Women have always played a role during wartime, serving their countries in myriad ways. World War II escalated this service to a whole new level, calling for all people, regardless of gender, to contribute to the cause. Women, as they do and have done for all of history, answered that call. Women became factory workers building ships and airplanes, clerical workers maintaining records and important information, radio operators, espionage agents engaging on dangerous undercover missions, and nurses and healthcare workers on the front lines. And the volunteers were honored to serve their country.
For years, we didn’t hear these heroines’ stories at the same rate that we heard men’s. Sometimes the stories were classified and unable to be told, but other times the veterans didn’t think their stories were extraordinary or worth telling because they were simply doing their duty to their country. The courage and strength of these heroines cannot be understated or seen as “ordinary,” nor should they go unnoticed. More and more accounts from women are coming to light and being told in beautiful memorandums, as well as finding a voice in fiction.
When We Had Wings: A Story of the Angels of Bataan is one such novel, telling women’s stories. Written by authors Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris, and Susan Meissner, the book is based on a true story of 78 female medical service members who were captured as prisoners of war. When We Had Wings tells the story of three military nurses stationed in the Philippines in 1941. U.S. Navy nurse Eleanor Lindstrom, U.S. Army nurse Penny Franklin, and Filipina nurse Lita Capel become fast friends at the Army Navy Club in Manila. They think it’s a dream assignment in the picturesque country, and at first, it is. But as the war wages on, their dream assignment becomes a nightmare.
The Philippine islands are caught in a battle for occupation between the U.S. forces and the Japanese Imperial Army. The scenic landscape quickly turns into a brutal combat zone. Eventually, the nurses endure captivity as the first female prisoners of the Second World War. Their capacity for difficulty is tested while imprisoned. They suffer food shortages, wretched living conditions, and inhumane treatment at the hands of the Japanese soldiers, who blatantly disregard the articles of the 1929 Geneva Agreements (which predate the stronger 1949 Geneva Convention). Through it all, they strive to hold on to hope in the face of hopelessness. More than that, they make great efforts to keep themselves, and their fellow inmates, alive.
Told from each woman’s point of view, the writing from three powerhouse authors will keep you enraptured from page one. Seeing each character’s point of view adds depth to the narrative. Of course, this novel is about World War II, but more than that, it’s a story about how the strength of friendship and love can buoy those who have it, getting people through even the most difficult struggles. Without each other, survival would have been even more arduous. Resiliency is made stronger with love.
While this novel is heavy on history, the story's intricately developed characters and gut-wrenching plot twists are what really shine. Readers will be rooting for Eleanor, Penny, and Lita through all their trials and holding their breath at every unseen twist. When We Had Wings is perfect for history buffs and lovers of historical fiction alike. More than that, women’s fiction and fiction readers will be drawn in immediately by the complexity of the characters and strong bonds formed between the three narrators.