Last of courageous WW II nurses dies
Subject: An ‘Angel of Bataan’ Dies at 95
November 16, 2009
An Owensboro, Ky., native and one of the “Angels of Bataan” died Nov. 13.
Mary Josephine Oberst, 95, had been living at the Nazareth Home of Louisville.
She was one of the more than 60 Army and Navy nurses dubbed “Angels of Bataan” when they were prisoners of war for 33 months in the Philippines during World War II. As of September 2007, she was one of only two living “Angels.”
The Messenger-Inquirer profiled Oberst in December 1994 — a few months before the 50th anniversary of the rescue of the “Angels of Bataan” by American troops.
“We were out in the open,” Oberst told the Messenger-Inquirer. “There were no buildings. At first, supplies were plentiful. But the Japanese kept pushing us back.”
Oberst enlisted in the Army after graduating from nursing school at Louisville’s old St. Joseph Infirmary in 1936. She arrived in the Philippines in the summer of 1941.
On Dec. 10, 1941, the Japanese invaded the Philippines. Less than two weeks later, Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered American forces to withdraw to Bataan Peninsula.
The nurses went into the jungles wearing white hospital uniforms, Oberst told the Messenger-Inquirer. They eventually got a shipment of khaki mechanic uniforms that were more durable.
The Japanese siege of Bataan lasted 90 days. Food supplies dwindled.
“There was one corned beef sandwich, morning and evening,” Oberst told the Messenger-Inquirer.
Field hospitals meant for 1,000 men were soon handling three times that many.
On April 9, 1942, the 75,000 American and Filipino troops surrendered. Within two months, 21,000 of them would be dead.
The “Angels” and 3,000 men escaped to Corregidor — a two-square-mile island in Manila Bay. On May 6, Corregidor also fell to the Japanese.
The nurses were eventually moved to Santo Tomas, a Jesuit University in Manila that had been turned into an internment camp for more than 3,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war.
On Feb. 3, 1945, American troops freed the prisoners.
After the war, she served as assistant director of nursing at St. Mary’s Hospital School of Nursing in Evansville until health problems that began in the prison camp forced an early retirement in 1963.
“You never readjust,” Oberst said of the prison experience. “It changes you. You are never the same. Other people haven’t been there. They can’t know what it was like. You’re thankful for fresh air, food, clothing, the little things. And you’re so much more generous after having been deprived.”