1940s, authors, books, historical fiction, history, Research, World War II

(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! 

 

1940s, books, culture, historical fiction, history, movies, Research, World War II

(5) Writing Historical Fiction: In WW2, she was the spy known as High Pockets

Welcome to a monthly post about the research for the third novel, “The Lost Sisters of Bataan.” This project features underrepresented voices of the 20th Century, U.S. History. There are six books in the series moving forward in time by twenty or so odd years. A character jumps forward to the next book, too. Book One, set in 1900, is called The Knife with the Ivory Handle. You will find the link at the right sidebar if you’re curious. Book Two, set in 1928, is called Inside the Gold Plated Pistol. You’re invited to check out the page for each novel at the top of the blog. Thanks to everyone who read them. I appreciate your time and feedback.

There’s nothing more humbling than to discover a person so remarkable, the chagrin felt for never having heard of her or him causes me to wonder aloud, “What the hell? I thought I knew a fair amount of history. Why have I never heard of Claire Phillips?”

During background research of “The Lost Sisters of Bataan”, I stumbled upon “High Pockets” while learning about the March of Bataan and the Japanese Imperial Army invasion in 1942 of Manila. There was a small blurb about her in Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides; I was intrigued. I bought a copy of her memoir, Agent High Pockets, written in 1947. It was a compelling read. I will try to provide a synopsis that won’t spoil her story.

Photo by Esquire. Claire receiving recognition for her war efforts.

She was raised in Portland and ran away from home to join the circus. She had a baby out of wedlock and ended up in Manila. As a single parent, she performed in a nightclub and attracted the love of her life, Sgt. John Phillips. They married at Christmas, 1941. When he was captured and became a P.O.W, Claire refused to evacuate the Philippines and lived in the jungle with her daughter. She survived with the help of local Filipinos and American soldiers dispersed at random. One was Boone, a soldier who took the initiative and consolidated the soldiers into a rebel task force. Claire helped him acquire a radio set that was sent into the jungle hills in pieces to avoid detection. During the occupation, Claire passed herself off as Italian because she tanned herself to a darker shade and possessed the right papers. She participated in a spy ring and gathered up enough money to establish the Tsubaki Club in October 1942. She served Japanese officers whose ships refueled in Manila. She got them drunk and then pumped information out of them. She wrote their sensitive information down on paper and stuffed them in her bra–hence the name “High Pockets”. A runner took the messages to Boone who transmitted the intel to U.S. high command. Meanwhile, she utilized various ways to send money, food, clothes, and medicine to the poor souls who managed to survive the Bataan Death March and left to rot in the camps. She was one of the Angels of Bataan. There’s much more to the story–I highly recommend reading her own account.

Writing historical fiction is great when one can find a fascinating aspect of the past. Claire Phillips is so interesting–surviving the jungle with the Filipinos is a story unto itself. How she sets up and carries out operations as the Mata Hara of Manila is unique. How she survives torture, starvation, malnutrition, and malaria — I marvel at her stamina. Truly courageous, it was a joy to learn about her in her own words. My fictional sister Zorka will wind up in Manila and become a part of Claire’s operation.

Professor Theresa Kaminski‘s nonfiction contribution, Angels of the Underground, verifies Claire’s story and adds other stories by female spies including Peggy Doolin, Gladys Savary, and Yay Panlilio. I am in the middle of the book. It’s inspiring.

That’s what makes World War II fascinating. Not the hate or destruction or insanity, but the ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances who discover the hero within. Have you heard of Claire Phillips? I haven’t seen the movie version of her life. Claire served as a consultant and approved of the way she was portrayed by actress Ann Dvorak in I was an American Spy (1951). 

Phillips was a guest on an episode of the television series This Is Your Life that aired March 15, 1950. Upon the recommendation of General Douglas MacArthur, she received the Medal of Freedom in 1951. She died of meningitis in 1960 at the age of 52.

She made her life count. I wish I could have met her.

1940s, authors, books, historical fiction, history

(4) Writing Historical Fiction: Jewish Neighborhoods and a sister named Zorka

Welcome to a monthly post about the research for the third novel. If you are new to my blog, this project is about 20th Century U.S. History featuring underrepresented voices. There are six books in the series moving forward in time by twenty or so odd years. A character jumps forward to the next book, too. Book One, set in 1900, is called The Knife with the Ivory Handle. You will find the link at the right sidebar if you’re curious. Book Two, set in 1928, is called Inside the Gold Plated Pistol. You’re invited to check out the page for each novel at the top of the blog. Thanks to everyone who read them. I appreciate your time and feedback.

Research Report

This month’s research centers around Judaism in the 1940s, specifically Jewish neighborhoods in Minneapolis. This is the backdrop for the second principal character, Zorka Kiss. While Barbara is in the Philippines making do as a nurse in the jungle at he Bataan Peninsula, back home, little sister Zorka is restless. She meets a Nisei linguist soldier stationed at MISLS, Military Intelligence Service Language School. This sets up two challenges. One, what was it like to live and belong in the northern neighborhood of Minneapolis where an enclave of Jews resided? What was that culture like? Two, what was it like for Japanese-American soldiers who volunteered to join the U.S. Army? How did they face the racism after the attack of Pearl Harbor?

Judaism in Minneapolis

Rhoda Lewin’s Jewish Community of North Minneapolis is a chief reference point for precise names of streets, businesses, family statistics, and life at the synagogue. I’m going with the Beth El Synagogue, formed in 1926. It was located at 14th and Penn Avenue North before it moved to St. Louis Park in the late 1960s. The charismatic Rabbi David Aronson led over four hundred families from mostly Russian, Lithuania, and Romania in the second wave of immigration which occurred in the U.S. from 1870-1920. Of course, they raised families. Their first-generation children were caught in two worlds. Japanese and Asian groups flocked to America looking to escape economic hardship. When they did, ethnic regionalism occurred. That is, immigrant families tended to congregate to neighborhoods where work, personal histories, language, and religion were similar. Americanization was important for the reform groups who were scared of their “foreignness”, and families who wanted their children to blend in as American. Immigrant children attended American schools, spoke English, and adopted the American way of life, for example, movies, sports, food, boy scouts, and dancing. One site I liked to learn about Judaism was Shavuot 101: My Jewish Learning. I found this interesting article by Lisa Huriash, “Uncle Sam Keeps Kosher Kitchen for Servicemen Who Need It” HERE.
Another key site for learning about Jewish history in Minneapolis was the Minnesota Historical Society found HERE. Apparently, Minneapolis has a sordid past with racism and anti-Semitism which raised its ugly head yesterday in the papers. The scholarly article “Gentiles Preferred” by Laura Weber was fascinating.

Click to access v52i05p166-182.pdf


Finally, I’ve been watching the Netflix original series Unorthodox about a young lady from Brooklyn’s Jewish Orthodox neighborhood who flees to Berlin. It’s been a revelation. Actress Shira Haas is outstanding as Esther Shapiro. It is a story of non-conformity and insight into Jewish culture–I highly recommend it.

Next month, I will share the research behind Japanese-American soldiers fighting in WW2. It deserves a post all of its own.

Introducing Zorka Kiss

Chapter 2

Zorka Kiss hated her name. How flamboyant the sound when she heard someone pronounce it. Her classmates had teased her by accentuating the Z sound. Add to it the awkward last name with the final drag of the S as though she was a tempestuous snake–suddenly Zorka Kiss sounded obscene. If not a snake trying to seduce, then a secret body part with the capability of kissing. Her mother’s friends were just as bad as her peers. “Give me a Zorka Kiss! Where’s my Zorka Kiss?” When her brother came home to visit, he got in the habit of saying to her, “I need a kiss from the Zorka.” Her parents told her she was named after her father’s grandmother. The family name Kiss was a common Hungarian name, but Zorka knew of no other families in Minneapolis with it. Once she looked up her name in the city phone book. There were two Kiss families, a few Kissingers, and a handful of Kitzingers. It gave her no comfort, but she understood it was not important in light of the times. It was late April, 1942. She was twenty, and the world had gone mad.

She finished her morning classes at the University of Minnesota, and the bus dropped her off at Penn Avenue North. She carried her viola case and walked to her lesson. Her heart was heavy. The war raged, and here she was, far removed from the attacks and imprisonments, pretending all was normal in her daily routine while the apprehensive eyes of her family constantly reminded her all was not well. When they attended the Sabbath, the 400 member community gathered under a shroud of worry. The northside neighborhood exhaled hand-wringing energy that made her stomach cramp and her ears ring.

As she walked down 14th Avenue inhaling the crisp air, Zorka pulled back dense curls the color of burnt toast. She wrapped a scarf around the mass that made her head large compared to her slender frame. Her hazel eyes looked up at the globe veiled behind wispy clouds and concentrated on the tips of the trees that finally sprouted leaves. Spring had won the battle over a long winter even though patches of snow clung to the shady parts of bushes. Zorka admired the yellow and red tulips lining a sidewalk and acknowledged the annual perfection of color and egg shape symmetry with an impulse to wack off their heads. In an ugly world, such beauty seemed rude.

Thanks for reading!