World War Two nurse Reba Z. Whittle is a unique and all-too often forgotten World War Two nurse. As well as helping many troops with their injuries, she became a Prisoner of War in Germany. Here, Matt Goolsby continues his series on Nurses in War and tells her extraordinary story (following articles on US Civil War nurses Clara Barton (here) and Cornelia Hancock (here), and World War One nurse Julia Catherine Stimson (here)).
The World of the 1930s
Leading up to World War II, the world had already seen significant conflict.
World War I or the ‘Great War’ along with the stock market crash of 1929 had plunged the global economy into a ‘Great Depression’. These were nicknamed ‘Great’ events because of their worldwide impacts.
Along with the ‘Great Depression’, China had been deluged by massive flooding and America was suffering from a suffocating drought. China was also becoming a hotspot of war on the Asian continent as the Japanese were expanding their territorial conquests during the Manchurian invasion of 1931.
There was trouble again brewing in Europe with fascism on the rise. Francisco Franco in Spain, Benito Mussolini in Italy, and Adolf Hitler in Germany were all making overtures of war or were prosecuting it in their respective nations.
By this time, air travel had become more commonplace as had automobiles throughout the entire world. The first inter-continental flight had taken place and travel between continents was quicker and easier than ever before.
Telecommunications were now truly trans-continental and many enjoyed radio as well as early television entertainment daily from studios such as NBC, CBS, and the Blue network.
US Army nurses were professionals in their own right by this time and had become essential participants and dubbed ‘Angels’ by those cared for by them.
Nurses as captives
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, for the first time ever, five Navy Nurses were taken captive by the Japanese on Guam on December 10th, 1941. These five were fortunate as they were repatriated to Mozambique, Portuguese South Africa in August of 1942.
Nurses had been casualties of war since the Spanish-American conflict, but none had ever been taken captive. All told, 68 Army and 16 Navy nurses were taken captive during World War II.
Other Army and Navy nurses taken captive in The Philippines were not as fortunate as those who had been repatriated to Mozambique.
The Japanese began their assault the day after their Pearl Harbor attack and by April of 1942 had captured Bataan, the prelude of the ‘Bataan Death March’.
When Corregidor fell to Japanese forces on May 6th, 1942, 11 Navy and 66 Army nurses had been captured and were later interred that Summer at Santo Tomas Internment Camp which had previously been the University of Santo Tomas.
The nurses who were captured were fortunate that they were transferred to internment on April 8th, 1942, just two days before the infamous Bataan Death March started that had driven American and Filipino prisoners close to seventy miles on foot and was the scene of numerous atrocities.
On a personal note, one of my uncles was taken captive and forced to march to Bataan. He was never the same once liberated, but was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C.
The ‘Angels of Bataan’ as they were referred to by the men or the ‘Battling Belles of Bataan’, survived in captivity for three years without losing a single nurse and were liberated by American forces on February 2nd, 1945.
In the European theater, a brave young woman named Reba Z. Whittle made history that is little known to this day.
Reba Zitella Whittle was born in Rocksprings, Texas on August 19, 1919. Destined to have a lasting impact, she applied for an appointment as a Reserve Army nurse after graduating from the Medical and Surgical Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in San Antonio, Texas in June 1941.
Having spent a year in college as a Home Economics major at North Texas State College, Reba was better educated and a little older than other applicants of the Army Reserve Nurse Corps.
She was initially denied an appointment as she was 5’7” and only 117 pounds. The requirement was actually seven pounds heavier but was waived due to her educational qualifications. She was advised to diet and rest to increase her weight.
Her initial appointment to the Army Reserves came with orders in June of 1941 that stated: “Assigned to active duty with the Army of the United States for a minimum period of one-year, effective June 17, 1941, and will continue on this status until relieved for the convenience of the Government or otherwise."
An important fact to remember about this time period in world history is that many people saw the looming threats that were developing and felt a compelling desire to be involved. Their sense of duty to their countries still rings true to this day and is a tribute as well as a lasting legacy to the many who sacrificed so much for our freedom from tyranny. Regardless of the allied power that they represented, they banded together during this worldwide conflict that cost so many lives.
After taking the oath to defend her country, Reba was given the rank of 2ndLieutenant as a Reserve Nurse in the Army Nurse Corps. She was ordered to report to the Albuquerque Air Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico and then assigned to Kirkland Field, New Mexico at Station Hospital and then at Station Hospital, Mather Field, California where she would spend the next 27 months as a general duty war nurse.
Her life would forever change in January of 1943 when she volunteered for the Army Air Forces School of Evacuation. All of the applicants of the school were volunteers as the potential for casualties ran high.
The Army utilized a C-47 cargo transport aircraft that served a dual-purpose. Its first role was to transport soldiers and their cargo to the battle-lines. Once having transported their initial load, the planes would then switch roles to become an evacuation air ambulance for the wounded. Since the planes were not identified as a hospital transport and didn’t have a Geneva Red Cross insignia, the assignment was very risky for the crew.
Lieutenant Whittle started training at the Army Air Forces School of Air Evacuation at Bowman Field, Kentucky on September 23, 1943. Prior to her arrival, the training had expanded from four to six weeks.
According to the book, The Forgotten POW, the following details were highlighted as part of her training: “The intent of the program was to make the nurse largely self-sufficient on the flight. The nurse was required to use the equipment and medical supplies provided on the plane for treatment to relieve pain, to prevent hemorrhage, to treat shock, to administer oxygen, and in every way to meet any circumstances that might be encountered. In contrast to the hospital ward situation, all of this was to be done in the absence of a physician. Only in rare instances did a flight surgeon accompany a patient on a flight.”
Having completed her training, Lieutenant Whittle was assigned to the 813thMedical Aeronautical Transportation Squadron in Great Britain. The unit was initially stationed in the city of Nottingham, but later it moved to Brighton and then to Grove. During her time there from January through September of 1944, she flew 40 missions, 80 hours of which included combat time with a combined flying time of 500 hours. She quickly became a veteran combat nurse who coincidentally, had read nurse Juanita Redmond’s book titled: “I served on Bataan”, published in 1943. This is where she learned about what had happened to her fellow nurses captured in war.
Little did she know she would be next.
The day of September 27th, 1944 was not a good one for 2ndLieutenant Reba Z. Whittle.
In her diary that she began not long after being captured, she wrote that on Wednesday, September 27th, she left England with the intention of returning and going to London the next day, her day off.
As it turned out, this was not to be: “Was sleeping quite soundly in the back of our hospital plane until suddenly awakened by terrific sounds of guns and cracklings of the plane as if it had gone into bits. For a few moments I hardly knew what to think. Can assure anyone a more than startled expression and sensation. Suddenly looked at my Surgical Tech opposite me with blood flowing from his left leg. The noise by this time seemed to be much worse. But to see the left engine blazing away - is simply more than I can express - But never thought I would land on the ground in one peace [sic]. My prayers were used and quick.”
After the plane had hit the ground and all but one of the crew had got out, there were more surprises to come: “Immediately we saw soldiers not many yards away. At first we thought they were British soldiers. Second glance we recognized they were German GIs. This feeling is one never dreamed of having. But thought - we've had it chum. The first thought in my mind - my boyfriend and he would be waiting back at my quarters that evening. But how thankful and grateful to be alive.”
War has a tendency to bring out the best and worst in humanity, but the ground soldiers or ‘grunts’ who served in the German Army were surprisingly gentle and concerned: “They took a glance their guns pointing and immediately one took out a bandage and put around my head as it was bleeding. The surprised look on their faces when they saw a woman was amazing. But they bandaged us and away we marched our ship still burning.”
The unfortunate mistake that the navigator made during the crew’s mission was to get off course. Instead of flying to France, the mis-navigation took them to Achen, Germany where they were shot down.
During the crash, Reba sustained a concussion and a severe laceration that were later treated by a German doctor. Her ordeal would continue as the Germans who’d captured them drove them deeper into Germany.
Traveling on weathered roads with injured POWs inside a cold and dirty truck, the German Army would periodically stop at different towns to take meal breaks or to discuss what to do with the prisoners. One such encounter between a German doctor and Lieutenant Whittle is indicative of the difficulties of war: “Next stop was a German hospital where they unloaded the wood. A German officer takes us in. Where more questions asked. And just what I was - a Dr. came in and looked all over and asked me questions of being a nurse. Shook his head saying, ‘Too bad having a woman as you are the first one and no one knows exactly what to do.’"
Her travels would continue throughout the German countryside as she was assigned to hospitals along a circuitous route that the German command determined on a seemingly random basis. As she landed in different locations, her nurse training met with practical experience to help the wounded American and British POWs.
Along the way the astonishment of the wounded that a woman had been captured and how it had been done continued to intrigue those she met.
Free at last
As Reba’s internment continued, her writings demonstrated the perseverance and dedication that nurses in war exhibit and especially the concern they show for those in their care.
At the end of November 1944, Lieutenant Whittle’s writing in her diary suddenly stopped. It’s been surmised since she never wrote a reason why or told her husband, that she was just too busy taking care of preparations for the holiday season.
Throughout her writings she would express her spontaneous crying when she felt desperate, though she never seemed to waiver in her hope that she would be freed.
Towards the end of her journaling she had learned that the International Red Cross had heard of her plight and was trying to repatriate her through official bureaucratic channels. Undoubtedly, this provided hope where there had been none.
Reba Z. Whittle was finally repatriated on January 25th, 1945, having spent four months as a German prisoner of war. She was the only American female nurse to have been captured in Europe during World War II.
After being freed, Lieutenant Whittle was sent home and was able to spend one night with her fiancé, Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Tobiason, who would later return to duty in England. She also received a telegram from then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt thanking her for her service:
“As your Commander in Chief, I take pride in your past achievements and express the thanks of a grateful Nation for your services in combat and your steadfastness while a prisoner of war. May God grant each of you happiness and an early return to health.”
Not long after coming home, Reba was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained in action and also the Air Medal for serving in unarmed and unarmored aircraft.
A month later, 2ndLieutenant Whittle was promoted to 1stLieutenant. Unable to return to flight duty due to recurring headaches from the injuries she sustained and other maladies, she remained on active duty until August, 1945 when she married Lieutenant Colonel Tobiason at Hamilton Field, California and resigned her commission.
Reba had never been declared a POW officially. She spent the next 10 years petitioning the Department of the Army to get a disability retirement only to be frustrated by bureaucracy. She finally settled for a meager amount in 1955, trying to reapply in 1960.
By that time the case was determined to have been closed. She never did anything further about the medical and psychiatric disorders she’d suffered from being a prisoner of war. However, her legacy has lived on in her two sons, one of them having graduated from the US Naval Academy and becoming a pilot who flew in the Vietnam conflict.
Reba passed away from cancer in 1981, but her husband again petitioned the Department of the Army. In 1983 Reba was finally officially recognized as a POW of World War II.
None of us can truly know the struggles and difficulties that a POW must go through, especially when they return. Reba exemplifies the best in humanity and serves as a lasting role model for the Army Nurse Corps.
She is justified at last.
What do you think of Reba Z. Whittle? Let us know below.
Lieutenant Colonel E.V. Frank, AN, “The Forgotten POW: Second Lieutenant Reba Z. Whittle, AN”, US Army War College, February 1990.
“Angels of Bataan”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angels_of_Bataan