Defenders of the Philippines

picture of captivity and picture of release form captivity

Mary Rose Harrington Nelson

August 10, 1913-June 17, 1999

Picture of Mary Rose Harrington at Wisconsin Historical Society

Mary Rose Harrington Nelson, known as "Red" because of her auburn hair, was born August 10, 1913 at a home for unwed mothers. Petra Harrington, the childless wife of a salesman, adopted Mary Rose from the St. Monica's Orphanage in Sioux City, Iowa and brought her home to the quiet town of Elk Point. She grew up skating on the frozen town ponds, swimming the Sioux River, and listening to the traveling bands playing at the local dance hall.


Mary Rose did not intend to become a nurse. She yearned for a reporter's career, but the Great Depression of the 1930s resulted in few newspaper jobs, so she opted for a more reliable career, nursing, and graduated in 1934 from St. Joseph's Hospital Nursing School in Sioux City. Her work as a private duty nurse in South Dakota left her wanting, "At first, I got $6.00 a day for 20 hours duty. Then things got worse and my pay dropped to $4.00 a day. I didn't have enough money for food. An apple, a cigarette, and a glass of water did for a lot of meals," she recalled. The Navy Nurse Corps offered an escape from this hard life and in 1937 she reported to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego accompanied by her recently widowed mother. Mary Rose quickly adjusted to military life, and once her mother settled into her surroundings, she requested an overseas assignment. In January 1941, she said good-bye and boarded a boat for Manila and duty at Canacao Naval Hospital located south of Manila at the huge Cavite Navy Yard.


Bright, independent, and beautiful, Mary Rose loved her new assignment. Her nursing work was manageable and left her time and energy to enjoy the nightlife and sports. This paradise ended on Monday, December 8, 1941 just before dawn. Mary Rose was on duty when she looked across the courtyard, saw lights on in an officer's quarters and heard loud voices. A sailor came through the doors of her ward and announced that the Japanese had bombed Honolulu. What was he talking about, Mary Rose wondered, was it the ship Honolulu or the city?

By the time Mary Rose learned the truth, the war was already on its way to her. Two days later, Wednesday December 10th, the Japanese turned their bombers towards the naval base and in a matter of hours, reduced the entire installation to rubble. For one twenty-four hour period until they abandoned the base for Manila, Mary Rose and the eleven other Navy nurses automatically triaged the wounded that were lying on corrugated metal, doors, anything that would hold them. These nurses did not pause to think about the tragedy. To do so would have most likely overwhelmed them. At one point, another Navy nurse, Peg Nash, looked around at the casualties and fires and thought if they'd drop one more bomb, all this suffering would be over, including her own. On December 11th, the nurses and staff evacuated the base for relative safety of Manila.


Less than one month later, the Army abandoned the city, which they could not defend against the overwhelming enemy, and went to the Bataan jungles and the island fortress of Corregidor to make a desperate last stand. One navy woman went with the Army, leaving eleven nurses, a medical staff, and over a hundred patients living in an improvised hospital set up in Saint Scholastica School to surrender to the Japanese.


On January 2, 1941 Mary Rose and the other nurses stood calmly by as an enlisted man lowered the American flag. Privately she worried, "Were they just going to come in and shoot up the place or take us out and shoot us." The Japanese did neither. They ordered sailors to string barbed wire around the compound, looted whatever they wanted, and commanded the nurses to continue caring for their patients. The enemy did not know to make of American military nurses. In Japan there were not women in uniform. Baffled, they luckily left them alone. From January until early March 1942, Mary Rose nursed her charges, holding her temper when she watched the Japanese forced ill and wounded patients from their beds onto work details. She no longer has any voice in her patient's welfare, a difficult circumstance for any nurse and she also realized she had no say over her own life. Prisoners-of-war, she quickly learned, lost control over even the minor daily decisions of where they would sleep, what they would eat, who they would talk to.

The Japanese dismantled the makeshift Navy hospital and sent the nurses to Santo Tomas Internment Camp the men to the brutal military prisons and camp. Although separated from her friends and patients, Mary Rose discovered the flourishing underground movement in Manila and became an active participant in smuggling money, notes, and clothes to the men in Bilibid Prison through sympathetic Filipino couriers. These men were her friends and patients and she would not abandon them.


The Navy nurses helped organize a hospital in camp. Mary Rose set up and worked in the hospital laboratory where she became an expert with malaria smears and identifying tropical parasites and bacteria. She became known among the other prisoners as a spirited young woman who did her job and refused to be despondent on her circumstances. Most likely her greatest worry was her elderly mother Petra who was alone in San Diego with no word about the fate of her only child. It would be over a year until Petra learned Mary Rose was mot missing-in-action but a prisoner-of-war.


In 1943, the Navy nurses left Santo Tomas to help establish a new POW camp at Los Banos, a remote agricultural college 42 miles southeast of Manila. On May 14th, the women climbed aboard a truck while the civilians played "Anchors Away" to wish them well. Mary and her friends look at the crowd with tears streaming down their faces.


Once again, the nurses set up another prison hospital filled with emesis basins made from corrugated roofing material, cut off Coke bottle as cups, and a native onion and sugar mixture as a expectorant. Mary Rose took on the responsibility of turning young men into aides to help the nurses with the workload. One of these trainees was Page Nelson, a handsome Treasury Department employee. They fell in love. Page gave her a ring and they promised to consider marriage if they survived their imprisonment.


Their months as prisoners turned into years. By 1944, the Japanese military had reduced the food ration to less than 1000 calories a day. Several men were shot and killed trying to leave the camp to get food for the starving prisoners. Mary Rose's weight dropped from 130 to 95 pounds. Patients died from starvation. Fortunately, the Americans aides by Filipino guerrillas staged a daring raid into their camp and rescued the 11 Navy nurses and 2,136 other prisoners.

In recognition for their service, Mary Rose and the other Navy nurses each received a Bronze Star medal.


Mary Rose and Page Nelson were married in San Diego on April 13, 1945. It was a Friday but after all they had been through, the two felt that Friday the 13th could not possibly bring them bad luck. They settled in Virginia. Page returned to the Treasury and Mary Rose became a mother. She was so worried about the protein deprivation she had suffered as a POW, she overstuffed herself with milk and meat during her first pregnancy and became edematous. An understanding obstetrician helped her balance her diet and soon two sons and two daughters filled their home. She and her husband did not speak about the war during those busy years. The only time her children, and later grandchildren, were reminded of their past was at the dinner table—everyone could take as much food as they wanted but they had to eat it all. Food could not be wasted, and recently a grandson told her that he'd never seen anyone clean a plate as well as his grandmother did.


Mary Rose did not return to acute care nursing practice. For forty years, she used her skills as a Red Cross volunteer, administering polio vaccine in the 1950s and running numerous blood drives. She also volunteered her nursing skills in a local public school district.


Mary Rose Harrington Nelson died 17 June 1999, three months after her ex-POW husband of fifty-four years, Page. Her family buried their mother in her white Navy Nurse Corps uniform recognition no doubt, for this South Dakota nurse's finest hour.