PURE GRIT: A Story of Friendship and Courage

The holiday season is when I miss my family the most. It’s when I really notice the long distance between the States and Europe, where they all live. It is also the time of year when I am forever grateful of my friends and how much support and encouragement I gain from them. They have become my family and I lean heavily on them, especially my women friends.

And so it seems fitting that as we enter the frenzied holiday season, we take a small break and talk about PURE GRIT. An amazing book by author Mary Cronk Farrell that tells the story of how American World War II nurses survived battle and prison camp in the pacific. The courage of these women will astonish you and the strength of their friendship humble you.

I am very happy to welcome Mary to See Jane Publish for an interview about her thrilling and well researched book. One lucky commenter will win a signed copy of PURE GRIT, but first, here’s a blurb from Mary’s website:

Nine hours after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they attacked American bases in the Philippines. One hundred American military nurses stationed at those bases were hit with an on-onslaught of wounded and dying men–but the women had never been trained in combat medicine!

They had deployed to the Philippine Islands to enjoy a life of ease in a tropical paradise. But now, Army and Navy nurses rose to the occasion and learned combat nursing while bombs exploded around them.

When American forces retreated into the jungle, the women went ahead and set up combat hospitals. They were the first large group of American women ordered into combat. When American forces eventually surrendered on Bataan and Corregidor–the women were captured by the Japanese and 77 of them spent three years in prison camps before being liberated by General MacArthur’s men in 1945….PURE GRIT tells the story of these brave women’s survival through diaries, documents and rare historical photos. This little known story of courage and sacrifice will renew your faith in the resilience of the human mind, body and spirit.

And now, my interview with Mary:

1) Tell us a little about the events that lead up to you deciding to write this book.
I was trying to write fiction when I first heard about the WWII POW nurses. I’d been struggling after my first novel came out, having all sorts of doubts about whether I was real writer, and whether I should keep plugging away at it.
I knew instantly that these women’s story deserved to be told. I had never learned about women prisoners-of-war in school and I thought today’s kids should not suffer the same deficit. But writing the story would be the hugest research project I’d ever contemplated, so that kind of scared me and I put it on the back burner while I finished my novel. It was when my agent had no luck selling my novel that I found the courage to jump in and tackle this story. I didn’t know if my writing career would survive and I figured it might help to learn how these women survived their ordeals, which were much worse than anything in my life–months of nursing on the front battle lines, three years imprisonment, starvation, disease, homesickness and isolation

2) One of the nurses you wrote about was still alive when you started the book, but how did you go about finding sources to do the rest of the research?
I started by reading everything I could find that had been written about, or by, these women, which included a number of excellent books written for adults. After that I focused on trying to find family members of the nurses, which took a lot of tedious detective work, but luckily found that two of the nurses had daughters that lived right here in Washington State. I was thrilled to be able to visit with them in person and hear the story from their perspectives. I was also busy trying to dig up records of oral interviews with some of the nurses that had been conducted by the Department of Defense and the Army Nurse Corp. The U.S. Military History Department happened to be in the middle of moving their archives, so that slowed the process.

Ethel Thor assisting in surgery, Hospital No. 2, Bataan, P.I.  Credit: Annalee Whitmore Jacoby Fadiman

Ethel Thor assisting in surgery, Hospital No. 2, Bataan, P.I. Credit: Annalee Whitmore Jacoby Fadiman

For me gathering photographs was one of the most exciting parts of pulling together PURE GRIT. From the beginning I wanted the book to be accessible to many different types of readers and the photos were an important part of making that happen. It was thrilling when Army Nurse Ethel Thor’s daughters showed me photos their mother had taken during her time in the Philippines before the war, and then an action shot of her assisting in surgery at a field hospital during the Battle of Bataan. I also had a pretty big smile on my face when I visited the National Archives and dug through files of photos taken by the Army Signal Corp in those last desperate days before the Fall of Bataan and Corregidor.

Ethels daughters

Ethel Thor’s daughters: Carla Kingsbury, Linda Bradley, and Sandy Thor with author Mary Cronk Farrell.

3) What was the most surprising thing you found about these amazing women’s stories?
As I mentioned, the fact the Japanese captured 79 American women and held them POW for three years was a complete surprise to me, and then to find out that every single one of them survived—that just blew me away. As for their experiences in battle and prison camp—I need stronger words to describe my feelings—horrified, heartsick, and yet amazed and inspired. Maybe what surprised me the most in the end is how real these women became to me. Pouring over their words, pictures, the events they lived through, meeting family members, all of that served to bring them alive to me, and I’ve become really grateful for that.

4) Do you see echos of what the nurses experienced back then and what women in the middle of combat today deal with?
One thing that came up when I was speaking about PURE GRIT to some retired and active-duty military nurses was how the ability to improvise is an important skill in combat nursing. Medical supplies, technology and procedures have advanced exponentially since the start of WWII, but in crisis on the battlefield, nurses still have to be thinking on their feet, making do with what they have and figuring out how to do their job with compassion.

Unfortunately, another similarity is the difficulty veterans have returning to civilian life and coping with physical and emotional ramifications of military service. In 1945, these women did not get the help they needed. Today we understand so much more about Post Traumatic Stress, and still veterans may not be getting the help they need.

5) What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on final edits for a biography of Labor Organizer Fannie Sellins. In some ways her courage and compassion remind me of the POW nurses. She had that same ability to see a larger picture in the midst of suffering and choose to help others rather than focusing on herself.

When immigrant women earning poverty wages in St. Louis sweatshops voted to strike, Fannie was there. When destitute coal mining families dared to unionize in West Virginia—and got evicted from their homes—Fannie was there. When gunmen hired by mine owners threatened, beat and shot miners walking the picket line in Pennsylvania, Fannie was there. She stayed until she was killed in a hail of bullets, witnessed by some 60-people, the shooters were never brought to justice.


Thank you, Mary, for stopping by See Jane Publish. It was a pleasure to learn more about the writing process behind the book and more details about the amazing women featured in PURE GRIT.

Readers, for a chance to win a signed copy of PURE GRIT, tell us about an act of courage that you have witnessed or heard about. We’ll pick a winner through Random.org on at 7 PM PST on Sunday 12/21/14.

About Asa Maria Bradley

2016 Double RITA finalist, romance author, news junkie, physics instructor, and diver. Loves Norse mythology, ranch dressing, and cop shows. Lives with husband and rescue dog of indeterminate breed in Pacific Northwest. Represented by Sarah E. Younger of the Nancy Yost Literary Agency. Writers about sexy modern-day Vikings. More at www.asamariabradley.com and @AsaMariaBradley.

Posted on December 15, 2014, in Auth: Asa Maria Bradley and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. Sorry for picking the winner late. I’m in British Columbia, CA and had some trouble finding WiFi. Random.org has picked Julie Mulhern as the lucky winner of PURE GRIT. I’ll contact Julie via email to get a mailing addy.

    Thank you everyone for stopping by. The give-away is now closed.

    A HUGE thank you to Mary for writing such fabulous book and for answering all my questions about the project.

    Happy Holidays, everyone!


  2. Great author, fascinating topic, and I bet it’s a great book! Here’s an act of courage that is part of my husband’s family history: during the second World War, my husband’s grandfather, Helmuth von Moltke, was one of the leaders of a German resistance group that opposed the Nazi regime. He was eventually executed for treason. Although he certainly committed many acts of courage, he is not the person I’m writing about. His wife, Freya–my husband’s grandmother– faced heavy pressure after her husband’s death, first from the Nazi regime hunting for more ‘traitors’ to round up, then from the approaching Russian army. Nevertheless, she managed to preserve a large number of her husband’s documents, even hiding them in a beehive once to protect them from German soldiers. There were many letters and other records that documented both his life and the story of the German resistance. She brought these papers with her when she eventually fled to South Africa with her two small children. After the war ended, she worked tirelessly to make it known that there were German citizens who had opposed the Nazi regime and given their lives to fight against it; and she participated in lifelong efforts to bring about reconciliation between Germany and the countries that it had devastated, especially Poland.


    • Hi Mary,

      Wow, I’m so glad you took the time to write about Freya! That is the kind of woman who takes my breath away. I imagine the fear and grief she must have felt when her husband was captured and then executed, and if it were me, I think I would be rolling on the floor in hysterics and when I’d exhausted myself I would take to my bed and never get up. Even to just pick up her life and move on with her children would have been courage in my opinion, but she somehow she kept a wider view and had confidence that her resistance to evil was worth risking her life. Then moving on to reconciliation! Hearing stories like this makes me so proud to be a human being. We have such capacity for courage, such capacity for whole-heartedness.


    • Wow, Mary F. What a courageous woman. You should write a book about Freya.


  3. Thank you for making me aware of Pure Grit. I can’t wait to read it. I have been reading Kathryn J.Atwood’s books about World War heroines and this book seems to continue my interest in reading about women who served their countries with strength despite obstacles.


  4. I would Love to read Mary’s True Grit book. I can’t think of an act of courage. This book sounds really interesting!!


  5. As someone who loves the hidden corners of history, this book sounds amazing! If Mary is around, I was wondering what she thought of the National Archives. Is it easy for the average writer to access or did she have to jump through a lot of hoops?
    Thanks for inviting me over, Asa! Can’t wait to read Mary’s book. 🙂


    • Mary Cronk Farrell

      Hi Ellen, Thanks so much for your comment. I loved visiting the National Archives, and it is simple in the fact that you can pretty much show up one morning and jump through a couple quick hoops, get a research id card and your’re in. On the other hand, it is very time consuming finding things there. The more you know going in, the better you are. I just went for the second time and it was much easier having been through it before. If you know that what you’re looking for exists, you have a good chance of finding it fairly easily. If you’re on a treasure hunt to see what you can find…it is quite time consuming.


    • Thanks for stopping by, Ellen. Great question and do I detect that you may be working on a historical novel? 🙂


  6. What an amazing story! Thanks so much for not only grabbing the idea, but digging into the research and bringing this story to life, Mary Cronk Farrell! I had no idea any nurses had been POWs either. As for courage, I guess my story would be about my grandmother, who’s always been an amazingly strong woman. She was just in her twenties when she not only found my great-grandfather who had taken his own life, but as my great-grandmother found it difficult to handle some areas of life, grandma stepped in to care for her two younger siblings (she was the eldest of five, and practically raised the youngest), as well as working to help provide money for the home. It’s always reminded me of how resilient and amazing we can be when called on, probably stronger than we realize. 🙂


    • Mary Cronk Farrell

      Wow, yes! Your grandmother sounds amazing, and I’m sure there have been many women like her over the ages who have acted with great strength and wisdom and we don’t read about them in books. Not all courage comes out on the battlefield. Some incredible courage is lived out day to day outside the spotlight. Thanks for sharing about your grandmother. And I agree, that sometimes we don’t credit ourselves with the strength we have.


    • Shelly,

      Your grandmother sounds like an amazing woman. And you’re right about Mary’s research into the nurses’ stories being incredible.


  7. Sounds like a fascinating story, I will certainly put it on my reading list.


  8. What an amazing story. Like the other commenters, I had no idea that there were women POWs in WWII. The book sounds fascinating!


    • I didn’t either! Their stories are amazing. I can’t believe there isn’t more attention given to these brave women. Thank goodness for Mary’s book. 🙂


    • Mary Cronk Farrell

      Hi Julie, I had no idea American women were POWs in WWII, either. I was astounded when I first heard, and a little angry, too. I felt sort of betrayed by my education. Why hadn’t my teachers told me? Which is why I was so committed to getting the story out for kids. I say that I wrote it for girls and boys, but I really wrote it for girls. They deserve to have role models like this. Thanks for commenting.


  9. Wow – this book looks amazing! I had no idea the nurses were held for three years! Great interview, and I’m glad to be one of your friends here in the States. 🙂


  10. Thank you for posting with us today, Mary! What a fascinating story. I’ve never really had to face any moments that called for true courage. I think that makes it even more important that these stories not be lost as that generation passes.


    • I so agree, Jessa! That’s one of the reasons why I think PURE GRIT is so amazing. I had no idea about these women’s stories until I read the book. Most WWII stories about combat, courage, and surviving POW camps are about the soldiers.


    • Mary Cronk Farrell

      Thanks Jessa. Nice to meet you via the blog. Yes, our lives seem pretty soft compared to those women. Small moments of courage are important, too, and you probably have some of those. Little daily moments of courage can add up to a courageous life on the whole.


  11. I know the feeling only too well with all my family in England while I am in Canada. Sitting all together for gift opening and the turkey meal is a bonding experience we miss so much. Skype can give us a glimpse but it is not the same.


  12. Mary Cronk Farrell


    Thank you for featuring PURE GRIT on the blog today! And I especially like that you’ve hit on the strong friendships that developed between these nurses during their ordeal together. It really is my friends that get me through hard times, as well, and I’m so happy to have met your and count you as one of them! Your enthusiasm is catching and a wonderful gift to our writing community. Happy Holidays!


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