Stella Bain And Pure Grit

By Major Van Harl USAF Ret

Stella Bain
Stella Bain, fiction by Anita Shreve
AmmoLand Gun News
AmmoLand Gun News

Wisconsin –-(  I read two books this weekend, one Stella Bain, fiction by Anita Shreve ( ) and Pure Grit, non-fiction by Mary Cronk Farrell (

Both books dealt with the same subject: women and war.

One book had the objective to entertain the reader and the other to tell the true stories of women and combat. Both books were about women who go to war as healers and caregivers—nurses.

In Stella Bain, the main character is an American woman who while dealing with her own family drama, volunteers to serve the British Army military medical system as a nursing assistant and frontline combat ambulance driver. She, Stella is there trying to find and receive forgiveness from an old family friend who has been morally and criminally wronged by Stella’s abusive husband. After being reunited with her old friend she witnesses him as a patient with serious head injuries being treated in the field hospital she works in.

While dealing with the reality that her friend may die of his wounds and was only on the battlefields of France in 1915 because he needed to escape the life altering mess Stella and her family had created for him, she herself is wounded and loses her memory.

Pure Grit is the true account of US Army and Navy nurses who were serving in the peace time Philippine Islands prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Life is good for these women before 7 Dec 1941. They were military officers, so they got paid more than the average nurse did back in the States. They went to parties at the officers club and had Filipino maids take care of their every need. If they wanted, they had the pick of any good looking young officer who walked into the club. They worked hard to provide good medical care to the Soldiers, Sailors and dependent family members stationed in the Philippines. However, it was peace time, and the worst medical trauma they dealt with was the occasional body damaging accident that always happens when the military is training but not actually at war.

Pure Grit
Pure Grit

The Japanese attacked the Philippines, and the good times had on the sun swept beaches of those islands ended forever for the American military nurses. Within hours of the attack, the entire US medical system was overwhelmed. Through months of combat, the US and Philippine forces were worn down and forced to surrender to the Japanese. The military nurses became prisoners of war / POWs, held at the mercy of a brutal enemy.

The maltreatment and starvation at the hands of the Japanese started immediately and progressively got worse. The nurses were placed in a detention facility with civilians, not with their military male counterparts who were held in POW camps. Some of the civilian detainees felt that since the nurses were in a career field of service, they should continue to “serve” the detainees as un-paid employees rather than be treated as fellow victimized captives. Continuing death and the inability of the nurses to stop it was an underlying theme of both books.

In Pure Grit, it was factual accounts of real military and civilians suffering and dying with no relief in sight. In Stella Bain, it was fiction, but the author had done careful research on WWI British and French front line combat medicine. The character Stella loses her memory due to what later in the book is diagnosed as shell shock we would now readily identify this as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Something, that at the time in 1915, only men in combat were supposed to be presenting with to the military medical system.

Thousands of women experienced death and destruction up close and personal in WWI but they were after all “only women” and not really in combat. Women were not taken seriously or offered mental health treatment in the aftermath of WWI.

Sadly for the POW nurses of the Philippine occupation, this was also the case. They came home to the US, given clean new uniforms, back pay, a few promotions, metals and photo ops and then sent on their way into the peace time world that knew nothing of women in combat. Hysteria was an easy category to place the women into. These women had fought so hard to keep their fellow soldiers alive as the bombs dropped onto field hospitals. These women were healers, but in so many cases all they could do was hold the hand of a sailor as he waited to die. And then these brave women were expected to just go home and be normal wives, sisters, mothers and all around nice gentle female citizens living the good life of peace time America—until the next time.

The Colonel is a retired military nurse and the daughter is a third year nursing major with potential to be a future military nurse. We must do better for our returning female veterans because there will always be–a next time.

Major Van Harl USAF Ret. / [email protected]

About Major Van Harl USAF Ret.:Major Van E. Harl USAF Ret., a career Police Officer in the U.S. Air Force was born in Burlington, Iowa, USA, in 1955. He was the Deputy Chief of police at two Air Force Bases and the Commander of Law Enforcement Operations at another. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Infantry School.  A retired Colorado Ranger and currently is an Auxiliary Police Officer with the Cudahy PD in Milwaukee County, WI.  His efforts now are directed at church campus safely and security training.  He believes “evil hates organization.”  [email protected]

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Harold Altman

God bless these women. Like my brother who was in the Army during WWII many of them have passed without a proper “Thank You.” These women performed a primary role during before, during and after wars. Th all of them I say Thank You!