Story of WWII Navy nurse from Pennsylvania gets new attention
The Times Leader March 12, 2023
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — In March of 1945, there was a parade honoring the homecoming of Lt. Margaret “Peggy” Nash, a U.S. Navy nurse who had served in the Philippines, where she was held as a prisoner of war.
According to “Pure Grit,” a book about these nurses, Lt. Nash’s parade was “possibly the largest parade in Wilkes-Barre history.”
The Bronze Star recipient’s story is receiving some national attention thanks to a new profile in Naval History magazine, “The Perseverance of Lieutenant Nash.”
That story is also a part of the Nash family’s history here.
According to Lt. Nash’s nephew, Ed Nash of Leonard Street in Wilkes-Barre, his aunt went to Hanover High School and moved to the Oakland, Calif., area after her discharge from the Navy.
“I do remember that when she came home, there was a parade from the train station to St. Al’s Church,” Ed Nash said. “There was a Mass and then everyone then went back to the house on Oxford Street.”
Ed Nash said his Aunt Margaret graduated from the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing and there have been a couple of books written about her.
“I do know that she helped a lot of soldiers,” Ed Nash said.
From her obituary in the Times Leader in November 1992:
Born in Edwardsville, March 29, 1911, she was the daughter of the late Garrett J. and Mary Manley Nash. She was a graduate of Hanover High School and the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing, Wilkes-Barre.
She joined the Navy Nurses Corps on April 28, 1936. Following two tours of the United States, she was assigned to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Guam, and later to the Canacao Naval Hospital, Manila, Philippines.
When Manila fell to the Japanese in 1941, she was taken prisoner and spent 37 months in Saint Tomas and Los Banos prison camps on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
On Feb. 23, 1945, the prisoners were rescued.
Her naval decorations include the Purple Heart.
After her medical retirement from the Navy in 1946, she joined the nursing staff at the Student Health Center of the University of California at Berkeley. She retired from the university in 1973 and then volunteered for senior citizens.
A dress with deep history
The story of Lt. Nash, a World War II Navy nurse, POW, and Bronze Star recipient is a testament to grace under pressure and unconquered human spirit, as detailed in a feature story written by William Galvani in the April 2023 Naval History Magazine.
The Times Leader contacted the magazine and received permission to excerpt from it to present this amazing story about an incredible woman.
Here are some of the details from the Naval History Magazine story:
“Lt. Margaret ‘Peggy’ Nash was stationed at the hospital at Cavite Navy Yard near Manila when Japanese bombs rained down on the Philippines. Trapped behind the lines, she would spend the duration of the Pacific conflict as a prisoner of war.”
Galvani wrote that he was the director of the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Wash., when he 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.”
So what story did the dress have to tell? What had Nash experienced while she wore it during the three years she was a prisoner of the Japanese in the Philippines?
Nash had died five years earlier and could no longer tell her own story.
“To answer my questions, I turned to two oral histories she had recorded and wartime articles from her hometown newspapers (including the Times Leader). I found a story of courage and suffering by Peggy Nash and 10 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.”
The article states that Margaret Nash’s story began in Wilkes-Barre.
“She graduated from the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Wilkes-Barre in June 1932. A flood of the Susquehanna River devastated the 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.”
The article states that 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), home-ported 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 O.R., we were doing a cesarean 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.’”
‘No time for fear’
The story states that 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 Dec. 8, 1941. On Dec. 10, 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 is quoted in the Naval article. “[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.”
Galvani wrote that on Dec. 22 and 24, the Japanese Army landed in force on Luzon. Unable to hold out against them, General Douglas MacArthur moved his headquarters to Corregidor and on Dec. 26, 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
The Naval story states that 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 Jan. 2, 1942, we were officially prisoners of war,” Nash said in the article. Their captivity began four months before the American fortress of Corregidor surrendered on May 6, 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.”
The story states that 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.
“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.”
The story states that Nash’s family had little idea what had happened to her. On June 23, 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 Sept. 29, 1942, the State Department informed her that her daughter was “safe and well” at Santo Tomas.
“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.
“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. 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.”
The Naval History article states that on arrival at Los Baños, 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.
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.”
The story states that 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 Oct. 20, 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 photo that again gave them hope. U.S. soldiers had captured a Japanese headquarters building in Leyte and found a portfolio of Japanese photos; one showed an American nurse tending a patient. A naval officer immediately recognized Nash. Unlike the Australia photograph, this time the photo identification was correct. But the place and date were not known, so no one could be sure of Peggy’s current condition or location.
‘We were living from day to day’
From Galvani’s story:
“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.”
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.”
“Filipinos were bringing food, and we had no idea what had happened,” Nash said. “But in a week they [the Japanese] were back and meaner than ever.”
From the story:
“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.”
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.
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.”
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 March 10, 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% 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.”
Returns home to Wilkes-Barre
The story states that slightly recovered, Peggy Nash returned to Wilkes-Barre on March 26, 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.
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 April 1, 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 Nov. 25, 1992, at the age of 81. She was laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Hanover Township.
“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.”
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