Pride and Honor
Thomas Calabrese …. The five Navy Nurses arrived in Manila, Philippines on December 6, 1941 as replacements. There were currently eighty eight Army and twelve Navy nurses stationed in the country. They checked into the Manila Hotel and awaited contact from their unit representative and received word by messenger later that night that a car would be there on December 9, 1941 at 0700 hours to take them to their quarters near one of the military hospitals on the island.
One of the nurses was Lt. Commander Charlotte Swanson, who was returning for her second tour in the Philippines. Charlotte had been in the Navy for six years and was considering making the military her career, but had not made a final decision. Her father, Alvin was a career Marine and retired with the rank of Sergeant Major after a twenty three year career. As an eighteen year old boy from Nevada, he enlisted and was sent to Europe and assigned to the 6th Marine Machine Gun Battalion.
He fought in the brutal battle of Belleau Wood in France during World War I where he was wounded twice and awarded the Silver Star. After leaving the Marine Corps, Alvin moved the family from his last duty station in San Diego back to the family ranch in Carson Valley, Nevada.
Charlotte was the oldest of four children and had three younger brothers. Alvin Swanson had traveled throughout the world during his enlistment and he swore that he would raise his children to be strong, self-sufficient and able to deal with the adversities that they would undoubtedly face as they grew older. Alvin Swanson wanted them to have a code of honor to keep them on the straight and narrow when the road got winding, rough and dangerous. He made it even harder on Charlotte than he did on his sons and when he caught her crying one evening out by the horse corral, he explained, “I know you probably hate me, but as hard as this might be to believe, I love you with all my heart.”
“Then why are you so mean to me?” Charlotte sobbed.
“I’d like to think that I’m being tough, but I can see how you might feel I’m being mean,”
“I ask you again, why…why? Charlotte stammered.
“I’ve been all over this world and there are some truly evil men that inhabit it, men that would kill you just as easily as other people would say good morning. There are also other men who are just as evil, but they are cowards so they seek out the weak and defenseless to prey upon.”
“I know that,” Charlotte answered, “You’re always telling me to be careful.”
“You’re going to be a woman soon,” Alvin stated, “you’ve been blessed with the looks of your mother, thank goodness and cursed by the wanderlust of your father. You’re never going to be content to be a ranch wife, raise kids and stay around here so I just want to make sure that when you decide to leave, that you’re able take care of yourself.”
Over the years, Alvin taught Charlotte and her brothers a variety of skills. They would go hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and while they were in the wilderness, they would hone their skills in tracking, hunting and shooting. He also trained them in self- defense and how to evaluate adversaries and assess situations logically instead of emotionally. By the time Charlotte left for Reno to attend nursing school, her father had imparted every bit of knowledge that he had accumulated during his Marine Corps career. Alvin Swanson had serious issues with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, of course back in those days, it was called several different things; bullet wind, soldier’s heart, battle fatigue or shell shock. Alvin took all his fears and nightmares and used his children as surrogates to fight his demons while turning them into warriors.
“I don’t think there is anything more I can do for you,” Alvin said.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. Hopefully I won’t have to use most of the things you showed me, like how to hold a knife when you stab someone,” Charlotte smiled.
“Like my drill instructor told me when I wasn’t much older than you; it’s better to know something and not need it, than it is to need it and not know it.”
Charlotte enrolled in nursing school in Reno then enlisted in the Navy in 1936 after graduation and was assigned to a hospital in Manila. While she was there, she attended a boxing match with some other nurses and doctors on base.
The Army champion was a brawny Italian from New Jersey and the Navy fleet champion was a former prizefighter from Chicago. The Army fighter won by a knockout in the sixth round. Charlotte was socializing at a local hangout for Americans later that evening when the Army boxer came in with some of his buddies. She turned to her friends, “I’ll be right back and walked over to the man, “I saw your fight earlier, congratulations on your victory, but in my personal opinion, I have to say that you got a little lucky.”
The Army boxer flashed a big smile, “How so?”
“Every time you snap out a right jab, you drop your left. If your opponent had a halfway decent right cross, he would have put you down for the count,” Charlotte explained.
The young Army boxer immediately liked this woman and it was not just because of her sultry good looks and engaging smile, but because of her straight forward and self- assured way of presenting herself, “I doubt that.”
Charlotte took a linen napkin from a table and wrapped it around her right hand to protect her knuckles, “Throw a right jab,” When the Army boxer hesitated, Charlotte repeated more forcefully, “I said throw a right jab!”
The Army boxer snapped out a right jab and Charlotte ducked under it and let go with right hook over his lowered left hand that landed squarely on his jaw and dropped him to the floor. The Army boxer rubbed the side of his face and grinned, “I’m John Basilone and it is a pleasure to meet you,” and extended his hand.
“Charlotte Swanson,” and helped him to his feet.
“Where did you learn so much about boxing?” John Basilone asked.
“My father was a Marine and he taught me and my brothers about self -defense. One of the first lessons was how to find an opponent’s weakness.”
“A Marine, huh? When I get out of the Army, I’m thinking about joining the Corps.”
Their friendship quickly developed and the girl from Nevada and the boy from New Jersey quickly found out that they had more in common than just the sport of boxing. They spent most of their free time together traveling all over the island and making friends with the local population.
John liked the Philippines so much that Charlotte nicknamed him ‘Manila John’. He in turn, called Charlotte, ‘Sage,’ short for Sagebrush, the state flower of Nevada. They affectionately referred to each other by their nicknames during their limited time together and when Manila John’s tour of duty in the islands ended, it was a tearful farewell.
They promised to reconnect so when Charlotte finished her assignment, she met John in Baltimore in May 1940 where he was now working as a civilian truck driver. They spent several days together and when it was time to return to San Diego, John took Charlotte to the train station and as he was returning home, he saw a recruiting station and decided that now was as good a time as any to join the Marine Corps. Sage and Manila John stayed in touch until World War II changed their lives and the world.
Major General Lewis Brereton, Army Air Corps, Commanding Officer, 27th Bomb Group was hosting a party for his pilots on the evening of December 7, 1941(Hawaiian Time) in the Fiesta Pavilion at the Manila Hotel and since Lt. Commander Charlotte Swanson and Lieutenant Junior Grade officers; Marlene Gates, Ruth Norman, Marcia Gaines and Rita Cantrell were staying at the hotel, they were invited to join in the festivities. The Nurses stayed up late dancing and socializing and did not return to their rooms until the early morning hours and were sound asleep when bombs began to fall at 8:19 AM, ten hours after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
General Douglas McArthur ordered a retreat to the inhospitable jungles of the Bataan Peninsula. Lucky for Charlotte and her nurses that Colonel Sam Howard, Commanding Officer of the Fourth Marine Regiment was in the area organizing defensive measures.
“Colonel, I’m not going anywhere without some kind of protection for myself and my nurses,” Charlotte stated in no uncertain terms.
Colonel Howard was one of the original ‘old China hands’ and knew the brutality of the Japanese soldiers and what they would they do if they captured the American women. He turned to Sergeant O’Reilly, “Go with these women and give them everything they want.”
“Yes sir,” Sergeant O’Reilly responded.
“Thank you, Colonel,” Charlotte said.
The bombardment continued and people were running in every direction searching for some kind of cover. “Get going… be careful and good luck,” Colonel Howard said as he looked at the Japanese bombers above him.
Charlotte, the four nurses and Sergeant O’Reilly ran to a truck outside and raced off as bombs exploded all around them. It was just pure luck that none of them were hit by the storm of shrapnel and debris. The younger nurses were stricken with fear and Charlotte knew she had to remain calm and collected if they were to have any chance of survival so she did like her father told her, she calmly assessed the situation.
When they got to the Fourth Marine Regiment camp, Charlotte and the other women went directly to supply where they found clothing and boots that fit them. When available, they took several of each and their next step was the armory where they appropriated weapons and ammunition including three Thompson .45 caliber submachine guns and a 30.06 sniper rifle. All the time that they were loading the two ton truck, the Japanese bombardment rained hell on the city and surrounding areas.
With the help of several Marines, they were ready to go in minutes. Charlotte turned to Sergeant O’Reilly, “You coming with us?”
“I have to stay with my unit, be careful Ma’am.”
Charlotte got behind the wheel of the truck and Lt. Norman got in the passenger seat while the other three nurses jumped in back. No sooner, did they drive away that Charlotte saw a bomb explode right where Sergeant O’Reilly had been standing.
It was fortunate that Charlotte had developed some lasting friendships while she was in the country during her last assignment. She remembered a young Filipino man named Juan Pagota that John had introduced her to and the village that they visited and figured that was as good a place to go as any. The villagers welcomed the nurses and when Juan Pagota saw Charlotte, he rushed to embrace her, “Sage! Sage!”
“Who’s Sage?” Lt Marcia Gaines asked.
“A nickname that I had when I was here last time.”
“I like it, is it alright for me to call you that?” Lt Gaines said.
“Considering the situation, I think you can call me anything you want,” Charlotte smiled.
From that point forward, Charlotte was only known as ‘Sage’
The next four months were hectic and dangerous and the nurses worked with the Filipino locals to construct a minor aid station to deal with a variety of illnesses and injuries. Scouting patrols were sent out on a regular basis to keep track of Japanese troop movements and occasionally they would come across an American serviceman who had escaped into the jungle. In many cases, he was malnourished and sick so he would be taken back to the aid station and the nurses would care for him until he was strong enough to join the guerrilla forces.
Sage trained her fellow nurses in the art of combat and survival and what they didn’t learn from her, they picked up from the Filipinos. Lieutenant Rita Cantrell, a Navajo Indian from Yuma, Arizona became especially proficient in jungle warfare.
Over the next few months, Sage and her nurses worked with their Filipino counterparts to ambush Japanese patrols, steal their equipment and rescue Americans. On April 9, 1942, Filipino scouting patrols reported that the Japanese were moving thousands of prisoners from Saysain Point, Bagac to an undisclosed location. Sage and the nurses accompanied Filipino guerrillas as they followed from a distance. This prisoner relocation was later named the infamous ‘Bataan Death March.’
There was heated and angry discussion about attacking the Japanese and freeing the prisoners, but it was reluctantly determined that the Americans and Filipinos did not have the military capability to overtake the Japanese so they were forced to witness the horrors and torture that the prisoners were subjected to. They would find beheaded and mutilated prisoners along the route all the way to their destination at Capas Train Station, sixty nine miles away. Thousands of Filipinos and hundreds of Americans were killed during the march.
The witnessing of the atrocities had such a traumatic effect on the American nurses that when they were given the opportunity to escape by submarine during a routine supply run by the American Navy, they all refused to leave. They vowed to stay until the Japanese were defeated and held accountable or until they were sharing the same fate as their fallen comrades.
Sage became a respected leader of the resistance, working with other guerilla commanders that included; Colonel Macario Peralta, Major Ismael Ingeniero and Captain Salvador Abcede among many others. She never went anywhere without the sniper rifle that she got from the Fourth Marines and her marksmanship became legendary. Sage specialized in taking out high ranking Japanese officers or catching Japanese soldiers in the midst of their torturous acts. While she never kept count, those who served with Sage, swore that her confirmed kills were in the hundreds.
Japanese leadership finally accepted the fact that they would never truly be able to defeat the network of guerilla forces in the islands and as time progressed, they also realized that they were losing the war. By December 1944 only Sage and Rita were still alive, Ruth Norman and Marcia Gaines died in combat and Elizabeth McTaft died from the venomous bite of a pit viper.
On October 20, 1944, General MacArthur landed on Leyte and made preparations to retake the Philippines from the Japanese. On December 14, 1944 one hundred and fifty Americans imprisoned at the Puerto Princesa Prison Camp were doused were gasoline and burned alive.
Realizing that time was running out for the other prisoners, Major Bob Lapham, senior guerilla chief met with Sage and Juan Pagota, “We need to rescue the prisoners at Cabanatuan prison before MacArthur begins his offensive. The Japanese will execute them before they’ll ever release them.”
“How many men are there?” Sage asked.
“Five hundred or so at last count,” Major Lapham responded.
“Whatever you need, count me in,” Sage promised.
“You don’t need to go on this mission, you and your nurses have done more than enough these past three years. Let me get you and Cantrell out of here.”
“Not a chance! I made a promise when I couldn’t save the men on the ‘Death March’ that I would be there the next time and I intend to keep my word.”
“I know better than to argue with you when you set your mind to something,” Major Lapham smiled, “You’ll be working with Lt. Colonel Mucci of the 6th Ranger Battalion.”
“Good man, I’ll look forward to it,”
Sage and Rita went on several patrols with men from the Alamo Scouts to recon the perimeter of the camp and obtain the necessary Intel to plan the attack.
On January 30, 1945 Sage and Rita were with the first group of Rangers that began crawling across the flat countryside just after sunset. They reached their assigned position at 1900 hours and waited for the distraction of a P-61 Black Widow from the 547th Night Fighter Squadron to fly over the camp. The pilot shut off and restarted the airplane’s engines several times to create loud backfires and the illusion of distress to the Japanese.
At 1940 hours, the attack commenced and Sage shot five Japanese sentries from her position before charging into the camp. She slung her rifle across her back and pulled out two forty five caliber pistols, one in each hand and began shooting Japanese soldiers as she ran. An enemy officer pulled his sword and attempted to severe Sage’s head. She ducked under it as Rita riddled him with a burst from her Thompson submachine gun while another Japanese soldier who was pretending to be dead leaped up and tried to stab Rita with his bayonet. Sage ran at full speed and knocked him to the ground and shot him in the eye.
Other Rangers were destroying the trucks and neutralizing the remainder of the Japanese forces as Sage and Rita were among the first to enter the thatched huts where the prisoners were being held.
“Relax boys…time to go home,” Sage called out and the sight of an American woman and the sound of her reassuring voice immediately calmed down the prisoners who had originally thought that this was some type of cruel Japanese trick.
When a wounded Japanese soldier staggered in, screaming and waving his sword at the prisoners, Sage emptied the entire clip of her pistol into his chest and he fell backward at the feet of Captain Robert Prince, “You doing alright, Sage?”
“Getting there,” she answered, “I need some Rangers in here…I’ll tell them which men need to be moved first.”
“Yes Ma’am,” Captain Price answered without hesitation.
Sage and Rita quickly triaged the prisoners and determined which ones needed immediate medical treatment, which were ambulatory and could walk on their own and which needed to be carried out.
Sage and Rita stayed with the 6th Ranger Battalion and provided medical treatment with other medics until they reached Talavera. The 489 military POW’s and 33 civilians were taken by trucks and ambulances to the hospital.
Both women stayed in the Philippines until Japan officially surrendered on September 2, 1945 then returned one week later to the States. It was only after Sage arrived in San Diego that she received the bad news. Despite the countless deaths and overwhelming destruction that she saw during her three years in the Philippines and how she had to harden her heart to survive, Sage was still deeply saddened to hear about Manila John Basilone, but was not surprised by his acts of heroism on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.
When they compiled the list of heroes and legends who served in World War II, Charlotte ‘Sage’ Swanson and her nurses were on it. These valiant and courageous women helped defeat a merciless and tenacious enemy and at the same time protected the wounded and defenseless with Pride and Honor.