This is my dedication novel to the women and men who fought in the Philippines during World War II.
February 25, 1942
Barbara’s waking hours were a terrifying repetition of sounds: the drone of Japanese Val planes sweeping the area in bombing runs. Strafing above the tree line sounded like hail ripping through the leaves. The hum of jeep motors lumbered to the triage area while officers barked orders and enlisted shouted a reply. Surgical equipment rattled among the sonance of the groaning wounded. Barbara longed for her spacious bedroom back in Minneapolis with her comfy chair and insulating bookshelves filled with tales of love and woe. She thought, What a difference between reading about adventures and partaking in them. A monkey screeched in the interwoven vines festooned above her, and she jumped as if a bolt of electricity passed through her.
Lt. Colonel Jack Schwartz instituted 24-hour shifts and half rations. At morning roll call, Lt. Josephine Nesbit informed that the hospital held over 2,000 patients. Nurses moved about administering morphine shots and sprinkling sulfa powder on their wounds. When she was not assisting in surgery, Barbara stuffed cotton in her ears. The muffling helped drown out the clangor, but she discovered a side effect. It was as though her brain shifted the focus from the external noise to within. The ringing in her ears amplified. Her hunger cramps howled. As the sensation of needles stabbed her gut, her intestines clenched, and she grunted.
Today there was a rare lull in the noise. Barbara made her morning rounds in section three. A breeze blew through the jungle, and after a few hours of no bombing, Barbara dared to relax. Civilians, doctors, nurses, patients–everyone murmured so as not to break the hush of quietude. The wind stymied the bites of flies and mosquitos, and for that second bit of providential luck, she smiled for the first time in days.
Barbara watched a jeep pull up to Hospital 2. On the passenger side was a woman wearing olive green coveralls. Her face was the color of a strong cup of tea. Her black hair was braided into a single rope that fell down her back to her waist. She identified herself as Kay Weese, the civilian pilot who worked for the Red Cross and volunteered to deliver V-mail, packages, and personal supplies requested by Lt. Nesbit. This was the second time Barbara witnessed the tall woman enter the hospital camp. As the conduit to the outside world, she was an instant celebrity. Barbara believed if Eleanor Roosevelt drove into camp by Kay’s side, the pilot would have better reception. Exhaustion was forgotten as Barbara watched her colleagues hustle and surround the jeep. For a second time, Patty Parr had volunteered to pick up Weese at a makeshift airstrip which was an old rice field next to a village in the area. The Filipinos allowed her to take off and land in exchange for foodstuff and medicine. Patty Parr stood up in the jeep with one foot in the driver’s seat. “Alright, alright. Give us a moment to organize the mail. Roll call in five minutes.”
Lt. Nesbit approached Kay, and they stood at equal height. In her high-pitched voice, Nesbit coaxed everyone to back up. “Please, give our flying angel room to breathe.”
Kay handed Patty the mail who then called out the names. When Patty shouted, “Barbara Kiss,” Barbara stepped forward and shook Kay’s hand. “Thank you, for risking it, Kay.” Kay smiled and squeezed her hand with a firm grip. “Sure thing.”
Barbara received one letter and a small parcel that was battered and damaged as if it had been misrouted to the other side of the world. The package was postmarked from November. She looked at the smudged letters and recognized Zorka’s handwriting. She walked to the vacant mess area where she could sit and read her letters without attention. SSG Oscar Wozniak handed her a cup of hot water steeping a new teabag. She was flattered he anticipated her wants and told him so. After Barbara discovered his paternal mother was Jewish, the crotchety cook softened. She spoke Yiddish phrases to him. He surprised himself by answering back. “My father didn’t care about being Jewish. He didn’t announce it to anyone when he came over to America. He wanted me to speak like an American. But when my bubbe came to live with us, I spent time watching her in the kitchen. She’d talk to me in Yiddish and make these desserts for me. Szarlotka was my favorite. I’d swallow down anything she put in front of me.”
They learned they were fans of the stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Barbara’s edition of his works was sent to her by Zorka last summer. A month ago, Barbara sat in the back corner of the mess area, drinking a cup of tea, when Oscar sat down at the table. She read with a deep pitch, her timbre edgy, as one who is about to share a secret confession. He listened to her with his cheek resting on a fist:
I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me an insult. For his gold, I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Oscar commented, “Yeah, I like that part. I can see it. That eye. It would drive me crazy, too.”
Barbara chuckled. “Enough to kill him?”
“I’ve been told to kill for less.” Oscar looked at his wristwatch and stood. “Time to make some soup. Today is my lucky day. Matibag’s daughter brought me a bag of carrots and onions. His mother brought me mangos, garlic cloves, and a few coconuts. Someone donated a chicken. That pilot Weese brought me a five-gallon bag of salt.”
“Aren’t you popular, Oscar?”
“I make sure the husbands are fed. It’s easier for the civilians to eat here than march miles back to their villages for a meal. You are going to like what I do with the ingredients.”
“Of course, with half rations in place, this will taste better than the most lavish spread at Rosh Hashanah.”
Since then, during that three o’clock hour when all was prepared but too soon to cook and serve chow when Oscar saw her sit down with a book, he moseyed over and prodded her to read aloud. Sometimes patients who could walk on their own sat down to hear her read.
She freed Zorka’s gift from the damaged packaging and smiled. She’s sending my collection one book at a time. It was a copy from her senior year of English. Dante’s Inferno. “How appropriate,” she muttered.
She flipped through the pages and stopped at Canto IX. She admired the illustrations created by Gustave Doré. Her pointer finger touched Virgil and Dante in robes standing at the entrance door of the city of Dite, looking up at the three furies: Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera, and wondered, What unavenged crimes are within? She turned the pages to the next illustration. A hurried wind deposited an angel who opened the city gates so Virgil and Dante could pass. Barbara said a prayer of thanks to her sister. Barbara acknowledged that she would much rather read about the chaos imagined by Alighieri than participate in the real chaos outside the lines of a book.
A small mutt sniffed under the picnic tables looking for a scrap. He sat on his haunches and stared at Barbara. She told him, “There’s nothing here but rice, pooch. They ate all the spam.” Oscar hit his metal spoon on the side of a pot, and the dog whined and trotted away. It nearly tripped Laura Wolfe who waved and made her way to Barbara with letters in her hand. Barbara envisioned Laura as a fancy Maltese. She envied her fair hair which fell straight and smooth. The mutt’s apparent owner was the civilian laborer Matibag who reached down and called for him in Tagalog. The mutt barked at Patty Parr on the other side of the mess area. She swore and said, “Get away from me, Toto.” It barked back and tried to bite her ankles. Patty’s close-set eyes and long face reminded Barbara of a Welsh terrier. Patty conversed with Cleopatra Dulay who was forever holding a clipboard and ruffling through sheets of paper.
Laura sat beside Barbara. “What are you thinking about?”
“What kind of dog would we all be based on our appearances?” Barbara tipped her head in the direction of Sgt. Dulay. “For example, Cleopatra looks like a long-haired Dachshund.”
“Ha! Okay. Let me try.” Laura adjusted her ponytail and then talked behind her hand. “Josie Nesbit would be an Irish Wolfhound.”
Nurse Carol Fitzgerald joined them at the table. Laura studied her and said aloud, “Irish Setter.”
Barbara nodded in agreement. Captains Garcia and Roland sat down at a neighboring table discussing a patient. She told Laura, “Garcia is a brown lab and Roland is a border collie.”
Carol the Irish Setter said, “What nonsense are you two going on about?”
Laura showed off her straight teeth. “If people were dogs, which one would Oscar Wozniak be?”
Carol stared at the cook. “Hmm. German Shepherd. That bark of his scares me.” Carol concentrated on Barbara. “What breed would you be, hmm?”
Barbara laughed. “Oh, I don’t know. A Shar-Pei?”
Carol rolled her eyes and her freckles seemed to wiggle on her cheeks. “You’re prettier than that! You’re more like a Japanese Akita.”
Barbara grimaced. “I can’t say I want to be associated with anything Japanese. I’d rather be a Shar-Pei.”
Laura gave Barbara’s shoulder a squeeze. “When I was a girl, our family used to have an Akita. They are smart, friendly, and don’t bark. Just like you.”
Patty and Cleopatra approached and stood by their table. Patty interjected, “Look at her. Another book in the mail. What’d you get this time, Kiss?” She stretched forward to claim it, but Barbara slid Inferno out of reach into her lap.
“It’s about a trip through the circles of Hell. A clever way of looking at society by Dante Alighieri. The first part of The Divine Comedy.”
Patty rolled her eyes. “Circles around Hell? You’ll have to explain it to us. Maybe we can keep up.”
“Some would get it.”
Patty looked at her dully and turned away. She announced to no one, “I got a letter from my boyfriend back in Boston. He says he wants to get hitched. That’s what I call a circle of hell.” When no one reacted, she shrugged and wandered away. Cleopatra Dulay did not follow her. She stood at the table with an opened box. She reached in and unfurled an Army poster entitled, “The Yellow Glow on Malaria Moe”. The nurses chuckled at the illustration of sinister mosquitoes with stingers of horrifying proportions. Poor soldier Moe was hanged by a rope while waiting for the attack of the bayonet stingers. At the footer was the warning, “Don’t forget to take your Atabrine.”
Cleopatra lifted an Army manual out of the box with two hands like a priest holding up the Bible to the congregation. “Lt. Nesbit wants you all to read this material on Malaria by the end of the week. The spike in cases in camp is alarming. Everyone is sloppy about taking their Atabrine tablets except Barbara.”
Carol said, “Babs looks like a butternut squash because of it.”
Barbara pushed up her sleeves and looked at her yellow forearms. “I feel like I’m glowing in the dark, but it’s better than experiencing the symptoms of Malaria.”
Lt. Dulay’s bun was relaxed today which allowed her eyes to look round. Two long strands escaped and framed her face like dog ears. “Ever since the Nazis confiscated most all of the quinine, we’re stuck with Atabrine.”
Laura commented, “It makes me feel nauseous when I take it. You, Babs. I hear you moaning with stomach cramps at night. It’s the Atabrine, you know.”
Barbara was earnest. “The incoming wounded and the pain of watching patients die–how can I lay around with a high fever from Malaria when there’s always so much work to do?”
Sgt. Dulay clapped. “I couldn’t have said it better myself, Kiss. I’ll be passing out more tablets at chow.”
Lt. Nesbit drew near their table and addressed Barbara. “Nurse Kiss. Pilot Weese needs to head back to her plane. Would you volunteer and escort her back? I told the villagers I’d send a nurse as compensation for risking a plane to land in their backyard. One of the Filipino scouts will join you for protection.”
Barbara raised her eyebrows. “I thought Nurse Parr liked doing it?”
“I have something else for her to do. Yes or no, please. I want you back before dark.”
“Yes. Yes, of course, ma’am.”
Barbara elected to drive. She turned over the engine and shifted to first gear. 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. When the road evened out, Barbara glanced at his yellow shoulder patch with the red carabao.
She asked his name, and he replied. “Corporal Ramos.”
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 macaques shadowed the jeep from gnarly Balete trees to papaya trees to moss-covered vines. A green papaya the size of a softball fell on the narrow road in front of them. Barbara had the creepy sensation that the drop was intentional. Soon a brown hairy ball missed the hood of the jeep by inches. Barbara swerved.
She asked Ramos, “Was that a coconut?”
“No. The pod is filled with Brazil nuts. Speed up. They’re angry.”
Barbara tried to steady her nerves. Distract yourself. She observed Kay Weese’s calm demeanor. Maybe if she chatted with Kay, Barbara could convince herself that she was not scared. “Kay, how’d you wind up here?”
Kay ignored the ruckus above her. “I’ve been a civilian pilot for years. When the war broke out, I volunteered to transport troops and supplies.” The back wheel fell into a pothole and Ramos barely held on. He swore at Barbara.
Barbara felt sweat drip down her cleavage. She ignored his glare. “How did you end up in Manila, Kay?”
Kay picked at her fingernails. “By accident, really. I was on a passenger run when a doctor told me the Japanese attacked Manila and were bombing the shit out of the city. As the weeks passed, I heard about the hospital evacuations into the jungle. Then I heard some scuttlebutt about Lt. Nesbit. She was looking for a pilot who would smuggle in the wishlist of the nurses at Hospital 2. I volunteered.”
A furry pod dropped out of the sky and hit Barbara above her eyebrow. She skidded into the ditch. Ramos leaped out of the jeep. Kay leaned to the right and rolled out. Barbara sat up and swallowed. The vertigo was intense. There was no mistake–the macaques laughed at her. Barbara thought They are bullies! No wonder the Japs are caricatured as monkeys. Kay and Ramos helped her into a standing position while the branches flapped above them. As the monkeys screeched, Barbara was overcome with anger. She was not 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 did not 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 gulping, its wild eyes bulging. The tail writhed and slapped the packed dirt of the road. Barbara turned away and heaved.
Kay frowned at Ramos. “Don’t piss them off any more than they already are. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
The gash on Barbara’s frontal lobe streamed into her eye creating a veil. She blinked rapidly and thought of the veiled eye of the old man in “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Don’t lose it. Focus on Kay. Kay and Ramos pushed while Barbara did her best to steer the wheel. They rocked and maneuvered the jeep back onto the road. Barbara felt inane for asking, but she did anyway. “Why do this, Kay?”
Kay turned left down an indiscernible trail. She drove slow enough, but the road was uneven and palms smacked them as she drove through the jungle path. Barbara felt suffocated. She closed her eyes and breathed in small puffs. Finally, the road cleared and widened. Ramos and Barbara exhaled in unison. They escaped the troop of simians. Overcome with the impulse, Barbara vomited over the side of the jeep while Ramos held on to her collared shirt to keep her from falling out. When Barbara sat up, Kay chatted as though they sat in a tea shop next to a park. Ramos gave Barbara his canteen, and she sipped the warm water gratefully. He tossed the first aid bag into her lap. “Fix yourself.” She put a cotton square on the goose egg and tied gauze wrap around her head. Then she did her best to wipe the blood off her face and remain still while Kay chatted about horrifying events as she drove.
“Did you hear about that attack on Bangka Island in Australia last week? The Nips raped and gunned down 22 Australian nurses? A news correspondent told me about it when I flew him to Henderson Field at Midway Island.”
Barbara grimaced and focused on the road ahead. Kay drew up behind a colony of tall bamboo and parked. “I hear about the way the Japanese treat the females they encounter when they’re on the move. Take 1939, for instance. Nanjing. After they raped them, they killed them.” Kay spit. “Barbaric!”
Barbara wondered to whom Kay was talking because her eyes darted around. She looked in the rearview mirror until they settled upon her duffle bags of contraband. “That’s what the Japs are like. They are sadists. You want to live in a world where they run the show?” She shook her head with resolve. “Forget that! I’m here to help whether the Red Cross wants me to or not.”
Barbara’s head throbbed. Kay silenced the engine. They exited the jeep and gathered up Kay’s canvas bags. Barbara tried to carry one, but it was too heavy. Ramos pointed to her medical satchel. “Take that.” Barbara tried to make eye contact with Kay, but her injured eye would not focus, and her good eye squinted from the brightness of the day. Focus on Kay’s voice. “You mean the Red Cross doesn’t know you do this type of smuggling?”
“No, of course not. I prefer to call it redistributing the merchandise. I get donations from the passengers I carry. You see, I have access to a lot of damaged boxes and ripped bags whose destination has become ineligible. I give those lost supplies to people who can really use them. Like you nurses at Hospital #2.” Kay repositioned two tote bags to bear the weight equally on each shoulder. Barbara admired her strength while Kay gestured to the palm trees surrounding them, her voice agitated. “Where do you suppose the Japs are going to relocate the soldiers they’ve captured? You think they will be decent about it?”
Barbara managed a smile. “You sound like a marauding crusader. I can tell you from the bottom of our hearts, Hospital No. 2 is happy to have you on our side, Kay.” They walked out of the jungle onto the road and looked up at the sky. It was a relief to be out of the confines of the jungle. Ramos signaled they should proceed, and he took the lead. Kay expressed her thoughts as though she needed to validate her personal mission. “I’ve redistributed the merchandise to Corregidor Hospital. On the peninsula, there’s a band of U.S. soldiers hiding in the hills outside of Manila. Guerrillas. I help them, too. Radio parts. Ammo. Bottles of liquor. Whatever I can scrounge up.”
They walked the main road with caution, listening for Japanese soldiers. Around the bend, they came to a small village. A Filipino mestizo pulled a bony caribou down the street in front of several shanties. A woman ran up to them and pointed to a bamboo hut down the road with an alarmed expression. Barbara quickened her step and followed. Inside the hut was a female in labor. Barbara opened her medical bag and grabbed a pair of gloves. She asked for hot water and towels. Barbara kneeled next to the crying girl and cooed to her. “It will be okay. I am here to help.” She repeated the Tagalog phrase used often at Hospital No. 2 to calm Filipino patients. “Para tumulong. Para Tumulong.”
Kay peeked inside the hut oblivious to the laboring cries. “I’ll be seeing you, Kiss. Anything special you want?”
Kay never took her eyes off her patient. She can’t be more than fifteen. She modeled small puffing breaths to her and held her gaze. To Kay’s shadow, she responded, “A book written by anyone other than a Kraut or Jap.”
“Consider it done.” She left.
Barbara heard an engine catch and the roar of propellers behind the hut. She winced at the sound. Barbara checked the patient again. The cervix was fully dilated. She mimicked pushing. Into the room came a younger girl with hot water and a ragged cotton shirt. Barbara’s head pounded. She bit her lip to keep from swooning. The black-haired crown emerged. When the sound of Kay’s plane lifted, it blended with the screams of the laboring mother. Then came the wail of a baby boy entering the world, becoming louder than the rumbling plane departing the area. The transference of sounds, the entering, and exiting of lives felt like a divine dance. Barbara cut the cord, cleaned him, and wrapped him in the ragged shirt. I should have asked Kay for blankets or clothes for the villagers instead of a book for myself.
When Barbara handed the baby to his mother, Barbara recalled a section of Jewish prayer and whispered, “May God watch over you in love and bless you with health. You have sent us a perfect blessing. Thank You, bless You, source of all life. Amen.”
Silence replaced the racket of planes and birth. As she sat on the floor in the semi-darkness packing her medical bag, Barbara felt a pang of sadness. Home was so far away. What was Zorka doing this instant? Barbara missed her capricious moods. She admired her sister’s gift for expressing emotions by manipulating the strings on her viola. Barbara conjured a familial scene. Her parents sat in the parlor. Father crinkled his newspaper. Mother turned a shiny page from the latest edition of Life magazine. What was her brother Kade up to? Working in Chicago, doing what precisely? He was an odd duck. So private and unwilling to share his thoughts and feelings. Barbara stood up and the hut twirled in big circles.
Ramos used his rifle to open the curtain door. “Time to go.” Ramos held her elbow and led Barbara back to their hidden jeep, and they returned to Hospital No. 2. She eyed his pistol attached to his hip. If those monkeys start throwing things, I swear I’ll shoot. That’s when Lt. Josephine Nesbit’s voice entered her head. “No time to be scared, girls. Deal with it as it comes.”
* * * * * * * *
When Barbara and Ramos returned, the hospital was cloaked in the heavy shadows of dusk. She thanked Ramos for his assistance. Sgt. Dulay gasped upon seeing Barbara’s blood-soaked bandages and her bloodshot eye. Barbara signed back into camp and filled out an incident report. “Kiss, go see Lt. Col. Schwartz. He’s on call and in the surgery tent. What the hell happened?”
“A macaque pitched a line drive and I forgot to duck.”
Dulay raised her eyebrows. “Better get your head seen to and get some shuteye. You’ll be assisting Capt. Roland tomorrow at 0600 hours. Can you make it?”
“Ask me in the morning. Thanks, Sgt.”
Sergeant Dulay scanned her report. “Night, Kiss. Hey, congratulations on delivering a baby.”
“He was my first.” Barbara approached Lt. Colonel Schwartz who wrote notes on his clipboard in the surgery tent. His face was somber. Three soldiers under sedation demanded the company commander’s full attention. He murmured to them, “Come on, boys. Fight it.”
Barbara approached and suppressed the urge to wrap her arms around him. Her good eye hungrily surveyed his black, wavy hair and strong profile. She knew her crush was ridiculous, but she argued with herself that Jack possessed more than good looks. As the head surgeon, Barbara believed he led the hospital with quiet authority and compassion. He did a double-take when he saw her. His side smile made her heart jump.
“Ah, I was just going to take a break,” he teased and patted a stool. “You better sit down, Nurse Kiss.”
Gently he removed the bandages to reveal her angry bump. He shined his pen flashlight into her eye. “Pupils are dilated. Are you dizzy? Nauseous? Tired?”
“Guilty as charged, Doctor.”
He gave her a topical shot, and she squinted. “Ouch.”
“The red-eye looks worse than it is. Your head needs an ice pack, but of course, we don’t have ice. I wish I could give you bed rest tomorrow, but you know in the morning the Japanese will start their bombing runs and our lives return to hell.” He wrapped her head with clean bandages. She breathed in his scent.
“Aren’t you the one who somehow finds time to read Dante’s Inferno? I’ve heard you talking about the circles of hell. What circle do you think Mr. Alighieri would call this place?” He gave her aspirin and a cup of water. She looked into blue eyes lined with black. “A Husky.”
She blushed and answered his question. “Seventh Circle, for sure.” She swallowed his aspirin. “It is a place of blood, flames, and violence. To oneself. To others. Against God.”
He leaned in and asked her, “Did Dante ever make it out of Hell?”
Barbara felt the grime around her neck and wished she were clean. “He and Virgil bypass Satan at the center of Earth and come out on the other side.”
His three patients stirred. Barbara felt Schwartz’s attention drift away from her. He muttered, “I pray every night we bypass Satan and get to the other side in one piece. Good night, Nurse Kiss.”
“Yes, Lt. Col. Schwartz.”
He was tired, and he let it show. He turned his attention back to Barbara and studied her face. His eyes softened. “Since we are in the seventh circle of Hell and relatively alone, why not call me Jack?”
Her insides fluttered, but it wasn’t from taking the Atabrine. “Only if you call me Barbara.”
The bombing resumed with gusto during the month of March. The Japanese pushed forward with new soldiers and warfare. On the eleventh, Patty Parr’s radio announced the evacuation of General Douglas McArthur and his promise, “I shall return.” The Bataan front inched closer. Fifteen miles away. Ten. A bulldozer arrived and cleared a patch for more wards and another bamboo pavilion for surgery. Lt. Josie Nesbit’s request for more nurses was granted. Twenty-eight additional nurses and four new doctors from Corregidor Island came to help as the wounded arrived daily. Laura and Barbara worked through the trails from one ward to another. Laura carried a flat rock with her for sharpening the needles. Barbara used the strategically placed fires for boiling water. She put a morphine tablet in the glass syringe and dissolved the morphine with the water that boiled the needle. The chaplain followed them around squatting down to the edge of the bamboo cots and administering last rites. Patients begged nurses to relay messages and asked the same questions day after day. “Will I make it? What happens if the Japanese reach us?” Nesbit told them to avoid giving direct answers to which Barbara thought As if we had any. All lived hour by hour. No one had the luxury of time to consider options or come up with a solution.
By mid-March, the Quartermaster had the unfortunate task of informing the camp hospital that there was little food and fewer supplies. More civilian details went on hunts to bring SSG Wozniak something to cook. He boiled a caribou for two days, and it still was too tough to consume without plenty of chewing. But eat it they did. His daily meal was a stew of whatever was brought to him. Monkeys. Iguanas. Snakes. Despite the trickling of fruit harvested from the jungle, there was not enough to feed the overcrowded hospital.
When the nurses gathered for a morning roll call, Nesbit informed them that engineers reported there were nineteen wards extending two and a half miles long along the Read River. “We’ll be cutting our rations to one meal every other day. Put aside your fears. Don’t give up.”
Patty Parr said a little too loudly in formation, “Or Wozniak will make us the special ingredient in his stew.” This produced chitter from the nurses.
Nesbit sighed and said, “Dismissed.”
Bombings and exhaustion had a way of slipping the formality of military protocol. Rank and titles became superfluous when Japanese fighters whizzed overhead and the sounds of bomb concussions blended in with the cries of the injured. The nurses began calling Capt. Roland, Paul. Lt. Commander Schwarz became Jack to them all. Filipino nurses called Lt. Nesbit “Mama Josie.” Barbara observed that the medical team showed signs of malnutrition. It seemed inevitable that everyone working at Hospital No. 2 suffered from the effects of Malaria, dysentery, or Dengue fever. Barbara observed the XO, Major Fox, with a scalpel in hand, shaking from the chills of Malaria. Ethel Thor begged him to lay down for an hour. “Bernie, you’ve been on your feet for two days. Look at the waiting line–minor surgeries. I can fill in. Carol and Patty will assist me. Go take a break.”
Laura limply followed Barbara around the wards filling out the dog tag chart or helping at the debridement station under the bamboo pavilion. Barbara watched the doctors and nurses burn off the dead skin of dead tissue caused by burns and shrapnel wounds. Nurse Thor took it in stride but shook her head in dismay when by the end of March, they ran out of anesthesia and improvised by putting their patients under with Ether. She grumbled to Barbara who assisted her, “This is nuts. How much longer can we do this?”
On April 3, the Japanese bombed the hospital. The beams fell on the patients and the pandamonium was unlike anything Barbara had yet experienced. Directed toward nine, she rushed as fast as her aching muscles allowed on the interconnecting paths. Passing ward eight, she passed the chaplain who stood on top of a trunk and read the last rites to the entire ward. She passed civilians who carried the dead away. The children scrambled in and out of the wards, collecting dog tags for Cleopatra to document. Matibag stumbled past Barbara while he slapped the air with his flyswatter. Covered with pasty white silt mixed with his blood, the effect made his face look pink. Patty Parr followed Barbara to ward nine and shouted over the screams, “Why read about your circles of hell when you are living it?” Barbara conceded she had a point. The association between reality and fiction would be forever off-putting. Dante, you can keep your inferno. I’ll be spending the rest of my life forgetting this hell.
Nesbit charged into ward nine and shouted, “Time to go. We’ve got the order to retreat. We’ve been ordered to Corregidor. All the nurses.”
A Filipino nurse asked Nesbit, “We, too, Mama Josie?”
“Yes. Everyone. I got the clearance. All nurses out. Get to a transport. The Japanese are close.”
It was hard for Barbara to stay calm. Back at their sleeping area, she rushed to pack a pair of socks and a bar of soap. Laura sat on the edge of her cot weeping. Patty swung a knapsack over her shoulder and leaped to the exit door. “Stop your wailing, Laura. It doesn’t help a thing.”
Barbara said, “Patty, leave her alone.”
“She needs to toughen up. You’re too soft with her.”
“I’m her friend. If she needs to cry, she should let it out.”
“No, it’s pathetic. She makes all the other nurses cringe.” To Laura, she advised, “Swallow it down and shut up.” She pointed a finger at Barbara and said, “You, keep quiet.”
“Go to Hell, Patty.”
“Already there, remember?”
Barbara threw a book at her. It hit her in the back as she left. Laura stood and held her trembling hands. She sniffled. “What happens to the patients? What will the Japanese do to them all?”
Nesbit entered their area fiercely. Her eyes were on fire. “Go! Get on a jeep.”
A squeal of a bomb triggered the nurses to take cover. The mess tent was hit. Barbara ran to it and found Oscar emerging from a stack of fallen bamboo. He yelled at the civilians to put as much food in the back of a transport truck. She hugged him. “You okay?”
He moved the bamboo roof off of him. His wounds were superficial. “Kiss, I’m fine. See you at Corregidor Island. Let’s get out of this shithole.”
“Nesbit told us we are evacuating to a tunnel. I don’t fancy becoming a mole.”
Wozniak could see she was afraid. “Do what you do best. Think of a poem and recite it. It’ll distract you from the obvious. You’re tough enough, Kiss. Now get outta here.”
She took a deep breath and nodded. Laura waved to her to hurry. Barbara leaped on a departing jeep, and they left Hospital No. 2. As they retreated, the nurses watched the patients pointing to them, mouths agape. Barbara saw Jack Schwartz and the other doctors stay behind. Extreme remorse made the nurses cry out. Barbara lowered her head. She thought of Stephen Crane and whispered:
Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.
Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die
The unexplained glory flies above them
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom–
A field where a thousand corpses lie.
There were more stanzas, but Barbara could think no longer. She held her ears and did her best to keep her balance in the fleeing jeep on the uneven road. She looked up at the ripped roof of vines. No simians. Just the Japanese.
Thank you for reading! Your criticisms and comments are welcome.