Memories of Mina (part one)
Norwegian & American Women of Distinction
Daughters of Norway
They spent three years saving lives under the most horrific of circumstances. It wasn’t the assignment of adventure and travel to see the world they’d been expecting. They were the 66 Army and Navy nurses who became POWs of the Japanese in Manila. They were the “Angels of Bataan.”
When the women in Minot, N.D., began organizing their Daughters of Norway lodge, part of the process was selecting a lodge namesake. This woman must be a prominent or extraordinary woman of Norwegian ancestry who would serve as a role model for the Lodge. The ladies chose Mina Andrea Aasen, one of the Angels of Bataan.
Her remarkable story begins as many of our Norwegian-American ancestors’ stories do. She was born in Kandiyohi County near Willmar, Minn., in 1890, a time when many Norwegians were coming to America to build a new life. Her father, Sigrud Olsen Aasen, was born in Telemark, Norway, in 1858. Her mother, Ingeborg Ellefson Aasen, was born in Kandiyohi in 1864 to parents who had emigrated from Norway. Her parents began their farm life in Minnesota, but like many decided to take advantage of the Homestead Act. In 1896, they moved with five children, household belongings, and cattle in a boxcar on the Great Northern Railway to Minot. Here they staked claim and homesteaded 160 acres 10 miles north of town.
Mina was just 6 years old at the time of the move. She helped her mother cook, sew, wash clothes, shear sheep, card wool, spin it into yarn, and knit it into stockings, caps, and socks! Mina thought her mother did twice the work of her father and she was not fond of sewing or all the work that had to be done to keep a household running. Yet every day, her mother found the time to read the Bible and teach her children stories from it. Mina went to country school and graduated from the eighth grade. She was determined to make her own way.
In 1906, at 16, she joined her two sisters to look for work in Minot. The hospital laundry hired her to wash clothes. This wasn’t an easy job either, but the experience helped her gain more independence.
Her sisters and brothers married and began their families. In 1916, she and her sister Anne went to Montana to visit their sister Ida. Once again, Mina looked for work. At the Columbus Hospital in Great Falls, Mont., she received an offer to enroll in the School of Nursing—it was the last year they accepted students who had not graduated from high school. After two years of study, Mina graduated in 1918, and she was very happy with the course her life was taking.
World War I was happening, and Mina joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. She was assigned to the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. One can only imagine how she felt leaving her family for the East Coast. With the outbreak of the Spanish Flu epidemic, her new career as a nurse had meaning; as a determined women of 28, she was proud to do her duty.
For the next 23 years, Mina served in various military hospitals. In 1941, she was deployed to return to the Sternberg Hospital in Manila, where she’d served in the past. She traveled by ship, and upon her arrival was very happy to see old friends and familiar surroundings. At 51, now a 1st Lieutenant, she reflected how quickly the years had passed and looked forward to the work yet to come.
After only six months, in Manila, life changed dramatically. On Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed; just six hours later, the Japanese attacked the Philippines. Manila and its surrounding airfields on the islands were bombed. Without airpower, the naval ships and army fortifications on Bataan were no match for the Japanese invasion. The doctors and nurses had to immediately evacuate Sternberg Hospital, leaving most of their personal belongings behind. Not long after the evacuation, the hospital was bombed and burned to the ground.
In January 1942, the United States declared Manila an “open city” which meant the United States would give up defending it. The Japanese continued to bomb the city, and eventually the Americans left behind became POWs of the Japanese.
Two tar-paper roof makeshift hospitals were set up, known as Bataan #1 and Bataan #2. Working the best they could with limited supplies, the nurses and doctors cared for thousands of wounded soldiers and civilians. The Japanese continued to bomb them many times. The nurses were instructed to run for the foxholes in case of bombings, but they chose to stay by their patients. Perhaps they hated the biting ants in the foxholes more than the bombs.
Bataan was pure hell. One can only imagine the horrors Mina and the other nurses endured. They were not trained for combat and were the first U.S. women in uniform to serve in a combat zone. The conditions were horrible, and one wonders if Mina’s upbringing with parents who managed the difficulties of homesteading instilled in her a sense of survival and determination not to give up. Certainly her mother’s influence of reading the Bible must have helped her; she prayed a lot, and she felt God watched over her. Collectively, the nurses earned the nickname the “Angels of Bataan.”
These nurses who began as strangers quickly pulled together to survive and bring order to the makeshift hospitals. As POWs for three years, she and the other 65 nurses were at the mercy of the Japanese. They experienced malnutrition and were vulnerable to tropical diseases.
Eventually they were moved to the island of Corregidor. This was very difficult for them to do, and many felt guilty as they were forced to leave behind wounded soldiers, who ended up going on the Death March of Bataan. The so-called hospital on Corregidor was in dark, dank tunnels, poorly ventilated and with poor lighting. As POWs, they lived without usual necessities, ate worm-infested rice, and made soup from potato and banana leaves. The sanitary conditions were unbearable. Diseases and dysentery were at epidemic levels. Most lost 30 percent of their body weight.
The worst, most said, was not knowing what the next day would bring, as they had no news from the outside. They had little hope but tried to encourage each other. The third year of their imprisonment was the worst.
Mina did not remember where she got the cloth needle and thread, but she did manage to embroider a cloth with all the nurses’ names on it, as a remembrance in case they did not make it. She wanted to leave something behind to indicate who had been there. Mina, who had always hated sewing, did this to keep her sanity.
There are many horrific stories that document this period of time, including the Death March of Bataan. It was by sheer determination and helping each other that all 66 nurses survived. They were liberated in February of 1945; with emotions of disbelief and tears of joy, they greeted the soldiers who rescued them. When the Army raised the flag, they began to sing “God Bless America.”
The new Daughters of Norway lodge is proud to have Mina Aasen as its namesake. On Sept. 25, at 6 p.m., the Institution Ceremony of the Mina Aasen Lodge #55 will take place at the Zion Lutheran Church in Minot, N.D., where Mina herself once attended. Women of Nordic descent are encouraged to attend and join the lodge as a charter member. Please contact Jill Beatty at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.daughtersofnorway.org for more information.
Part two of Mina’s life will feature her life after liberation. References for this article were taken from, Memories of Mina, by Gladys E. Bruhn, Aasen’s niece.
This article originally appeared in the September 21, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.