The Army and Navy women who served in the Philippines during World War II "were and are the largest group of American women ever to become prisoners of war."
When Elizabeth Norman first began studying American military women who served in the Vietnam War) she thought finding material would be easy. Her voice still registers surprise as she describes what happened instead: “I went to the library and there was absolutely nothing there. I called Washington and they couldn’t even tell me how many women, how many nurses had served in Vietnam. Somebody said to me, ‘We just never thought this was important.’”
“If we don’t do something,” Norman remembers thinking, “we would lose yet another piece of our history.” In trying to complete a routine research paper, Norman had found not only a dissertation topic but also an interest in war and and women’s roles in war that would span her career. Her study about Vietnam became her first book-Women in War: the Story of Fifty Nurses Who Served in Vietnam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990, in-print 2005).
“When you study women, particularly nurses who comprised the largest female group in wartime you notice that the core experience never changes,” Norman explains. “These women were far away from home, dealing with the loneliness and isolation while treating horrific injuries of young, dying, severely disabled men. That never changes, whether it’s the poison gas in France or napalm in Vietnam.”
Norman’s award-winning book, We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese (Random House, 1999. Pocket Books 2000, in-print 2005) documents a very unusual aspect of women in war. Not only did these Army and Navy women in the Philippines experience typical wartime hardships, but also, Norman explains, “They were and are the largest group of American women ever to become prisoners of war.”
Norman is the chief consultant on a Walter Reed Army Medical Center study, “Experiences of Deployed and Non-Deployed Health Care Workers During War. (LTC D. Kenny, P.I.). Grant applications are under review. This study will examine the impact of working with war wounded on nurses, physical therapists and other health care professionals serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and stateside military hospitals.
Norman’s current study examines the 1942 Battle of Bataan from the varied perspectives of the American, Filipino, and Japanese soldiers who fought there. Norman describes the project as “the first cross-cultural look at battle.” Her co-author is Michael Norman and the title of this work is Tears in the Darkness. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux Publishers, NY.
Recovering the stories of nurses and soldiers during wartime often requires years of careful historical research. As a result of her intensive work poring over archives, interviewing participants and weighing different perspectives, analyzing data, and producing powerfully written manuscripts Norman has developed an impressive range of research and writing skills that she teaches to graduate students.
“Maybe because I am a historian,” she says, “I am more aware that we need to get that next generation of scholars prepared.”