South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Life during wartime

Nurse recounts her experiences as a World War II prisoner of war

Lessons learned during the Japanese invasion of the Philippine Islands during World War II remain part of the experience at the Lutheran School of Nursing in St. Louis.

Those lessons were part of the real-life experience of the late Rose Rieper Meier as she and 66 other Army nurses fled before the advancing Japanese Army at the outbreak of the war.

“They learned how to improvise to provide care,” said nursing school archivist Ann Rubin, whose brother was among the American soldiers who freed them and 4,000 other prisoners of war in Manila on Feb 3, 1945.

Meier arrived in the Philippines Oct. 25, 1941, and reported for duty at Manila Army Hospital just 43 days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. On Dec. 8, Japanese warplanes began bombing nearby Cavite Navy Base and casualties began arriving by the truckload.

Though the nurses and medical staff worked until 2 a.m., they couldn’t help everyone.

“A lot of them died in the meantime,” Meier told Maj. Margaret Lauer during a March 12, 1984, interview. “They were just shot to pieces. Some of them had no flesh on their bones. They were screaming for help.”

Fort Stotsenberg was bombed the next day and the scenario repeated itself. Meier and her detachment stayed in Manila until Dec. 25 when they were evacuated to Limay, Bataan.

“Ordinarily, it would take about two hours to make the trip, but I think it took seven hours on this trip,” Meier said in the interview. “The Japanese were strafing us and bombing us. We had to run and get out of the bus and up on the hillside to get out of the way. Then we would get back on the bus.”

Established in an abandoned building, facilities at Limay were improvised. Everything was dirty and there were not many drugs or linens.

After establishing what became known as Hospital I with 12 wards, 40 patients to a ward, the facility was full the next day. The patient population included American soldiers, regular Philippino Army, Volunteer Army and civilians.

As the Japanese invasion advanced, the hospital had to retreat to Corregidor and a new facility was carved out of the woods called Hospital 2, which had no roof other than the foliage overhead. Patients were kept on stretchers on the ground. Food was Army rations — when available.

“Once in a while, somebody would kill a carabao,” Meier recalled. “Later we started killing horses, the cavalry horses. We ate those. We even ate the mules. They weren’t bad eating. They’re better than the horses.”

Meier blamed Gen. Douglas MacArthur for poor morale among the troops at Corregidor.

“He wrote a letter saying that help was on the way,” she said. “We didn’t see help until February 1945. How could he tell a bare-faced lie like that? He knew our whole Navy was destroyed at Pearl Harbor.”

Like many of the nurses, Meier worked through multiple bouts with malaria. The hospital lost count of the number of patients when they reached 16,000 and more were arriving each day.

Amoebic dysentery, diarrhea, scurvy, beri-beri and malaria were rampant. Mosquitoes swarmed around the stream that ran through the hospital grounds.

After Corregidor fell, the nurses were at the mercy of the Japanese.

“When the Japanese generals walked through the wards and saw people with arms or legs off they would say: ‘He ain’t no good. We shoot.’ And that’s what they did. There were some in (the hospital) who were sent on the death march.”

The Japanese relocated medical staff to Santo Tomas University in Manila. During her captivity, Meier and captured U.S. doctors worked on wounded Japanese soldiers, civilians and the occasional American POW.

“What kept us going? Determination,” Meier said in the interview. “We worked three to four hours a day. That’s all that we could work on the amount of food we were getting. We were poor and thin I tell you. I weighed 70 pounds when I got out of the prison camp. Some of the men weighed over 200 pounds and they became less than 100 pounds.”

When doctors listed a patient’s cause of death as malnutrition, the Japanese placed them in solitary confinement. Life continued on a subsistence level until early 1945.

“One evening several recognizance planes flew over, you know, close down,” Meier said. “We wondered what was going on and all of a sudden we saw a lot of Japanese running toward the gate. Then came those great big tanks and they just broke the gate down and came on in.”

The American soldiers brought with them K-rations and the former prisoners begged for them. One soldier told Meier: “You’re hungry if you eat that.”

After being liberated on Feb. 3, 1945, they were back in the United States by July.

“Everybody wanted to feed us,” she said. “And you know, they should never have done that because we wouldn’t be satisfied, no matter how much we ate. It just went right through us because our digestive tracts weren’t very good.”

Meier estimated it took two months to recover. They met with doctors in Leyte and more doctors and psychiatrists in Manila.

“If they would have just given us beds, left us alone to rest and given us something to eat, that’s all we need. I don’t think there was anything emotionally wrong with us. I didn’t have any medication. I didn’t need anything only just my three meals a day.”

After returning to San Francisco, she went to a rehabilitation center in North Carolina before being stationed at Fort Torney, Calif., near Palm Springs. At that facility, they blew a siren at noon to call personnel to lunch.

“When I heard that siren, I started running. I thought, you fool, you don’t have to run anymore.”

Her last tour of duty was at Tawny General Hospital in Seattle, Wash., where she was discharged as a captain in 1946.

She was married in 1950 and moved to a farm southwest of Hiawatha, Kan.

“I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but I wouldn’t want to give it up,” she said of her POW experience. “It was valuable to me a number of times. I’ve broadened my education and my outlook on life. It makes you more tolerant of people.

In later years, she worked as a volunteer at hospitals and nursing homes near her Kansas home. She kept her dishes used while a Japanese prisoner.

“I don’t like to part with them,” Meier said. “I have them wrapped: a mug and a plate and a spoon, I think. And a knife. That’s what I had.”

“Those shoes they gave me were practically wore out. When I came to Corregidor, I was sick, and they brought me in, put me to bed, took my clothes to the laundry and put my shoes under the bed. They stole my shoes. The Japanese bombed the laundry and I had nothing, not even a pair of shoes. They got busy and made me a skirt and a shirt. I don’t know where they got the underwear for me.”

A 1928 graduate of the Lutheran School of Nursing, Meier “is still talked about as an example of what people of faith can do when tested,” Rubin said.

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