Belle was nine-months pregnant when the Japanese Army took her husband prisoner. She was a military wife in the Philippines in 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
At the time Americans feared the Japanese would invade the west coast of their homeland. That didn't happen in Washington, Oregon, California or Alaska. But the Japanese did invade the Philippines where American forces were woefully unprepared.
The story of the American surrender to the Japanese and the U.S. military nurses taken POW is told in my book Pure Grit.
But today's story focuses on one young woman, expecting her fourth child, who got horrible news. Her husband was one of 75-thousand starving and disease-stricken soldiers, U.S. and Filipino, forced to surrender to the Japanese Imperial Army.
I cannot imagine what went through Belle Valentine's mind. On the one hand, her husband was alive. But could he stay alive while a prisoner of an army known for its brutality? The Japanese had utter contempt for soldiers who would surrender rather than fight to the death. I know one thing. Belle was determined to do everything in her power to save him.
In the hours after the Americans surrendered on the main Philippine Island of Luzon, rumors swept through the villages about what was happening to the captured troops. One proved to be true, and would be forever remembered as the Bataan Death March.
Belle Valentine became an army nurse in WWII, but, as mentioned above, she was a mother with her hands full, when she heard what had happened to her husband. The Japanese forced their captives to begin a 65-mile march in the hot, dry season, and provided no food or water.
Belle's husband, Henry Butler Valentine, fought in the U.S. army in the Philippines under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, which had been under siege since Japanese troops invaded just before Christmas. MacArthur flew off the island to safety in early March, promising he would return with reinforcements.
No reinforcements came, and by the first week of April, American forces were running out of food, drinkable water and ammunition. Left in charge, Major General Jonathan Wainwright feared a full-scale massacre was imminent when he decided, against MacArthur's orders, to surrender.
As the captives started their saga, tens of thousands of men prodded on by armed guards, Belle, made her way to the route and began searching for her husband.
Belle located her husband and followed the throng of prisoners giving him what food and water she could. Many civilians tried to aid the marchers, but the Japanese guards could be extremely harsh, beheading men for the least offense, shooting those who fell behind or stopped for water.
Belle stuck near her husband until she went into labor and had to fall back to give birth, not in a hospital or even at home, but in the Bataan jungle. She had a healthy baby boy and set off to catch up with her husband. She was able to find him again and tell him he had a son named after him, Henry Butler Valentine, Jr. Belle never saw her husband again.
The forced march from the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula to Camp O'Donnell as the north end, took ten days in relentless heat and suffocating dust. Some 10,000 men died on the march. Belle's husband survived but died weeks later in the horrible conditions of the pow camp. Some 26,000 Filipino soldiers and 1,500 Americans died of starvation and disease at Camp O'Donnell. The photo below shows prisoners working a burial detail at Camp O'Donnell.
Belle joined the Philippine resistance, though little is known of her activities during the three years of the Japanese occupation. When Americans liberated the Philippines and US forces returned to Luzon, Belle worked as a nurse in the U.S. Medical Corps rising to the rank of Captain.
At this point, I've not been able to find details about the rest of her life. Her son Henry "Sonny" Valentine grew up and moved to the U.S. living for some time in Dillingham, Alaska. Belle lived into her 70s in Manila.
When I was pregnant with my first baby, I worked as a TV news reporter and stayed on the job the night before my baby was born, reporting live for the 11pm news while in early labor. That is not in the same universe as Belle Valentine's courageous effort to save her husband. Stories of unsung heroines like Belle can help put our own lives in perspective.
I'm fascinated to discover little-known stories from history. Stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
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