One of my favorite parts of my job as a project archivist at Becker Medical Library is discovering individuals’ stories from the past. I often stumble upon a small piece of an obscure historical figure’s story in our archival collections. This little piece of a story, separated from its beginning and end, piques my interest. If I can spare the time, I will check other resources to learn more about the person and to fill in the remainder of their story. For me, following the thread is akin to detective work. I find myself following different leads and resources, and reaching out to librarians, fellow archivists and newspaper reporters to piece together various traces and form an entire story.
A few weeks ago, as I went through old newspaper clippings related to St. Louis Children’s Hospital, a 1942 St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline caught my eye. “Bodies of Two Pacific War Victims on Way to St. Louis” preceded a brief story on the deaths of two young St. Louisans fighting in World War II. At the end of the article, the author noted that two other St. Louis natives stationed overseas with the military had been officially reported missing in action in the Philippines. One of those missing was Lt. Rose Rieper, an Army nurse who had previously worked as a St. Louis Children’s Hospital’s Country Department (Ridge Farm) nurse before enlisting.
The other newspaper clippings in my pile did not report on her return, or on any further details regarding her capture. However, the article that had originally caught my eye mentioned that a few weeks before she was reported missing, Rieper’s family and friends had opened their Life magazines to spot her in the midst of a photoset captioned “the valiant nurses of Bataan.” I managed to locate the Life issue and quickly found the photo of Rieper. She stood, unidentified and slightly blurred, behind her fellow nurses stationed in Bataan, in the Philippines, who were pictured washing their clothes in a jungle stream.
In a more recent article on World War II, I learned that the Japanese had begun to invade the Philippines immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Only a week and a half before the issue of Life magazine showing Rieper at the jungle stream was published, the American troops stationed there had surrendered to and been captured by the advancing Japanese forces. It seemed likely that Rieper had been captured along with the American troops she was nursing at this point.
My next stop in my research was Elizabeth M. Norman’s 1999 book on the military nurses of the Philippines, “We Band of Angels,” where I found another image of Rieper standing in the jungle, her face completely hidden by a bug-eyed gas mask. As I read through Norman’s book, I learned that Rieper, along with other Army and Navy nurses, had retreated before the advancing Japanese forces. The nurses had retreated first from the military hospital in Manila to nurse in open air wards in the jungle (the first used by American troops since the Civil War) and then retreated again to nurse in tunnel shelters built on the Filipino island of Corregidor.
In addition to Norman’s book, I turned to more recent newspaper articles to learn about Rieper’s time in the Philippines. The Sabetha (Kansas) Herald mailed me an article on Rieper’s life which had been published in 2003. Reading through this and other sources, I found that Rieper had indeed been captured, and was detained along with 65 other Army nurses and 11 Navy nurses. As a prisoner of war, she was sent to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp with other military nurses and civilian prisoners of the Japanese. Captured in May 1942, Rieper and the other nurses must have hoped each day for liberation by friendly troops, even as they filled their time nursing their fellow prisoners. But as they marked weeks, months, and finally years as prisoners, no liberation came to the internment camp.
Rieper and the other prisoners were initially treated tolerably by the Japanese civil authority that ran the camp. They were allowed to trade or buy food from free Filipino locals and were able to govern the daily mundane operations of their lives through two prisoner management boards. A year and a half into Rieper’s captivity, however, the Imperial Japanese Army assumed control of the internment camp. The size of the ration portions provided to the individual prisoners dropped and continued to drop until the daily caloric intake per prisoner was less than 1,000 calories. Prisoners, many ill with diseases such as beriberi, malaria, and dysentery, began to eat weeds to survive. Some nurses recalled later that they had fried the few vegetables which they were able to grow in the cold cream which that they had earlier received as part of a Red Cross aid package.
In February 1945, more than a year after the Imperial Japanese Army took control of the camp, the nurses finally saw American tanks roll through the gate. The newly freed nurses, though severely weakened by starvation and disease, still helped to nurse American troops who were injured during the liberation of the camp. The nurses had been held as prisoners of war for nearly three years, and remain the largest group of American women ever imprisoned during wartime. Following their return to America, they were nicknamed the “Angels of Bataan.”
The last source I checked was a young adult book on the Angels’ story titled “Pure Grit.” At the end I found an image of Rose Rieper taken in 1980, now white-haired, standing again with the other nurses in the Philippines. They posed next to a plaque dedicated in their honor by the American troops who had served alongside them in Bataan. The plaque’s inscription began, “To the Angels….”