(6) Writing Historical Fiction: Surviving in the Bataan Jungle

From January through April 1942, the Japanese attacked from the sky and sent waves of soldiers screaming “Banzai” throughout the Bataan Penninsula. The focus of Chapter 3 returns to the perspective of Barbara Kiss, one of two protagonists in the third manuscript “The Lost Sisters of Bataan”. Boxed in at Hospital No. 2, the hospital wards snaked 2.5 miles along the Read River hiding over two thousand patients. What was it like for the nurses, doctors, Filipino civilians, and natives to survive the invasion?

Theresa Kaminski’s book Angels of the Underground is a thorough account of four fascinating women who shared a wanderlust itch to better themselves and who embraced the adventure of their own decisions. They benefited from living as ex-patriots in Colonial Manila living in villas or nice apartments with a maid or cook. After the invasion of Manila, women were ordered to leave the Philippines, but these four chose to stay behind and help. They participated in the Manila underground. They smuggled food, medicine, and money to POWs. They earned their nicknames as the “Angles of Bataan” and their personal stories are nothing short of miraculous. Great! What’s that got to do with my manuscript and how does it help me create the historical climate?

As I imagine the fictional sisters, Barbara and Zorka Kiss into life, as well as Kay Weese the pilot from the second novel Inside the Gold Plated Pistol, there are times when their mere movement creates plausibility concerns. How did the nurses, Red Cross volunteers, and ex-patriots arrive and how did they remain on the beleaguered island of Luzon?

Peggy Utinsky, widowed at twenty and with a small child, looked for a long, exotic vacation and made the three week trip on a ship. She found steady employment on a beautiful island. Six months turned to a year and then two before the Pearl Harbor attack and the Japanese takeover of the Philippines. Claire Phillips had an infant daughter. She went back and forth on a merchant ship or military ship to Seattle and the Philippines before the war began. She saw Manila as a chance to become famous and worked in exotic dance clubs while a Filipino girl named Lolita took care of her daughter. Gladys Slaughter Savary found the Philippines by way of Paris and South America. Beautiful and popular in the European immigrant community, she had a hell of a time in Shanghai and Peking. She married a Frenchman who was an American Engineer and was sent to Manila to help with various projects. They bought a villa and opened a French restaurant. By the time of the Japanese attack, her marriage had failed. Her husband left. She ran her restaurant and helped with the underground. Yay Panlilio‘s roots were Filipino. Her mother stowed away on a ship bound for San Franciso migrating to Denver and married an Irish-American. As a child, Yay lived in tenements, boxcars, and ranch shacks. All Yay wanted to do was be a journalist. She had three young children while working for The Philippines Herald and broadcasted the news on radio station KZRH. Wearing bold pantsuits and exercising her relentless pursuit of stories in the Philippines, she stayed on the island and assisted rogue bands of American-Filipino soldiers who hid on the island. I highly recommend reading this masterfully researched account in Angels of the Underground. As single women with children, they crisscrossed the Pacific, anyway they could get there. Their details lend plausibility to the actions of the fictitous Barbara, Zorka, and Kay.

Barbara Kiss and the ensemble at Hospital No. 2 borrowed the anecdotes from various diaries and letters and situations from Mary Cronk Farrell‘s Pure Grit & Kaminski’s Angels of the Underground. The detailed chronology of Hospital No.1 & 2 and the evacuation to the “The Rock”, Malinta Tunnel, built in the 1920s on Corregidor Island is fascinating. On April 9, 1942, seventy thousand American and Philippine men surrendered unconditionally to the Japanese Imperial Army. Barbara is part of the evacuation and the details of her retreat to Corregidor island will be the focus in a future post.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3

Barbara elected to drive. Kay sat in the passenger seat holding on to the sides of the jeep as it bounced around ruts in the road. The Filipino Scout carried a Springfield rifle and holstered an M1911 pistol. Barbara glanced at the yellow shoulder patch with the red carabao when the road evened out. She asked the Filipino Scout his name. When he replied, she wondered, “Corporal Ramos. Where am I going?” 

He was frowning up at the branches above their heads. “Just drive. I’ll let you know when to turn.” 

Kay looked back over her shoulder at him. Then to Barbara, “Don’t worry, I remember how to get there. It’s not far–maybe eight kilometers away.”

Barbara was nervous. Thirty feet above them, a screeching family of long-tailed macaque leaped from gnarly Balete trees to papaya trees to moss-covered vines. They followed the jeep as shadows rustling through the vegetation. A papaya the size of a melon fell on the narrow road in front of them. Barbara had a creepy sensation the drop was intentional. A brown hairy ball missed the hood of the jeep by inches. Barbara swerved.  

She asked Ramos, “Was that a coconut?” 

“No. Brazil Nut. Speed up. They’re angry.” 

Barbara tried to calm down. Distract yourself. She looked at Kay Weese’s calm demeanor. Maybe if she chatted, she would be able to copy Kay’s nonchalant manner. “Kay, how’d you wind up in the Philippines?” 

She looked at the tip of her braid examining the dead ends, oblivious to the jostling vehicle. “I’ve been a civilian pilot for years. When the war broke out, I opted for the Red Cross. I’m assigned to transport troops and supplies. I help out however I can.”

“How did you end up in Manila?” 

“By accident, really. It took me a couple years to get here. I was on a passenger run carrying medical staff to Sternberg Hospital in Manila. Everyone talked about the upcoming war. When the Japs bombed the shit out of the city, I heard about the evacuation into the jungle. Then I heard some scuttlebutt about Lt. Nesbit. She was looking for a pilot who would smuggle in the wish list for the personnel at Hospital 2. So, I volunteered.”  

A Brazil nut pod the size of a softball hit Barbara on her forehead. She skidded into the ditch. Ramos leaped out of the jeep. Kay leaned to the right and rolled out. Barbara sat up and swallowed hard. The vertigo was intense. There was no mistake–the macaques laughed at her. Barbara thought I never knew they were bullies! No wonder the Japs are caricatured as monkeys.  Kay and Ramos helped her into a standing position. The leaves dipped and the branches flapped.  Barbara was overcome with anger. She wasn’t one for profanity but having heard a steady dose of it since her enlistment, it felt good to expel her fear and frustration through a tirade. She didn’t want to cry, but her eyes filled, and she found herself gasping to control her emotions. Her head was bleeding. She probably had a concussion. 

Kay said, “Come on, I better drive.” 

Ramos aimed his rifle and shot into the leaves. A large male beast fell to the ground gasping, its wild eyes bulging. The tail writhed and slapped the packed dirt. Barbara turned away and heaved.  

Kay frowned at Ramos with disapproval. “Don’t piss them off any more than they already are. Come on, let’s get out of here.” 

Thanks for reading! 

 

31 Comments on “(6) Writing Historical Fiction: Surviving in the Bataan Jungle

  1. Cindy the people who went through that experience whether military or civilians suffered horrendously under the occupation. I lived in the Philippines for a while and stories were still active in the minds of the grandchildren of those sufferers. Those soldiers who volunteered to melt into the jungles and work with Philippines resistance were very brave indeed. There was always the danger of being sold out by villagers who were tortured beyond endurance to try and get information as to where the insurgents were located so they had to move frequently. Writing about these war experiences is profitable in that people become aware of just how horrible it is for civilians when nations go to war with each other.

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  2. You are doing an outstanding job and I can’t wait for the finished product of your labors!!
    Just a note…Japanese forces yelled “Tenno Haika Banzai!” (long live the emperor, ten thousand ages!). The charge was a last-ditch attack because it almost always was performed once …
    Stay safe, Cindy!

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  3. What a fascinating yet dangerous time – I look forward to seeing how these empowered characters manage to survive under such conditions.

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    • I am astounded every time I dive back into their narratives for details. I thought in the 1930s and 40s that migrating, traveling to exotic locations from the states would have been unlikely. I was suprised how persistent these everyday women got around! I wish I could jump on a ship and travel to the Philippines.

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  4. Great post 🙂 Quite a story – my heart aches for these women in the story. I know this might sound like a copout sentiment, but why can’t everybody treat each other with respect and turn away from not only hurtful behavior, but deadly behavior as well in this case? Make no mistake, they are strong, as I have just read in the story – one just wishes that they did not have to worry whether they were going to die everyday. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

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  5. It’s fortunate and, I suspect, rare to have such rich material to draw on. To all intents and purposes these women would be called ‘ordinary’. Certainly not in it for the glory and just trying to carve out an existence in exceptional times. And raising their children in amongst it all! It’s tremendous that you’re capturing their lives in your own book and I look forward to reading more of your work!

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    • That means a lot, Sarah as I respect your intellect and talents. I imagined 1930s,40s moving about the globe to abandon a past or begin a new life was restricted compared to say today’s conveniences, traditions, and technology. Over and over I’m reminded how adventuresome people were. I know migration is a recurring theme in US/Global history. Somehow figuring out a way, often spontaneously “winging it” to cross the globe to the Pearl of the Orient was more common than I suspected. Taking a toddler with you seems reckless to me now.

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      • Such kind words, thank you. I think we have similar interests and so it’s great to be able to get caught up in someone else’s enthusiasm! I’m in total awe of these women, I really am. I remember travelling to the US with my son when he was 3. That was stressful enough and with all the modern conveniences of travel! We took him again when he was 18. Certainly much easier! I think it’s so important that we’re reminded of these stories and I love the fact they’re being rediscovered and retold. I’ve inadvertently touched on those themes in my writing and it’s amazing what people will endure. So often we hear these stories from a male perspective – which are absolutely 100% valid – but it’s also great to hear more about these fearless women!

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        • The nurses were the first women who served in combat zones. They broke a lot of conventions and expectations. Silently. After the war, they were ignored. I’m honored to learn by them and show their ability to be brave and survive. It is in us all, deeply buried, but it’s there!
          I find the irony of devastation begets the will to live while convenvience begets a softness that hurts the alertness inherit in us. Passivity. Our Achilles tendon.

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  6. One of the hardest things for me to understand was that there are people in this world that are just plain evil. They have no compassion for others.
    On the other hand we have many wonderful people who serve(d) in so many ways – often completely selflessly – and in complete anonymity – only now are some of their stories being told. Not that they cared. They did it out of love and because it was necessary and the right thing to do. Carry on.
    Thank You.

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    • My pleasure. They inspire me. Everytime I start to whine or wimper, I think of the ladies serving (and getting little recognition for their unselfishness) and I shut right up. My mother told me right before she passed, “You’re stronger than you think you are.” She comes from a generation of women who made their way without any help. That’s one part of WW2 that I like. Yes, yes, the horror, the horror! But out of the horror came the heroics from every day people. That survival instinct is in all of us, deeply buried, but it’s there. It is ironic that it takes a devestating war for the best of humanity to rise to the surface and show us how it’s done.

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