Book 3: WWII research, POW Nurses, Bataan

Nurses of Bataan

While conducting research about the American WWII nurses who survived battle and prison camp in the Pacific, Mary Cronk Farrell’s Pure Grit is informative and detailing. In January 1941, orders are given for the U.S. Army General Hospital no.2, to move ten miles down a narrow trail deep into the jungle to create a convalescent hospital. Japanese bombs drop forcing the emergency evacuation. Carrying their supplies, their blankets, their dirty pots and pans to escape, nurses, doctors and patients trek ten miles to the new site.

Real-life Josephine Nesbit is the head nurse of over seventy Filipino and U.S. nurses who work tirelessly to attend to soldiers. This is only one part of the recollections of American nurses in Pure Grit. They who dodged bombing, improvised medicine, survived the trials of retreat, hid on Corregidor Island, and starved at Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, 1941-1943.

In this time of U.S. History, Book 3 of my twentieth-century series gives life to a new character. She is Barbara Kiss, a Jewish nurse from Minneapolis, Minnesota who serves as a WAC in the Philippines. Barbara Kiss becomes a fictionalized part of history. Here is an introduction to Barbara:

January 1941

Barbara repositioned her sitting position on a boulder at the edge of the Read River. She used rocks and sand to scrub a dirty kitchen pot not washed because of the emergency evacuation. The air was balmy, and the trickle of the water moving over her toes was calming. She glanced around at the palms, the Mahogany trees, the bamboo groves, and thickets of jungle vines. Under different circumstances, she might have thought Bataan was an exotic oasis. She indulged herself to daydream about her life back in Minnesota. 

Barbara Kiss loved her name. It was the only pretty thing about herself. With a pudgy nose and thick eyebrows, she believed she looked too manly. People told her she had expressive eyes and a funny personality, but when she saw her reflection, she saw frizzy hair the color of a mud puddle. She was built like a poyer and looked like her grandmother in Budapest who suffered from leg ulcers that wouldn’t heal. No men kissed Barbara. She was 30 and becoming exactly what her mother feared, a spinster.  

Barbara was proud of her intellect. What she lacked in looks she compensated with brainpower. How easy it was to sail through school with top grades. She possessed an aptitude for understanding the Latin classics. She savored the images created in Dante’s Inferno. She contemplated the themes in Shakespeare’s tragedies, memorized the poetry of the British Romantics, and wept for Jane Eyre. She admired Ben Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain. For the last decade, her mother whined that Barbara wasted too much time reading when she should focus on obtaining a husband. To quieten her and increase the odds, nursing became a logical career choice. Barbara rationalized if men wouldn’t come to her, she would go to them. Barbara graduated first in her class at the University of Minnesota in 1939. She joined the Woman’s Army Corps to the dismay of her mother who had begged her to join the local Red Cross or assist her father with his dental practice. She told Barbara to encourage the affections of David Goldfarb, a widower from 14th Avenue and stay in the neighborhood. Barbara grasped the irony that she did not want a man who was old and ugly. Getting assigned to the Philippines felt like a blessing, initially.  

As a WAC, she was surrounded by hundreds of men, and they all wanted her. Eyes followed her as she made her way from ward to ward, bed to bed. It was immaterial to soldiers that she looked nothing like Hedy Lamarr or Carol Lombard. She felt their gratitude when she held their hand or listened to them talk about their lives. Many of her patients looked like petrified boys. She gave them what they wanted which was a shot of morphine and an embrace with maternal eyes. Her brand of intimacy with men was unusual, albeit it was a real connection. Was this how mothers felt for their suffering sons combined with the affinity married couples shared? Barbara felt a kinship with the soldiers in an unquestioning, safe way. Like a Jewish nun.   

As the oldest child in the Kiss family, Barbara understood her mother more than her two brothers and her little sister, Zorka. The move in 1910 to Minneapolis had been too much for Margit Kiss. Barbara grew up listening to her complain about her new life in Minnesota. After thirty years in her “new” life, Margit longed for the old one back in Budapest. Most days she wrote letters to her sister or to her bedridden mother. Barbara’s anya felt two emotions. Guilt for leaving her sister and mother behind and anger toward her husband for dragging her to Minneapolis while pregnant with Barbara. The Depression hadn’t helped. The Kiss savings dwindled as patients had no money to pay to fix their teeth. During the 1920s and 30s, Barbara grew up alert and strong while her mother turned querulous and shrank. Margit puffed when she breathed and fretted like a hen trying to keep her four chicks in line of sight. She manifested the habit of grabbing Barbara’s arm as if she were in a perpetual state of unbalance. Her dependence on Barbara was nerve-wracking, so reading books had been a way to escape.  

The quiet moment at the stream ended when Barbara heard the whistle of bombs dropping and the ground grumble. From the dark recess of the trail from where they had come, the head nurse, Josie Nesbit, appeared. “Come on, girls. We need to move. Now.”

Barbara rushed to dry her feet and tie her shoes. She stood and pushed the thoughts of her family away. She lifted the stretcher with her friend Laura on the other end. They were part of a group assigned to transport mess supplies. Moving quickly, Barbara and Laura stuffed towels around the metal pans to keep them quiet. In the rush, someone chucked a Red Cross package filled with cans of evaporated milk, tins of dried meat and apricots on to the stretcher. Her shoulder muscles pulled, but Barbara did her best to ignore the prickle of pain. Nesbit said they had a few miles more to go, and they would be out of immediate danger. Far enough away from Hospital No. 1, to where Army bulldozers had cleared a space in the jungle for them to set up a camp and a makeshift hospital for the overflow of casualties…

Thank you for reading!

53 Comments on “Book 3: WWII research, POW Nurses, Bataan

      • Not related to your story if it’s in the pacific, but she was in Normandy at the Battle of Falaise, Belgium when Market Garden was going on, then home for a while and then shipped to India looking after guys who were in the Burma campaign and getting ready from the invasion of Japan, which didn’t happen.

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      • They sure were different than today’s generations. I’m hearing about ‘dealing with end-of-decade depression’. I’m sorry, but I’ve never even heard of THAT!! 🙂

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          • So I am at the airport getting ready to head back to Illinois to see Mom. As if on cue, there was a man with a WWII hat on. We were going through security. So many feelings ambushed me and I could not believe, there I was putting my shoes back on crying!
            1. This 90+ year old walked through security check.
            2. Here was a living piece of history, a primary document, a holy relic.
            3. I was just out of reach to thank him for his service.
            4. Without the men and women who served in WWII, how different would our world be today if the Axis powers won?
            5. This man is a person who probably feels pretty ordinary. Who knows what kind of life he led after the war? Judging by the family surrounding him, I suspect I am not the only one who feels he is extraordinary.
            Ah, the choices one makes in life determines one path on life. However long, however short, doing one’s duty matters.
            Ok, enough. Off to blow my nose…

            Liked by 1 person

  1. Can’t wait for more. She sounds like a great character. Just an aside, in the 30’s and 40’s, Minneapolis had a crime syndicate under Kid Caan, it was called the Jewish Mafia.
    One of the kindest, warmest man I ever met had survived the Death March.

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      • North side of MPLS still today consists of neighborhoods proud of their ethnic backgrounds. As far as stories my friend might have told, he never talked about it. In fact I did not know he had been in the horror of the march and death camp until his funeral.

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          • I know the research for the novel can’t wait but it would be great if you visited the TC in the spring or summer and see the beauty of the lakes and parks. A bit of trivia: the hottest sister act leading up to and into the War was the Andrew Sisters from MPLS. Not Jewish but their 1st big hit was different lyrics set to a Jewish melody.

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          • Another bit: At the south side of Hennepin County, MPLS, is the VA Hospital and also Fort Snelling, which was the location of the first US Army Japanese language school

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  2. They don’t make them like that anymore, as the old saying goes.
    Doughty, and resolute.
    (As an aside, I like to see you sidebar photo that says you are ‘happy today’. 🙂 )
    Best wishes, Pete. x

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  3. I first learned about the nurses while watching the 1943 film Cry Havoc, a fictionalized account of what these brave nurses went through. I would love to know more about this much-neglected piece of history.

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  4. She was not a nurse, but I wonder if you have ever read any of the things Martha Gellhorn wrote. If not, you might find her work both interesting and useful.

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  5. Having visited Philippines on business over ten years and then lived south of Manila for a brief time at a university I have a good mental image of those jungles. Too many of our brave service men and women suffered terribly in Asia during the occupation and if it hadn’t been for Macarthur we would probably be speaking Japanese today as a minority enslaved people. We are greatly indebted to his leadership in the war. It has been a privilege for me to stand next to the memorial of Macarthur’s take off location for the return fight in Jayapura Irian Jaya and reflect on the bravery of those who took the fight back to the Pacific and won.

    Ian Grice ianscyberspace@outlook.com Ianscyberspace.com

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    • Hi Abbi. Thanks so much! I’m having fun learning about these lovely ladies. I don’t know how they survived, but they did. Thank you for reading.

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    • Hiya, Bill. Oh, I can’t help but see the film version when I write. I thought about when I get the 6 books done, it would make for a great season series. I find it wonderful all that I’m learning about them and others–even something as mundane as Malaria. The lengths the Army went to to get soldiers to take their Atabrine tablets which made them glow yellow. I’m going to a post on it all soon. The bottom line is there was a propoganda posters, etc., which featured Malaria Moe getting attacked by mosquitoes with stingers the size of bayonets. Anyway, I have been tossing around the idea of the novel’s title : “The Yellow Glow on Malaria Moe”

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    • OH, wow! Welcome, Sheensya. I would be glad to know all about Bataan. Especially any stories you might recollect concerning relatives who experienced the Japanese invasion and American presence.

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  6. My parents had a friend, Hazel Carlson, who was a nurse imprisoned in the Philippines in WWII. I was fortunate to meet her, but only once before she passed.

    And right now I’ve just started And If I perish by Evelyn Monohan.
    Happy I found your site.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Welcome aboard, Susan! Thanks very much for finding my blog and commenting. Hazel! What a fab name. I’m going to use it in novel 3. I’m scouring NARA for primary accounts of Hospital No. 2 in the Phillipines. Any notes or accounts regarding Hazel Carlson would be a treasure. Stay tuned. I have an upcoming post about the research and story I’m crafting.

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