Nation's Women Pows Are Recognized - Finally -- Commemoration Coincides With War Anniversary

"Was sleeping quite soundly in the back of our hospital plane until suddenly awakened by terrific sounds of guns and cracklings of the plane as if it had gone into bits. . . . And suddenly we hit the ground - myself landing in the navigator's compartment head first. . . . Immediately we saw soldiers not many yards away. . . . Second glance we recognized they were German GIs. . . . The surprised look on their faces when they saw a woman was amazing."

- From the diary of Second Lt. Reba Whittle Tobiason, the only American woman held as a prisoner of war by the Germans in World War II. -----------------------------------------

WASHINGTON - For years, whenever he picked up a newspaper and read of the exploits and awards of a military woman, retired Col. Stanley Tobiason felt a kind of poignant pride.

"I'd sit back and say, `When are they going to remember Reba?' " he recalled.

Last month, his question was finally answered. Forty-eight years after Reba Whittle Tobiason's plane was shot down by the Germans, 11 years after she had died in anonymity, Stanley Tobiason walked in a procession of U.S. women prisoners of war in Washington, took a rose on his wife's behalf and heard her name called out - for the first time - among the "heroines" of the U.S. military.

"She would have been very delighted," said Tobiason.

Reba Tobiason's moment came as part of a two-day salute to all the nation's women POWs, from the Civil War to the Persian Gulf. The commemoration, orchestrated by the Southeast Business and Professional Women's organization, marked the 50th anniversary of the capture of an estimated 89 American women in World War II.

It brought together 16 of the Army and Navy nurses held by the Japanese. And the event itself was a slice of history, the largest-ever gathering of the highest-ranking women in the U.S. military.

For the POWs themselves, it was an opportunity to accept some rare recognition, to laugh and cry together, and to share their memories.

"As we walked along the street of a village a German soldier came up and yanked my Air Corps patch off my shoulder and threw it down. . . ."


For more than three years in World War II, 88 American military women were held as prisoners of war by the Japanese. Most - 11 Navy nurses and 67 Army nurses - spent their captivity behind the bamboo fence of the Santo Tomas internment camp in the Philippines.

Among the Santo Tomas POWs were Army nurses Helen Nestor, Madeline Ullom and Peggy Walcher. For them, as for other prisoners, the wartime experience remains a vivid collage of fear, starvation and esprit de corps.

Nestor likes to talk of learning to play golf in the Santo Tomas camp. It's a contrast to the memories of death and hardship, a way of putting things into perspective.

Ullom recalls how, in the days of terrible fighting before the American surrender to the Japanese, the casualties overflowed into the Manila hospital's courtyard, where "the red poinsettias would reflect the blood of their wounds."

Walcher can't forget the careful rationing of Red Cross packages of tinned goods as starvation claimed a life a day in the last weeks before Santo Tomas was liberated.

The hardships and horrors began even before their capture. In the Malinta Tunnel fortress on Corregidor, Nestor would sometimes creep to the tunnel mouth for a breath of fresh air in a respite from the hellacious shelling.

"One night I felt something roll across my toes," she recalled. It was a soldier's head, decapitated by shrapnel. Walcher found the surrender of Corregidor on May 6, 1942, almost a relief. At least it meant no more wounded and dying from the shelling.

In the Santo Tomas camp, they knitted socks from string - a skill they taught some of the male POWs - and doled out the precious Red Cross food. A can of corned beef could feed six nurses for three days. They saved the Spam for special occasions. Most important of all, they worked. For four hours a day, weak from hunger and deprivation, they tended the wounds and illnesses of the other internees. Liberated by American forces in February 1945, they spent the first night of their freedom nursing the wounded among their rescuers.

"Our profession played in our favor," recalled Nestor. "We were doing what we were taught to. That was its own blessing. It kept our minds off our other troubles."

After the war, several of the nurses married men with whom they had been POWS, and many have kept in touch with each other. "There's a bond that will always be there," says Walcher.

"Shortly came a German officer who interrogated us one by one, a guard gave us some pears which tasted very good as we had nothing to eat all day. . . . Several more G. officers came in . . . each taking a good glare and saying `Swester' which means nurse and (giving me) a very startled look. Don't know how monkeys feel in the zoo with so many people looking at them but thought I must know by now."


The United States has never quite known what to make of its women soldiers, much less its women prisoners of war.

In the Civil War, Dr. Mary Walker, a flamboyant iconoclast, browbeat the Union brass into allowing her to work as a battlefield surgeon. In 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops at Gordon Mills, Ga., spent the next four months as a prisoner of war and was finally freed in exchange for a Confederate surgeon. For her wartime service, a grateful Congress gave her the only Congressional Medal of Honor ever awarded to a woman. In peacetime, a less grateful government tried to take it away, dispatching two young soldiers to her house to fetch it.

Walker turned them away from her door with a shotgun.

Since then, Walker's heirs have included the 89 women POWs from World War II and the two women captured by Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, Maj. Rhonda Cornum and Spec. Melissa Rathbun-Nealy. The world watched in astonishment as Cornum and Rathbun-Nealy, in their yellow POW uniforms, came home. For the women of World War II, the reception was far less spectacular.

Some were invited to the occasional parade, to a reunion of the military units with which they had served. Most faded, gracefully and without fanfare, back into their ordinary military duties or civilian life. In 1983 - 40 years after their capture - they were for the first time accorded semi-official recognition with a tour of the White House and a film by the Pentagon.

Last month's tribute was meant for all the women POWs. But the event's organizer, Alice Booher, admits that it had a special goal for the all but forgotten World War II women.

For them, said Booher, "it was the culmination of 50 years of waiting."

After the war, Reba and Stanley Tobiason spent years in a disappointing struggle with the U.S. government bureaucracy to have her recognized officially as a POW. By the time she died in 1981, the government had reluctantly granted her at least a paper acknowledgement. But, as one military historian put it, she remained the "forgotten POW."

She never talked about her experiences, Tobiason says, even to her family.

But her diary and research by Lt. Col. Mary Frank painted a graphic portrait.

At the end of November 1944, two months before she was released in a prisoner exchange, Reba Whittle mysteriously stopped writing in her diary. When she returned to France, Stanley Tobiason met her in a surprise visit to her ship. They were married as soon as he could get home from the war, on Aug. 3, 1945.

Reba was never bitter over her anonymity, Stanley Tobiason says now. She had signed a sworn statement not to talk about her experiences, a common practice then when other prisoners could still be at risk. But in the war's aftermath, he says, both he and she sometimes wondered why she was forgotten.

"Maybe," suggested Stanley Tobiason, "it was because she was the only one."