The 12 Anchors

The 12 Anchors

By Emilie L. Lucchesi, PhD

On Jan. 2, 1942, Helen Gorzelanski, SJN’32, was taken prisoner of war by the Empire of Japan. Helen, then 34, had been a U.S. Navy Nurse stationed at the Cavite Naval Base outside Manila in the Philippines. When the Japanese military conquered Manila, they found 12 Navy women nursing wounded sailors in a makeshift hospital.

The nurses had hoped their captors would follow the Geneva Conventions and repatriate the medical corps. But the corpsmen, surgeons and dentists were sent to a prison camp for military men. The women were sent to a civilian concentration camp set up at the University of  Santo Tomas in Manila.

When Helen and the other nurses arrived at Santo Tomas, they saw a campus that no longer resembled a college. Empty classrooms were crammed with inmate beds and armed guards stalked the perimeter.

Santo Tomas was a world away from Creighton University and Helen’s former life in Nebraska. Helen was born in 1908 in Nebraska to Polish immigrants. She was the third of four daughters and the first of the siblings to be born in the U.S. She attended the Creighton University-affiliated nursing program at St. Joseph’s Hospital, living in the student nurse residence on 10th Street.

At Santo Tomas, Helen found herself in a prison camp with more than 3,100 civilian men, women and children. Along with the other Navy nurses, she reported daily to the infirmary to provide comfort and care to other inmates.

Early in their captivity, inmates presented with ailments due to malnutrition and stress. The Japanese military provided only two meager meals and expected their captives to make purchases at the camp’s “canteen.” Only the most fortunate were able to supplement their diets. The rest lived on rice and a scant supply of vegetables. At the infirmary, the nurses explained to inmates why their gums were bleeding or their hair was thinning.

The Navy nurses tried to remain hopeful for their anxious patients. But as 1942 progressed, the U.S. military lost the Battle of Bataan and then Corregidor. Army nurses transferred into the prison and whispered updates to their Navy counterparts — the U.S. had been defeated and help wasn’t on the way.

Comfort from communication also wasn’t coming anytime soon. Helen’s family didn’t learn of her captivity until that summer. The Navy sent telegrams in which they “exceedingly” regretted to inform the nurses’ families that their daughters were missing in action. Later, a representative from the War Department confirmed the women were in a civilian prison camp.    

In the camp, Helen’s life fell into a routine of tolerating daily hardships. Each morning, the camp commanders used the overhead speaker to play music and wake the camp. She waited in a lengthy line to use the toilet — there were only about 30 commodes to service 3,100 inmates. She then collected her meager rations from the kitchen and reported to duty in the infirmary.

In May 1943, the commander came onto the overhead speaker with an important announcement. He spoke in English and repeated his message twice. The Japanese military was building a countryside camp at a former agriculture college near Los Baños. The commander sought 800 able-bodied men to transfer to the camp to build the housing and sanitation systems.

Few inmates wanted to transfer. Life in Santo Tomas was diseased, cramped and frequently violent. But it was predictable. Interest further diminished after inmates learned the new camp lacked running water, electricity and an ample supply of fresh water.

A civilian physician was willing to go. He approached Navy Chief Nurse Laura Cobb and asked if the Navy nurses would be willing to transfer. The Army’s chief nurse had already turned down his request. If the Navy nurses did not transfer, there would be no other medical care providers in the new camp. Cobb gathered the 12 Navy women. She knew it was a great risk, but she felt they were needed. She asked the nurses if they were willing to transfer. Each woman agreed, including Helen.  

On the morning of their departure, Helen and the Navy nurses waited in front of the building as flatbed trucks sputtered to a stop. Other inmates came to wish them well and thank them for their tireless care. As the women climbed into the truck, they heard the familiar music of the U.S. Navy’s march song, Anchors Aweigh. Another inmate had used the PA system to play the recording. The inmates cheered and clapped as the Navy nurses pulled away. The 12 Navy women had indeed been the anchors of the camp.

The new prison camp had an infirmary building the nurses were allowed to use. But it had been stripped bare. Even the cabinets were pulled from the wall. The women began the exhausting process of rebuilding. They were creative and relied on the materials on hand to help the barren building resemble an infirmary. They used pipes to piece together bedframes. They stuffed cotton-like fluff from bulak trees into pillows and mattresses. They used bamboo to create drinking straws and tongue compressors. And they smeared tree sap onto bandages as adhesive.

Initially, the women were able to negotiate medicine and supplies from a hapless Japanese sergeant who was in charge of the garrison’s health care but lacked a medical background. The nurses traded for insulin and vitamins in exchange for answering his many questions. But as the war progressed, supplies and food dwindled as punishment for the Allied Forces’ advancement in the war. By early 1945, the inmates received just 500 calories a day from the camp kitchen. Gardening or foraging for vegetables was forbidden. Inmates were starving, and all the nurses weighed less than 100 pounds. Yet, they continued to work 12-hour shifts at the infirmary.

Helen was on duty in January 1945 when she heard a rifle blast. She had been hovering over patient charts when she saw the camp’s surgeon race through the lobby and burst through the front door. An inmate had been shot near the perimeter of the camp. The injured man had snuck out of the camp while the garrison was busy with their morning calisthenics. He returned with a bag of fruit and a fresh chicken. A guard in the watchtower took quick aim and fired. Helen and the nurses watched helplessly from a distance as the man writhed in pain. The surgeon begged the commander to bring the man to the infirmary for treatment. The commander ordered the inmate’s execution instead. Within minutes, Helen helped the doctor prepare for the autopsy. The report was later used to convict the commander of war crimes.

In the following weeks, more inmates died from malnutrition, disease and violence. The inmates sensed the commander wanted more prisoners dead, and they were increasingly petrified by rumors of a massacre. On Feb. 22, 1945, inmates watched with terror as guards placed machine guns around the perimeter of the camp and turned the barrels inward.

The next morning, the guards locked up their rifles in a storage shed and began their calisthenic routine. American and Filipino forces attacked while the garrison was at its most vulnerable. Helen hid in her barrack while the liberators quickly eliminated the enemy. Once the all-clear was given, Helen reported to the infirmary to help with the evacuation of ill inmates. Within hours, all the inmates were safely behind Allied lines. The nurses soon learned the massacre had indeed been planned for that afternoon. The camp commander had been waiting for another unit of Japanese soldiers to reach the camp and serve as backup. Liberators, fortunately, got there first.

Helen was able to write to her mother in Omaha, but she was still on duty. After a week, her chief nurse insisted the Navy women be allowed to recuperate. By mid-March 1945, Helen was back in Omaha with her family. But she did not remain in Nebraska long. Similar to the other Navy nurse POWs, she was no longer conditioned for the cold weather. She married and moved to California, near Napa.

Helen died in 1972, killed by a drunken driver. Her legacy continues as one of the “12 anchors,” the Navy nurse POWs who stopped hopeless inmates from drifting.

About the author: Emilie Lucchesi is a journalist and author in Chicago. She has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic and Discover Magazine. She is the author of a new book about the Navy nurse POWs, This is Really War: The Incredible True Story of a Navy Nurse POW in the Occupied Philippines.