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40 Years Ago: Last Nurse Survivor of Bataan Still on Active Duty Retires

  • Published
  • By History Office
  • AFMS History Office
Air Force Lt. Col. Helen M. Hennessey retired Jan. 31, 1967, after 27 years of military service. Hennessey was the last remaining active duty Air Force nurse to have been amongst those who served at the Battle of Bataan in 1941. 

Hennessey joined the Army in November 1940 and was assigned to the Sternberg Hospital in Manila.  She, along with the other nurses there, relocated to Bataan in the last week of December 1941 as U.S. forces withdrew in face of a Japanese assault.  Here they endured another three months of attacks while caring for their patients in open air wards designated as Field Hospital #1 and #2. The Army evacuated the nurses again on April 9th, along with a handful of other personnel, just before Bataan fell.  The estimated 70,000-75,000 U.S. and Filipino troops left behind surrendered later that day and were subjected by their captors to a 60-70 mile forced march that become known as the Bataan Death March.  Historians estimate that 5,000-18,000 Filipinos and 500-650 Americans perished due to physical hardships and executions during this ordeal.

Once on the island of Corregidor, which itself had been under attack for over three months, Hennessey began caring for the sick and wounded in the 1,000-bed underground hospital that was part of the complex known as the Malinta Tunnel.  Once again, the Japanese attacks were relentless, but this time there was no escape.  Hennessey and the other nurses found themselves amongst the 11,000 prisoners of war when the island’s defenders surrendered on May 6, 1942.  The Army nurses were taken to Santo Tomas civilian internment camp in Manila where they did their best to care for the ill and starving inhabitants.  The camp was finally liberated by U.S. Army forces on February 3, 1945.

Hennessey remained on active duty and transferred to Randolph Field, Texas, to begin flight nurse training.  Subsequent assignments took her to Japan as a flight nurse in the late 1940s, as well as to Lackland, Barksdale, Carswell, and Westover Air Force Bases, and later to Bitburg, Germany.  She finished her career as the Chairman of the Department of Nursing at USAF Hospital Keesler, Miss.  Her awards included a Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Army of Occupation Medal, Philippine Defense Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal, and Presidential Unit Citation. 

Hennessey passed away Sept. 16, 1997, at age 83.