FAST BACKWARD: Davao’s forgotten war heroines

World War II, more than anything else, produced exceptional achievements under pressure. Many of those who shone against the backdrop of threat were women whose medical professions underscored their importance in times of injury and near-death trauma. They are what some writers call as ‘special patriots.’

John D. Lukacs, in Escape from Davao (2010), poignantly wrote a nurse whose heroic contributions to prisoners of war at the Davao Penal Colony was more than just a story of courage, but also a haunting passion to save lives even at the expense of her security. She was given the moniker of ‘Florence Nightingale of Dapecol.’

“Not long after the Campo clan [headed by patriarch Lt. Col. Anastacio] evacuated to Dapecol. The nineteen-year-old nursing school graduate was called by the Japanese to work at the Filipino hospital. When the Americans arrived, the ye-catching raven-tressed [Fely] Campo responded to her own orders. She threw quinine pills into the wire stockade and smuggled needles to doctors by sewing them in the hemlines of her skirts. She conspired with a chaplain to clothe the prisoners, giving the priest shirts, which he layered beneath his cassock and distributed during services. Few prisoners learned her real name, but Campo’s sobriquet—the ‘Florence Nightingale of Dapecol’—proved that her daring efforts were greatly appreciated.”

After the war, Fely married Dr. Jose Yap, a physician and surgeon who served the Special Intelligence Detachment, Tenth Military District, at Gatungan, Davao City, under Captain Adolph Ernest Sternberg Jr., the commanding officer.

Meanwhile, in Davao City, another petite woman similarly braved the odds, defied the Japanese, linked with the American prisoners of war, clandestinely distributed medicines, and treated Filipinos hunted by the Imperial Army. Her courage earned her the name ‘Angel of Mercy’ from many postwar articles written about his courage, heroism, and steadfastness.

Born in Santa Ana, Manila, Dr. Sexon (nee Baldomera Raymundo Esteban) earned her Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of the Philippines on April 4, 1917, one of 22 graduates that year. She later joined the American Red Cross, where she worked until 1926; she was also a member of the Women’s Medical Association.

The following year she moved to Davao to join the DMH. On the side, the Centro de Puericultura de Davao took her as attending physician, along with two other doctors, Socorro C. Belisario and Pedro Santos, who was also connected with the hospital. Official documents showed she served the center until 1931 before deciding to transfer to the DMH. She was also connected with the Centro de Puericultura de Daliaon where she was succeeded by Dr. Irineo B. Bringas as attending physician in 1930.

It was at the DMH that the lady doctor earned her spurs as a respected physician-surgeon. Her official biography when she received the Datu Bago Awards in 1970 concisely depicted her humanitarian efforts: “For someone her size, scarcity over four feet tall, with a delicate frame, she took a lot on her frail shoulders during the first years with the hospital, working long hours, sometimes round the clock, catching catnaps during lulls between patients.”

Before the war broke out, she married Leocadio Sexon, a dentist, but the union was childless. The couple adopted a boy but he was later found to have a disability. When the spouse died from stroke, she decided to leave the DMH and devoted herself to other endeavors, including the founding of Brokenshire School of Nursing. In her honor, the school’s auditorium was named in her memory. She was tragically killed by a burglar in her residence in April 1980.

To her credit, she received a string of distinguished honors from various prestigious institutions, namely: ‘Most Outstanding Physician’ (1966) from the Davao Medical Society; UP Alumni Award (1967); ‘Golden Service Award’ (1971 & 1977) from the Philippine Mental Health Association; and a ‘Plaque of Appreciation’ (1976) from the Rotary Club of South Davao.

But heroism was not exclusive to the Filipino women.

Born in Australia, Masue Masuda, the daughter of migrants Umejiro Masuda and Moyo Facumori, who arrived in Manila in 1916 but decided later to join an elder sister in Davao who was married to a Japanese photographer.

In Davao, Masue, who was an alumna of the Tokyo Higher Normal School diploma, taught Nihingo to plantation kids. She was later joined by mother and two siblings migrated in Davao after her father died. During the war, Masue, who later married a Filipino, acted as interpreter of the Kempetai, the wicked Japanese police, saving hundreds of civilians from brutality.

Heroism was not confined merely to having survived the perils of war. The conflict that ravaged Davao City also took a toll on the reputation and lives of other women harmed with enemy impunity. Some nuns even became victims of sexual abuse in the same way that wives of prominent Davao residents were forced into slavery as ‘comfort women.’

Unlike Fely Campo and Baldomera Esteban who were spared from the trauma of being brutalized amid dangers of being executed by bayonet if discovered, the ordeal, pain, and torment the nameless Davao maidens suffered in enemy hands was double-barreled. They were humiliated without recourse while undergoing physical violation!