American Legion Auxiliary — Volume 1 February 2011
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Angel On Embattled Seas

Serving as a World War II Army nurse in the Philippines at just 26 years old, ALA member Floramund Fellmeth Difford endured a perilous 27-day, 5,000–mile journey across the Pacific to help treat and transport 224 wounded soldiers to safety in Australia in the single largest humanitarian evacuation of military personnel to date.

One hundred Army and Navy nurses were serving in the Philippines when the United States entered World War II. After the Japanese invaded the islands, 77 were eventually taken prisoner and remained POWs for four years. Floramund Fellmeth Difford, now 97, was one the few who narrowly evaded capture but certainly not danger when she was assigned to care for wounded soldiers during a perilous journey to safety in Australia.

Floramund Fellmeth, the youngest of 13 children in her devout Catholic family in Chicago was in sixth grade when she atended a football game at Soldier Field and caught a sight that set her future path. Three nurses in white uniforms, starched caps, and navy capes were working in a first-aid tent. As she relates in An Angel’s Illustrated Journal, a 2005 book about her war experiences, the young Floramund announced to her sister then and there, “I’m going to be a nurse.”

Difford trained at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Chicago and studied surgical nursing, graduating in 1934. While in training, she saw a movie about World War I that showed nurses on the batlefield and decided she wanted to be a military nurse. After further training at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, she joined the Army Nurse Corps in August 1936.

Difford met her future husband, Wallace E. Difford Jr., while stationed at Fort Frances E. Warren near Cheyenne, Wyo. She agreed to marry the handsome lieutenant after she completed her requested overseas assignment in the Philippine Islands. World War II would delay their plans.

When Difford first arrived in the Philippines, preparations were underway, but the war had not yet touched the islands. “I do not believe anyone in the Philippine Islands doubted that reinforcements would arrive to bring a quick and victorious end to the Japanese threat,” Difford recalled in her book. Difford worked long hours but enjoyed an active social life.

The atack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, changed everything. The first bombs were dropped on the Philippines the very next day. Japanese raids continued in earnest, day and night, and the expected reinforcements never came.

While the other nurses stationed in Manila were evacuated to Bataan and Corregidor, Difford was chosen for a special assignment because of her surgical nurse experience. A plan was devised to evacuate as many of the hospitalized soldiers as possible to Australia aboard an inter-island coconut husk steamer called the Mactan, under the auspices of the International Red Cross. It would be the largest single humanitarian evacuation of military personnel to date. And it was a suicide mission.

Col. Percy J. Carroll, the commanding officer of the Manila Hospital Center, told Difford the secret assignment was voluntary and risky. There was no guarantee the ship, which was barely seaworthy, would make it to its destination, but for the wounded, staying in Manila meant certain death. “It never really entered my mind to refuse, as we were accustomed to following orders,” Difford relates in her book.

While the Japanese were on the outskirts of Manila, Difford awaited word to board the Mactan. She carried with her a note that explained that she was a noncombatant, but with the Japanese closing in, she prepared herself to become a prisoner. On Dec. 31, 1941, the order finally came. The Mactan, newly painted white with red crosses on its sides and decks so planes would recognize it as a “mercy ship,” was loaded with 224 wounded soldiers (134 Americans and 90 Filipinos); 67 crew members, all Filipino; and 25 medical and Red Cross personnel, all Filipino except Difford, who was the chief nurse, Col. Carroll, and a Catholic priest from Connecticut, the Rev. Thomas Shanahan, the ship’s chaplain.

Although the Red Cross was given clearance for the ship to leave by a Japanese commander, this was the first hospital ship to transport wounded soldiers in a war that the United States had just entered. There was great concern that the ship would Be atacked by air or torpedo. Those ab New Year’s Day 1942 to the sight of Ma Americans blew up gasoline storage tanks out of enemy hands.

The journey was fraught with peril. T through a maze of mines just to leave Ma Navy ship for guidance, and had a close ca turn in the darkness. The ship was infested red ants, and copra beetles. Violent storms drenched the patients on their cots on the canvas. There was a fire in the engine room aboard prepared to abandon ship. Two wounded from their injuries during the crossing soldier commited suicide by jumping over

On Jan. 27, 1942, the Mactan arrived in Sydney Harbor fanfare, especially after newspapers h the ship had been atacked multiple times conditions aboard the vessel, the wounded very good condition and were quickly ta land. The Mactan’s voyage made headlines in the Difford was cited for bravery by Gen. Dougl was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1942 She and other military nurses were bel Bronze Star Medal for their service in

Back home in Chicago, the newspapers h hero. In interviews, Difford always talked skill of all the American nurses who served “There wasn’t a nurse of Bataan who was on duty at the time of a raid, they stay without sleep for days,” she told the C

Difford stayed in Australia for three y U. S. Army Medical Corps in that countr major in administrative nursing, and returned 1944. She married her sweetheart from FE. Difford Jr., in 1945. Once stateside Department recruit nurses by sharing her in dramas broadcast over the radio, even twice with stage and screen actress H resigned from active duty in October 1946 the Army Nurse Corps Reserves, retiring lieutenant colonel.

Difford now lives in Tumwater, Wash., a of marriage before Wallace Difford died had two daughters and two sons, one of after birth. All of their surviving c have served in the military. At the urging published her account of the voyage tha An Angel’s Illustrated Journal (Chapters of Life, 2005 because the nurses who served in the Philippines to as “the angels of Bataan and Corregidor

While at Pat Tillman Memorial Post 53 in DuPont, Wash. On Sept. 11, 2010, prior to one of the largest 9-11 remembrance services held in the country, ALA National Secretary Mary “Dubbie” Buckler and Karen Schwart, Department of Washington, met Difford who atended the event. Buckler and Schwart were spellbound as the spirited Difford proudly shared information about her war experiences. Buckler said she could have spent the entire day listening to Difford who spoke passionately about the importance of serving our country and who embodies the resolve of all who have served to protect our freedom. Special thanks to Karen Schwart for her assistance with this story.
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