Angels of Mercy – and Steel

1386116620Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific
By Mary Cronk Farrell
Foreword by First Lieutenant Diane Carlson Evans
(Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014, New York, $24.95)

Although the status of women in the military has recently received a lot of attention, those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq are the not the first generation of American servicewomen to experience the battlefield firsthand. During World War II, US Army and Navy nurses stationed in the Philippines cared for patients as war raged around them – even after they themselves were taken prisoner by the Japanese.

In Pure Grit, Mary Cronk Farrell celebrates these often overlooked contributors to World War II. She weaves together various nurses’ stories to create a gripping account of the war as experienced by a group of courageous women. Through the nurses’ recollections, letters, and journals, she brings to life their carefree existence before the war, their shock when Pearl Harbor was bombed, the deprivations of the army hospital they maintained in the jungle, the numbness of prolonged captivity, the madness of starvation, and the incredulous joy of liberation. Farrell also integrates contextual information about the war, the era, and the nurses’ past and future lives into her narrative. Maps of the Philippines, documents, and photographs make the book even more vivid.

Contemporary readers will be astonished that some of the nurses defied public – and familial – approval to enter the profession: in the 1930s and 40s, some people still considered nurses “impure” because they encountered nudity and bodily fluids in their work. This small-mindedness makes the women’s stoic heroism even more impressive.

In Pure Grit, Mary Cronk Farrell illuminates a little-known chapter of American history. Young adult – and adult – readers will be stirred by the nurses’ dedication to their patients and, perhaps, eager to learn more about both World War II and the history of women in the military.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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