By Denise Krepp, Director’s Action Group, Naval History and Heritage Command
In November 2020, CNO and Mrs. Gilday installed a new exhibit entitled “Celebrating Navy Women: Perseverance and Achievements” in the Tingey House. The pioneers proudly served their country and this year the Naval History and Heritage Command will be sharing their stories.
In February 23, 1945, the Twelve Anchors, eleven female Navy nurses and one Filipino nurse were rescued from a Japanese Prisoner of War camp in the Philippines. The Navy officers were stationed at the Navy hospital in Canacao in 1941. Within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military invaded the Philippines and the women became prisoners of war. The Twelve Anchors with determined smiles and spines of steel, provided invaluable medical assistance to their fellow POWs for over three years.
The Twelve Anchors were led by Kansas native and World War I veteran Lieutenant Commander Laura Mae Cobb (1892-1981). Cobb trained as a nurse in Nebraska and at the start of WWI, joined the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. She served in the Philippines and after the armistice became a civilian nurse. Cobb rejoined the Navy in 1924 and was the chief nurse at the Canacao Naval Hospital in Manila before World War II. Cobb retired as a Commander and her tombstone is inscribed with “WWII POW”.
Lieutenant Josephine Pitcher (1901 – 1950) was born in Iowa and went to nursing school in Chicago. Pitcher joined the Navy in 1929 and was assigned to the Philippines in September 1941. She ended her military career as a Lieutenant Commander.
In May 1948, Pitcher became a member of the American Legion Womens Post in Long Beach, California. The Long Beach Independent, the local newspaper, wrote about her participation in the organization and it highlighted Pitcher’s status as a former prisoner of war. Pitcher is buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.
Lieutenant Helen Clara Gorzelanski Hunter (1907-1972) was born in Nebraska to Polish immigrants. Five days after Hunter was rescued, the Waukesha Freeman published an article about her and her sister nurses staying on the job to help wounded sailors instead of returning home to the United States. After the war ended, Hunter got married and lived with her husband in California. Sadly, Hunter was killed by a drunk driver in 1972.
Lieutenant Margaret Nash (1911 – 1992) went to nursing school in Pennsylvania and upon her uncle’s recommendation, joined the Navy in 1936. Her uncle was a Congressman from Pennsylvania. When Nash returned home, her uncle attempted to see her. Nash’s mother refused to let him near the house, blaming him for Nash being a POW.
Nash worked for the Student Health Center at the University of California at Berkley for many years. She’s buried at the Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Pennsylvania. Her tombstone reflects the three years that she spent as a WWII prisoner of war.
Lieutenant Eldene Elinor Paige (1913-2004) was born in South Dakota. She joined the Navy in 1938 and after the war she served as a nurse in California. According to her obituary Paige was the last surviving member of the Twelve Anchors. She ended her military career as a Lieutenant Commander.
Lieutenant Carrie Edwina Todd (1911 – 1996) grew up in California. After the war, Todd shared her memories of the POW camp. “Practically all the equipment was taken away by the Japanese before we moved in. Fortunately, for us they left a washbasin and the operating table, they were screwed in.”
Todd remained in the Navy and served in the Korean War. She ended her military service as a Captain. Todd is buried at Arlington National Cemetery and her tombstone reflects her service in both wars, and that she was a POW.
Lieutenant Mary Rose Harrington Nelson (1913 – 1999) was born in Sioux City, Iowa and joined the Navy in 1937. She met her husband at the POW camp.
In March 1983, the Washington Post published a story about a reunion of Army and Navy POW nurses. It was the first they had met since they were liberated in 1943. The article referenced Nelson and a month later, Congresswoman Schroeder inserted the article in the Congressional Record as a part of a salute to World War II Women POWs.
Lieutenant Goldia Aimee O’Haver Merrill (1902 – 1997) was born in Illinois and she joined the Navy in 1929. A skilled seamstress, Merrill sewed the uniforms and operating room gowns that the Twelve Anchors wore during their imprisonment. Merrill married a fellow POW Robert Heath Merrill and they lived in California.
Lieutenant Bertha Rae Evans St. Pierre (1904 – 2001) was born in Oregon. She joined the Navy in 1931 and served until 1955, retiring as Commander. St. Pierre is buried at the Williamette National Cemetery and her tomb stone reflects her military service during World War II and Korea. St. Pierre is buried next to her husband who also served in the Navy.
Lieutenant Mary Frances Chapman Hayes (1913-?) was born in Illinois. Very little is known about her.
Lieutenant Dorothy Still Danner (1914 – 2001) published a book – “What a Way to Spend A War: Navy Nurse POWs in the Philippines”. A copy can be found in NHHC’s library. In the book, Danner talks about the Japanese attack on Manila and being directed to back a bag of personal belongs. Per Danner, this order was a positive measure in the midst of chaos that had a calming impact.
One Christmas while at the POW camp, Danner received a roll of toilet paper. She called it a treasure and shared that the prized Hope diamond was worthless in comparison.
By the time the Twelve Anchors were rescued, they suffered years of malnutrition. Danner described the rescuers as “magnificent, health American soldiers” who distributed copious amounts of Hershey chocolate bars to the freed POWs.
Soon after Danner returned the United States, she was directed to represent the Navy Nurses Corps at the New York Tribune’s Annual Forum. Among the attendees was a corpsman, a representative of the five men who’d planted the American Flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi on February 23th, the day Danner was rescued. Danner describes feeling insignificant and unworthy. According to her, the other military attendees were the real heroes and heroines.
The Twelfth Anchor was Basilia Torres Steward (1913 – 1994), the Filipino wife of American officer Lieutenant Jerry Alexander Steward who was stationed in the Philippines. The couple had married on August 23, 1940. After the Japanese invaded, both became POWs. Torres Steward became a naturalized US citizen after the war. Her husband retired from the Navy as a Rear Admiral and then he served in the Texas legislature.
The Twelve Anchor’s actions during their three plus year of imprisonment personify the Navy core values of honor, courage, and commitment. In perilous, trying conditions the women provided much needed medical care to countless un-named POWs. The beneficiaries of their actions were overjoyed and teary-eyed parents, wives, sons, and daughters who eagerly welcomed their family member’s safe return home.