Like Wake Island, Bataan and Corregidor were attacked by the Japanese while Pearl Harbor was taking place. Even more obscure than what happened to the servicepeople are the experiences of military nurses in the Philippines. These women tirelessly labored with little to no medicine or resources, and nevertheless provided major support and encouragement to Americans and Filipinos. Many of them were taken prisoner by the Japanese, and during the war we didn’t know for sure where these women were or what happened to them.
However, a few stories made it to the big screen. We’ve already talked about one, 1944’s Cry ‘Havoc’, but there was also the more successful So Proudly We Hail! Released in 1943 and starring Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake, it portrayed a situation that was still ongoing and disheartening for many people.
The movie opens at an airfield in Melbourne, Australia, where a C-53 has just landed. Eight Army nurses have been spirited out of the sorrow that was the fall of Bataan and Corregidor: Lieutenants Joan (Paulette Goddard), Sadie (Mary Treen), Ethel (Kitty Kelly), Elsie (Helen Lynd), Tony (Lorna Gray), Irma (Dorothy Adams) and Fay (Lynn Walker) climb out of the plane and give sprightly salutes to the officers present. A stretcher case, Lieutentant Davidson (Claudette Colbert), is also brought off. She’s comatose and doesn’t seem to care what’s happening.
Soon, the group is on their way back to the United States. The ladies are sitting contentedly out on the deck of a hospital ship, shooting the breeze. Some are reading. Ethel is catching up on her eating. Joan has a plateful of tomatoes. Sadie is trying on a pair of heels for the first time in months. They’re being given the royal treatment, which they’re grateful for, but they appreciate the quiet.
A nurse wheels Lieutenant Davidson out onto the deck, followed by Dr. Harrison (John Litel). The doctor has a letter for Davidson, but he’s very concerned about her because he thinks she’s lost the will to live, and he asks if the nurses will help by telling him their experiences.
After that, the film proceeds in flashback. We see a San Francisco pier and a Naval transport ship that’s about to depart for Honolulu on a two-year assignment. Among those boarding are a group of Army nurses, with their commanding officer, Lieutenant Janet Davidson (Claudette Colbert), fondly nicknamed “Davy” by the other nurses. This is a prestigious assignment, so everyone is in a party mood. Some are nervous, like Rosemary Larsen (Barbara Britton), a sweet lady who’s never been away from home for very long. Others are busy saying goodbyes. Resident flirt Joan shows up wearing a giant orchid given to her by one of her fiancés, both of whom have come to see her off. However, Joan still has time to tease Kansas (Sonny Tufts), a happy-go-lucky Marine. Yeah, she likes the guys, and vice versa, but it’s all in fun.
The party mood continues until Pearl Harbor, and the ship is diverted from Hawaii to the Philippines as part of a convoy. One night, another ship in the convoy is bombed and sunk, and our group picks up several survivors. Among them is a nurse named Olivia (Veronica Lake) who seems to be a cold fish, and the other is John Summers (George Reeves) who banters with Davy while she gives him a bath.
The backstories for these two don’t take long to surface. Olivia is assigned to join Davy’s unit. She’s such a drain on morale that Davy confronts her, only to find that Olivia watched her fiancé die at Pearl Harbor while he was running to his plane. The poor woman is traumatized and grieving, so she wants to punish the Japanese. There’s nothing Davy can do but hug Olivia while she cries.
John Summers, on the other hand, is in love with Davy. It’s mutual, but Davy is reluctant because of the war, plus there are regulations (rescinded in October of 1942) that forbid Army nurses from marrying or husbands and wives serving in the same unit. John’s an awfully cute fellow, though, and wears Davy down with sheer charm.
The ship finally lands at the Bataan Peninsula, where the group meets Dr. Ling Chee (Hugh Ho Chang), who escorts them to their first Army hospital in Limay. Captain “Ma” MacGregor (Mary Servoss) is relieved to see them because the hospital is woefully understaffed, so she wastes no time in assigning everyone to various wards.
Janet and Rosemary are assigned to surgery, where a doctor named José Bardia (Ted Hecht) is in the middle of a C-section. He’s a Johns Hopkins and University of the Philippines professor and very philisophical. While Jose operates, he muses about how his doctor’s mind can’t wrap itself around the human body being worth ninety-nine cents in chemicals, yet that worth means little during a time of war. What’s interesting about the scene is that as the baby José delivers takes his first independent breaths, the faces of the nurses and orderlies break into smiles. “May he be born to live in freedom,” José says as Davy carries the little guy off. It’s a moment of joy in the midst of war.
Our group has plenty to do, as the wounded keep pouring in from the front. Olivia is thriving after baring her soul to Davy, and the nurses nickname her “Livvy.” However, the nurses’ stay at this hospital is pretty much the last time these characters have anything resembling tranquility. The Japanese are closing in, and the Americans have to keep moving. Before the nurses can leave, though, they get trapped in one of the wards, and not all will make it out.
Out of necessity, their next hospital is literally in the middle of the jungle, with thousands of patients set up in beds under trees and canopies. The surgery is in a tent with a generator, and all dressings and instruments are washed and sterilized over and over. Many of the nurses and patients suffer from malaria and dysentery, and all feel forgotten by Uncle Sam, except for Kansas coming in with mail now and then. Their supplies are very low. While spirits briefly rise when there’s talk of a convoy on the way, they’re dashed again when news reaches the unit that the ships were sunk.
This is par for the course with So Proudly We Hail! The group moves next to a hospital at Little Baguio, where Davy gets the bright idea of putting a big red cross on the turf to mark the place as a hospital. It doesn’t work, however, as it was very common for medics to be targeted by the enemy. Little Baguio is no different; the hospital is heavily bombed, destroying many of the wards and the surgery. Davy’s hands are burned when she tries to get Rosemary and José out.
From there, the group makes its way to Corregidor, which is an island base off of the Bataan Peninsula. The Army has a hospital set up in the Malinta Tunnel, which had been used for trains prior to the war. It seems like a refuge at first, as everyone has a chance to relax and wash up, but it’s only a temporary reprieve, because the island gets heavily shelled. In the movie, as in real life, the Nurse Corps is ordered off as the situation becomes increasingly untenable, and it’s not really a spoiler to say that most of them didn’t get out before Corregidor fell.
Of Cry ‘Havoc’ and So Proudly We Hail!, the latter is considered the more accurate. The costumes of the three female leads, as well as the rest of the cast, were decidedly unglamorous, as they all wear field uniforms and look sweaty and dirty. Veronica Lake in particular changed up her image, with her famous peek-a-boo bangs tied up in a roll for most of her screen time, only to be revealed about halfway through the movie at a significant spot in the story.
The phrase often used to describe films like this is “gritty realism,” and while it’s a cliché, it’s still apt in the case of So Proudly We Hail! There’s no Tinseltown slickness going on here. Small rooms and large crowds are indicated by people partially blocking each other in frame; there are a lot of overhanging props such as tents and tree branches. Everything communicates the sense of isolation these nurses and soldiers felt.
Also, the lighting is true to the surroundings. If it’s night, it looks like night, not darker daytime. If there are shadows, some characters’ faces will be shaded. There are some scenes when Claudette Colbert is lit better than George Reeves, and while this is due to her being the star, it’s also because the two of them may be sitting in a foxhole. Not only that, but studios, especially smaller ones like Paramount, were trying to save money and resources wherever they could during the emergency.
For portraying a situation that was still ongoing, the film got a lot of details right. So Proudly We Hail! was inspired by the memoir of Juanita Redmond Hipps, who, like her onscreen counterparts, escaped Corregidor just before it fell to the Japanese. She was one of eight nurses who were able to get out. Another of the eight, First Lieutenant Eunice Hatchett, served as the film’s technical advisor.
The other seventy-seven were taken prisoner by the Japanese and held at the Santo Tomás prison camp. There, they suffered from the malnutrition and malaria that many contracted in the field, but they continued to care for patients throughout the rest of the war. All of the nurses survived.
Of course, in 1943 when the film was released, the American public had no way of knowing how it would all turn out. So Proudly We Hail! was a huge hit with both the public and the critics, also garnering four Oscar nominations, including a Best Supporting Actress for Paulette Goddard.
Since it is from the wartime period, there are aspects of the film that audiences today might find dated. It’s not the dominant thing–in fact, director Mark Sandrich insisted that trash-talking the Japanese be kept to a minimum–and what is left exhibits a little bit of how people viewed the dismal situation. Many Americans felt badly that our people had to be left behind in the Pacific, so the story of the nurses would have produced a visceral reaction in 1943 audiences.
Films like So Proudly We Hail! both honored the brave nurses who continued in their work in the worst conditions and reminded the public why the war needed to be won. For us today, it sheds light on a lesser-known aspect of World War Two and deserves to be a celebrated part of the wartime film canon.
That wraps up my Day Three of Maddy and Jay’s World War Two Blogathon. For more posts, please go here. Thanks for hosting, Maddy and Jay–I hope you can bring this one back! Thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow with a new Stage To Screen post…
So Proudly We Hail! is available on DVD from Amazon.