WWII Novel ‘When We Had Wings’ Salutes ‘Angels of Bataan’

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Too many cooks spoil the broth? Apparently not, at least in the case of “When We Had Wings”.

Three authors collaborated on this historical novel about the so-called “Angels of Bataan”, the Army and Navy nurses who remained at their posts and were captured when the Japanese invaded the Philippines at the start of the Second World War.

Tennessee writer Ariel Lawhon, a specialist in historical fiction (“Code Name Helene”), has joined fellow book club mates Kristina McMorris and Susan Meissner in what the trio describes as a pandemic project. The results are fascinating.

In the summer of 1941, three nurses befriended in Manila. Eleanor Lindstrom joined the Navy Nurse Corps after a broken love affair in Minnesota. Penny Franklin joined the military and left Texas after losing a husband and child. Angelita Capel, a Filipina nurse, dreams of immigrating to the United States and joining her sisters in the legendary city of Brooklyn.

For a moment, their life is almost idyllic among old Spanish colonial buildings and flowering frangipani trees. Then comes December 7, 1941.

The Japanese target the Philippines almost immediately after Pearl Harbor. The three nurses tend to horribly wounded young soldiers. Penny is in an operating room in the bowels of the Malinta Tunnels, the underground bunkers of the American defenses on the island of Corregidor. Lita works in a frontline hospital on the Bataan Peninsula. Eleanor ends up in a Catholic orphanage in Manila.

Then General Jonathan M. Wainwright, cut off and without supplies, was forced to surrender. The nurses find themselves in a tense situation. The Japanese do not recognize women in the military and have never signed the Geneva Convention on the treatment of enemy prisoners. Some soldiers clearly regard women as the prizes of war.

Somehow, nurses must stick together and continue to care for the sick and injured, even under the conditions of prison camps.

“When We Had Wings” has nothing to do with Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” or JG Ballard’s “Empire of the Sun”. Yet it is very competent and well-researched popular fiction. The authors paint the portrait of courageous and resourceful women who rise thanks to strong ties. There is also room for a romance or three.

The Harper Muse Edition comes with ready-to-use questions for book club meetings.

book review

“WHEN WE HAVE WINGS”

By Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris and Susan Meissner

Harper Muse, $27.99

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