This is my dedication novel to the women and men of World War II in the Pacific theater. Your questions and comments are welcome!
Hospital No. 2 sprawled outward in size as patients arrived each day. On the third morning, the bombing intensified, and the nurses braced themselves for a grueling wave of incoming casualties. Barbara overheard Lt. Nesbit’s sorrowful tone of resignation. To Sgt. Dulay, Nesbit said, “No more distant bombing. No rear areas. We are backed into a corner.”
Donning an apron and face mask, XO Fox motioned Lt. Nesbit to bring the incoming patients to the surgical tent from the staging area. Pointing to Barbara and Laura, Nesbit ordered, “Kiss and Wolfe. You’re with me.” Barbara gathered the surgical equipment to be sanitized. She put them in a steel drum pressure cooker over a Bunsen burner. Barbara organized the clean gowns, linen, gauze, towels, and swabs. Lt. Nesbit ordered Laura to get the morphine shots ready. Wolfe gently sharpened the needle tips on a smooth, round stone. She boiled the water and sanitized the needles. Into the glass syringe, she dropped a morphine tablet and watched it dissolve. She repeated the process until her movements were swift and efficient. All the while, the Japanese planes buzzed above while the angry dialogue in the trees above reminded Barbara of Beth El Synagogue elders disapproving of changes suggested by the young Rabbi, David Aronson.
Medics worked around the surgical tables, delivering patients and carting them away to convalesce. A truck arrived at the triage station. Nurses filled out the Emergency Medical Tag for each patient they registered. The bedlam of noise distressed Barbara. She recoiled when wheels screeched or patients yawped. The bombing grew louder. More trucks arrived filled with the wounded. Sgt. Cleopatra Dulay orchestrated events by directing the ambulances to triage. Assisting Dulay was Patty Parr. Cleopatra pointed to her clipboard and Patty blasted directions at the incoming traffic. Barbara’s teeth clenched at the sound of Patty’s shrill tone.
At one of the surgical tables, Barbara provided cotton supplies to Captain Fox, Captain Roland, and Sgt. Ethel Thor. Barbara noticed Laura moving around the surgical tables delivering trays of morphine shots with petrified eyes. She passed by Captain Roland who bellowed at Nurse Thor to compress both hands on a chest wound spouting with blood. As Laura absorbed the scene, she looked faint. Barbara touched her elbow and suggested delivering the morphine to the neighboring surgical tent. Laura staggered away, muttering, “Pretty soon, I’m gonna need some for myself.”
A Filipino doctor, Captain Garcia, asked Barbara to assist him. He had slicked black hair and a somber slit for lips. He directed the medics to carry eight new patients on stretchers and situate them into ward three. Barbara kept close to him, trying to hear over the nightmarish orchestra of whining humans and machines. Captain Garcia rapidly examined each soldier assessing their needs. Barbara filled out the tags when he announced his verdict. “Shattered Pelvis.”
He renamed the patient by the title of their injury. Her job was to match the injury to the name on the dog tag and fill out the form.
One was quiet. “Superficial head and neck.”
One groaned. “Internal bleeding.”
Another screamed. “Bullet hole to the femur.”
One whimpered. “Burn wound on the right arm and hand.”
Captain Garcia veered to a patient at the end of the line. The soldier breathed with a dry, hacking cough. He panicked and started to shake. Captain Garcia told Barbara to get a syringe and hose, ASAP. When she returned seconds later, the patient stared at Barbara with alarm. She held his hand. “It’s going to be okay. Breathe with me, now. Inhale, exhale. Again. Inhale, exhale. Good.” She looked at his dog tag. Frances Talbot.
“Come on, Frances. She puffed in quick shallow breaths, and they breathed together. Captain Garcia poked a hole through his skin. The air pressurized and caused his lung to collapse. His body thrashed and his eyes rolled back into his head. “Hold him down, nurse. He’s going into Anaphylactic shock.” Barbara grabbed his shoulders while the doctor administered a shot of morphine and inserted the hose into his lung. Soon his breathing stabilized. Captain Garcia exhaled and smiled at Barbara. “Good work, Nurse Kiss.” He looked around him and motioned medics to take the wounded to surgery. “Until the next round arrives, help out where needed.”
Barbara crossed her arms and shoved her trembling hands under her armpits.
The sky transitioned from day to night until someone’s alarm clock chimed it was five o’clock in the morning. They had all worked through the night, and Barbara could not recall when the previous day began. A few of the nurses staggered into the sleeping room and collapsed. Barbara lay on her cot and ignored the pounding of her feet and the stench of herself. She looked at her pruney fingers from being in surgical gloves for too long. Barbara stared into the trees above her. A family of macaques chattered at her like a judge and jury, and she was found guilty. Her dulled senses kept her immobile. Twenty-four hours ago, she flinched at their agitated calls. Now, Barbara would not budge if they shat on her.
The nurses whispered to one another in the cool morning air. Who knew how long they would be allowed to rest? The sheet dividing the makeshift barracks from the hospital grounds flapped rhythmically in the breeze. Barbara was hypnotized while watching Carol Fitzgerald wash plastic surgical gloves and hang them to dry on a bamboo clothesline. When she finished her duty, Carol entered the room hunched over. She took her time stretching and contorting her body back to an erect standing position. She offered a loud yawn and sagged to her cot, eyes closed, fast asleep. Barbara returned her gaze outside their sleeping quarters and noticed Patty Parr gesticulating in front of Lt. Nesbit. Barbara overheard Parr volunteering to ride with the last transport truck back to the coast at Mariveles to make contact with the new pilot who agreed to satisfy their wish lists.
Lt. Nesbit said, “You two will return by jeep later today. It is a dangerous proposition, Nurse Parr. Are you sure you are up for it?”
Patty scoffed. She pushed back her shoulders and lifted up her chin. “Let the other nurses sleep. I can handle a drive in the jungle.”
Barbara wondered why Patty’s need to be the hero annoyed her. She watched Patty sprint, leap and twist her boyish frame like a track and field star onto the back of the truck. She sat at the edge dangling her feet with one hand on her cap waving goodbye to no one in particular. Go. Bring us the mail, Barbara thought. Bring us our precious delights. Be our Santa Claus. Barbara’s mysterious contempt for Patty grew. Is it because she acts like a twenty-four-hour shift is nothing? Perhaps she wanted a break from the blood and the guts and the flies. Can you blame her? The gears winced, and the truck carrying Patty Parr disappeared into the jungle foliage.
At the main compound, Barbara watched Laura staring at a pile of laundry. The duty roster listed Laura to wash the soiled sheets and surgical gowns. A large canvas hamper on wheels overflowed with the gory results of the war. Lt. Nesbit told Laura to drag it down to the river and rinse them out as best as she could. “When you return, the civilians will boil and hang them.” When Barbara thought about the mosquitoes and biting flies that would descend on the imbrued pile, her fear of malaria prompted her into action. Barbara knew she should pretend to be asleep, let Laura do her own chore, but she made the mistake of observing Laura’s devastated expression. Her friend’s eyes pooled with tears, and she stood there helpless as a lost puppy. Barbara could feel her body rise, and she hobbled over to Laura, feeling eighty instead of thirty. She tried to tease her friend. “Laura Wolfe, stop looking so pathetic.”
“I don’t think I’m cut out for nursing, Babs. I’m a wreck inside.”
“Push it back down. Remember what Lt. Nesbit said? This is all temporary.”
Laura and Barbara scooted and lifted the hamper into a wheel barrel. It did not fit, but it was easier to move the heavy hamper over the uneven ground. They aimed for a sandy inlet of the Real River. A medic passed by them and smirked, “Watch out for the vipers down by the rocks.”
Laura’s face blanched and Barbara swore at him. They clumsily rolled away from Hospital No. 2. The sun shone on the shallow river, and the sparkles guided them to the waterside.
“Babs, recite a poem. It’s such a good trick, that.”
“I’m too tired.”
“Did you hear the bushes rustling? What if it’s a panther smelling the blood in this hamper?”
“I don’t think panthers live in the Philippine jungle,” Barbara replied, although she had
no clue whether or not they did. Better to avoid thinking about predators hiding behind the thickets and vines of the jungle.
Laura stumbled, and the wheelbarrow scraped against the rocks. She dropped the wooden handle, and Barbara’s sore shoulder stiffened under the weight. Barbara could not suppress her anger and snapped, “Come on, Laura, lift! Oh, nevermind. Forget the wheelbarrow, and let’s drag this damned hamper the rest of the way to the water.”
At the clearing, other medical staff rinsed soiled garments in the river. Two sentries with guns stood nearby overseeing the area. Barbara remembered Lt. Nesbit’s voice buzzing in her head. The Philippine Scouts are militia and agreed to protect the hospital. You will recognize them by the yellow shoulder patch with a red caribou as its marking. Barbara gestured to Laura. “See, we’re safe. They’re keeping watch.” Laura nodded and faked a smile.
The cool temperature at the river’s edge made Barbara’s skin turn to gooseflesh. They dragged the hamper to the sandy inlet and pushed it over on its side. She took off her headband and wrapped it around her nose and mouth. They bent over and pulled the aprons and bedsheets into the water to soak. Fleshy pieces and blood floated downstream. Laura said, “What a meal for the fish and scavengers, eh?” Laura was too busy gagging to reply.
To divert her attention from the disgusting job, Barbara considered her friend Laura. They both arrived at Sternberg General Hospital at Manila Bay last October 1941. They shared the same shifts and drank beer at the base canteen during their off time. Barbara responded to the naivete in Laura. She reminded Barbara of her little sister Zorka. There was an invisible pull to safeguard the younger, pretty girl in a place so foreign. While their work solidified a working friendship, she did not know much about Laura other than she was from a family of Swedes who owned a dairy farm in Wisconsin. One evening after a shift, they sipped beer, and Laura confided to Barbara, “When I turned sixteen, my parents gave me two choices. Pick a service career or stay on the farm and help with the milkers.” Her blue eyes blinked and crinkled. “I hate milking cows. So I went to Madison and became a nurse. When the war began, I never thought Uncle Sam would send me to Manila.”
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese turned to the Philippines and invaded. The war became real for Barbara when she watched the plumes of black smoke billowing out of buildings at Manila Bay. Their unit was forced to evacuate Sternberg and retreat to the jungle, and Hospital No. 1 was created. News and communication in the jungle were sporadic. Not knowing if the next whistle from the air would hit its mark affected everyone in different ways. When the Japanese detonated their bombs near the first jungle hospital, Barbara watched the panic permanently set in Laura’s baby blues. Barbara knew caring for her young friend was another way to escape from fully feeling the terrifying situation.
Now they wrung the aprons and sheets before them. They rolled them up in balls and put them back in the canvas hamper. Carrying it back up to the trail was much harder. Laura waved to two medics up the path who helped them lift it into the wheelbarrow and push it up to camp to a designated area of the hospital where boiling stockpots of water waited to sanitize the balls of rinsed cloth. Filipino women spoke to them in Tagalog. Barbara smiled and nodded her thanks. Finally, they were done. The pair of nurses tiptoed into their partitioned barracks and joined their sleeping sisters.
Next week, Chapter two. Thanks for reading!