at a local church. She provided care to 35 people using the church as a refuge. Blanche passed away in 1978, she is buried with her family at Topeka Cemetery.


A black and white photo, a group of WWII military personnel stand in front of a plane.
Navy Nurses Return Home

Committed to her duties and service, Lt. Cobb wanted to return to the Philippines. While waiting in Guam she told a reporter "I want to return to the Philippines. I want to be in at the finish. I've been on the receiving end too long. Now I'd like to be on the other side." Lt. Cobb didn't return to the Philippines, instead, she was promoted to lieutenant commander and stationed at the U.S. Naval Hospital on Treasure Island in San Francisco. For her service, she was awarded the Bronze Star, a Gold Star, the Defense of Philippines Ribbon, a Distinguished Army Unit Citation, and the Asiatic-Pacific Theater Ribbon with two Battle Stars.


Lieutenant Commander Laura Cobb retired from the U.S. Navy in 1947, working as a nurse in Los Angeles until 1974, when she retired to Wichita, dying on September 21, 1981. She rests at the Maple Grove Cemetery.


Writer's note: There was a third nurse from Kansas who was taken prisoner at Bataan. Helen Hennessey was a U.S. Army nurse, also from Leavenworth. Outside of a few newspaper mentions from her childhood, I've not been able to locate much information about Helen.

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