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Jean Kennedy Schmidt, 88; American nurse held in WWII Japanese POW camp

March 09, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Jean Kennedy Schmidt, one of the last survivors of the Angels of Bataan, the American military nurses who were Japanese prisoners of war for nearly three years during World War II, has died. She was 88.

Schmidt, a retired Army nurse, died Saturday at her home in La Canada Flintridge of complications related to a fall, said Susan Johnson, her daughter.

The nurses stationed in the Philippines became the first large group of American women in combat, according to Elizabeth M. Norman, who documented their story in the 1999 book "We Band of Angels."

Within hours of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed American bases in the Philippines. Until then, few of the 99 Army and Navy nurses stationed there had served in war conditions, and they "found themselves almost overwhelmed by slaughter," Norman wrote.

Trapped on the Bataan Peninsula, they established operational hospitals with open-air wards in the dense jungle to help care for the retreating American forces.

"Our nurses' training taught us to improvise and to be innovative, and that came in very handy on Bataan," Schmidt said in "No Time for Fear," a 1996 book of remembrances by World War II nurses.

When Bataan fell to the Japanese in April 1942, the nurses "were ordered to leave our patients behind" and go to Corregidor, an island in Manila Bay, Schmidt said in the book.

On the island, they set up a hospital in an underground maze of tunnels and cared for the wounded through almost nonstop shelling.

Because some nurses were evacuated just before the fall of Corregidor in May 1942, "we always thought we'd be going also, until the Japanese came into the tunnel," Schmidt recounted in "No Time for Fear."

Before the Japanese took them prisoner, the nurses wanted to leave a record in case they were never heard from again.

They ripped a square of cloth from a bedsheet and signed it the day of their surrender, May 6, 1942.

Taken by boat to the Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila, the nurses refused the tea offered "because we thought they were trying to poison us," Schmidt recalled in the book.

Despite being racked with disease and injury, the remaining 77 nurses continued to practice, treating military and civilian prisoners in the camp.

By early 1945, many of the nurses suffered from malnutrition, losing an average of 32 pounds each.

"We heard a lot of rumors about the Americans coming for us but were still surprised when they did come," Schmidt said in "No Time for Fear." "I had begun to feel that the Americans thought we weren't worth saving, and to look at how scrawny we were, we probably weren't."

Liberated when an American tank crashed through the camp's main gate in February 1945, all of the nurses safely returned to the U.S.

Three are believed to still be alive, according to Norman.

Back home, the nurses staged war-bond drives but received little attention among the sea of victorious returning U.S. soldiers, Norman said.

Imogene Kennedy was born Oct. 13, 1918, in Philadelphia, Miss., and grew up on a farm with seven siblings. Four brothers who served in the war also came back alive.

After graduating in 1941 with a degree in nursing from the University of Tennessee, she joined the Army and sailed for the Philippines.

While a POW, she met a fellow prisoner, Richard Schmidt, and married him soon after returning to the U.S. He had been captured on his way to his job with a steamship company.

The couple settled in California, and Schmidt continued her nursing career in the Bay Area and Altadena. They moved to La Canada Flintridge in 1963.

Although she rarely talked about her wartime experiences, her family said it gave her a sunny disposition.

"It took very little to make her happy. We never really saw her angry. She was only sad at the death of her comrades," her daughter said.

One favorite pastime was attending reunions of the Angels of Bataan.

"She had a wonderful spirit," Norman said. "She loved these women she was imprisoned with, and she said she knew them as well as the back of her hand."

In addition to her daughter, Schmidt is survived by a son, two sisters, a brother and four grandchildren. Her husband died in 1994.

*

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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