1940s, books, historical fiction, World War II, writing

WW2 Chapter 5, part 1: Barbara

This is the first draft of my dedication novel to the women and men who fought in the Philippines during WW2. The previous chapters are located at the right margin of this blog. Criticisms and questions are welcome.

April 9, 1942 

Six nurses huddled close, unable to see. Barbara crouched in the inky night waiting at the jungle periphery of Mariveles Harbor for a boat to transport them to Corregidor Island. To deprive the enemy, dynamite explosions rumbled and fire flashes announced U.S. efforts to demolish weapons and ammunition. She looked at her wristwatch and tilted the face until a flare illuminated it was 0330. During the intervals between detonations, the darkness was like a dense fog that insulated them from the demolition of war. Only their voices were heard.  

“Where’s our boat? It was supposed to be here at 0200.”

“Be patient. It will come.”

“I wish it were daylight. All I see in this blackness are faces. Our patients. We left them.” “How could we?” 

“What were we supposed to do? We followed orders. We did our best.”

“I see the scared faces of the villagers who begged for a ride out of the jungle.” 

“What of the soldiers waiting for surgery?” 

“Where will the Japs take them?” 

The patter of small arms fire nearby interrupted their talk. A jeep arrived at the docks. Barbara breathed a sigh of relief when a flash illuminated Captains Roland, Fox, and Lt. Nesbit. Where was Jack Schwartz? One of them whistled at the officers. In the jungle ferns, Barbara sat on a log with Cleopatra Dulay who shivered with chills. Yesterday, the Sergeant had mild symptoms, but now Malaria throttled her. Barbara blindly stretched out her hand and aimed for Cleopatra’s forehead. She was feverish. Barbara tried to distract Cleopatra from her uncomfortable situation. Curiosity prompted her. “How old are you, Dulay?”

Barbara heard teeth chattering. Cleopatra answered, “I am thirty.” 

“You look–”

“I know. I’m so tiny, people assume I’m a girl.” Barbara sensed Cleopatra wrapping her arms around herself. Through clenched jaws, she continued, “My mother wanted me to marry and have children. My aunts and sister had problems delivering babies due to our size.” She started to wheeze. “That’s not for me.” It took time for her to regulate her breathing. “I enlisted in the Filipino Army when I was eighteen. It was the only way to bypass village life. Join the Army. Send money to the family.”

“You did a fine job as the chief supply clerk. No. 2 ran smoothly because of you, Cleopatra.” 

She tapped Barbara’s hand in thanks. Her voice stuttered with trepidation. “W-w-w-what will Malinta Tunnel be like?”

“Better than the jungle, surely? Safer? Fewer bugs?” 

The male officers drew closer to the nurses and stood vigilant on the sandy beach. Lt. Nesbit batted away fronds and crawled over buttress roots to get to the pair. “I thought it was your voice I heard. How are you holding up, Sgt. Dulay?” 

“I’m glad you finally found us, Ma’am. What happened?”

“When we got the order to move, in the confusion, some of us had to walk until I came upon Captains Roland and Fox. Has anyone seen Ethel Thor? I can’t account for her.”

Silence. 

Without the luxury of sight, the nurses heard the twinge of worry that warbled Nesbit’s voice. “It’s a hodgepodge scramble. I’m sure Sgt. Thor will catch up.”

The voices whispered their assurances in turn. 

“She’s a tough cookie.” 

“I watched her help Capt. Roland with a complicated surgery. Her hands were inside the cavity rearranging the innards of a patient while Paul stitched his aorta.”  

“A crusty old bird, that one.”   

“She’s a lifer.” 

Then the nurses turned to themselves. “Not this nurse. As soon as the war is over, I’m head’n back to Atlanta to kiss my future husband and watch my children grow up.” 

“Fitzgerald? That you? Amen to that, Carol.”

“I’m going to live in a big city and eat in cafes every day. I’ll find a nice man who loves books, and we will live together in sin.” 

“Who said that?” 

“What? That was Barbara?”

“I thought you’d be back in your Minneapolis neighborhood, married, and filling up on bagels with lox?” 

“And a chocolate egg cream.” Barbara chuckled. “I pledge to order both every day for the rest of my life. But it won’t be in Minneapolis.” 

“And no husband?” 

“Of course, if the right man came along. Someone like Jack. But I’m going to New York City. My mother will eventually get over it.” Won’t she?

Laura Wolfe said, “My mom did not want me to be a nurse. If I made this a career– it wouldn’t be in the Army. I don’t want to grow accustomed to this craziness.” 

Josie Nesbit’s contribution surprised them. “My mother wanted me to marry. I told her I have had a thousand husbands and saved them from death. Isn’t that enough? Why must I be married?”  

The blanket of camaraderie covered them and settled their nerves until a hefty explosion silenced their chattering. They had a clear view of an ammunition dump explosion along the coast. The fireworks catapulted upward like white ribbons reaching for the moon. Lt. Nesbit announced, “I’m going to the pier. Maybe there’s someone who can take us to Corregidor. If a boat arrives, nurses, make sure you take it.”  

“I’ll go with you, Lieutenant,” said Lt. Fox.  They scrambled down to the harbor buildings. Soon a Navy seaman waved his flashlight in their direction. He pulled a cord and started the outboard motor attached to the stern of a dinghy.  

Captain Roland said, “Go, girls. He can take the six of you across the bay to the island. We’ll catch the next ride.” 

Barbara, Cleopatra, Laura, Carol, and two Filipino nurses crept with their heads down to the dock. The waning moon kept the waters dark, and their eyes adjusted to shadows. As the boat puttered away from Mariveles Bay, no one said a word. The water was smooth, and Barbara inserted her finger into the coolness. Laura reached over and yanked on her arm. She pointed. A few yards away the water shifted and rolled. The dorsal fins of several sharks sliced up through the water testing the air. Barbara yelped and put her hand back in her lap.  

* * * * * *

It did not take them long to cross five nautical miles to Corregidor Island. They thanked the inscrutable sailor who grunted he needed to return to get the others. Barbara thought of the ferryman Charon. If she had a gold coin, she would have tossed it to him, for she felt she had crossed the Styx and was indeed in the underworld. She forgot about the boat and turned to climb up the steep path that cut through a grove of Dap-dap trees. The nurses helped each other up the incline by using the flexible branches for leverage. The scarlet blossoms glowed eerily in the pre-dawn light. The two Filipino nurses gathered several blossoms and stuffed the petals in with their personal belongings.  

Barbara asked, “What will you do with them?” 

They answered simultaneously. “Monthly cramps. A tea for joint pain.” 

“I think the Armed Forces should take advantage of your knowledge of what’s offered on the islands.” Barbara suddenly slapped her neck. “What repels mosquitos?” 

Cleopatra moved slowly. She leaned against the top of a boulder to balance herself. “My lola told me to gather lemongrass and plant it next to our home. It helped keep them away.” 

“Well, if you see any, point it out. I’m going to stuff the grass in every pocket I have. Hell, I’ll even wash with it.”

Laura puffed out a sound to show her amazement. “Babs, you’re the only one of us who has not come down with Malaria.” 

“I’d like to keep it that way.” 

When Carol was excited, her southern roots appeared. A one-syllable word became two, and the ends of her words lingered. “I’ll start a po-ol. I’ll wager a dolla’ that Kiss won’t get Malaria by the first of Ju-ly.” 

“I like those odds.” Barbara stopped to breathe and stared at the east horizon brightening. She said to her friends, “I refuse to get Malaria.” 

The nurses marched on. Mercury-vapor lights greeted them at the cement mouth of Malinta Tunnel. It was wide enough for a bus to enter. They moved out of the way to allow an ambulance to deliver new patients while corpsmen hurried to meet the truck. Inside, an Army private first class volunteered to escort them across the main hospital area to the nurses’ barracks.

Laura choked on her words. “Wow! It’s the size of a city block.”

Barbara counted several lateral tunnels to where stretcher-bearers disappeared with patients. They walked by several side tunnels where a blur of medical personnel entered and exited. Carol said to Barbara, “I hope they let us sleep a little before reporting to duty.” Carol’s lips contorted into a grimace as she reached behind her ear to scratch the itch from a bee sting inflicted on the way up the path. Behind her, Barbara likened Carol to the Irish Setter scratching. The PFC led them down a side tunnel to a long row of bunk beds. It was dimly lit and smelled clammy from oily shoes and hardened socks. Nurses slept two to a bunk. One set of bunk beds was empty. The PFC announced, “This is all that’s left.” Carol dragged herself up to the top bunk, and Cleopatra followed behind her. Laura and Barbara looked at the Filipino nurses who traveled with them.

“Shall we flip a coin?” said Barbara. The pair were good sports. “We’ll trade with you every other day.” They took off their metal helmets and lay on the cement floor against the tunnel wall and fell asleep instantly. Barbara and Laura flopped down on the lower bunk’s decrepit mattress. After months of noise and upheaval, the nurses were too numb to register the odors of thousands of people who hid in the Malinta Tunnel with them. In the narrow space, Laura yawned and passed out. Barbara ignored her aches and pains and welcomed the motionless moment as if she floated naked in warm waters.      

They slept for four hours before a high-ranking nurse ordered them to awaken. Ringing ears, scratchy eyes, and stiff limbs made it hard to stand. The PFC who met them at the entrance now waited for them in the main tunnel. He spoke, but in Barbara’s ears, it sounded like bees buzzing.

 “Chow time. Follow me.”  

The new arrivals shuffled their feet behind him. Their hollow steps reflected their dopey minds until they entered the main hangar. Noisy machines and crowds of civilians and soldiers shocked them awake. They descended by stairs to a lower level where the chow hall was located. Barbara strained to catch sight of SSG Oscar Wozniak and thought, I don’t even know if he’s alive. They entered the line and grabbed a metal plate peering ahead, salivating with hope. This was more food than they had eaten in a week. Coffee. Boiled eggs. Toast. Oatmeal. They accepted all of it, squeezed into a crudely made picnic table, and wolfed down their food. Their stomachs filled too quickly, so they crammed toast into their pockets for later. They saw Lt. Nesbit a distance away with Ethel Thor, Patty Parr, and a group of Filipino nurses who they recognized from Hospital No. 2. 

“Anyone surprised that Ethel and Patty made it?” asked Laura, swallowing the last spoonful of her oatmeal.   

Carol snipped, “I bet when the Japs faced Parr, she growled, and they raced for the hills.”

Dulay lifted her wobbly arm and waved at them. Lt. Nesbit’s worry lines softened, and her eyes rounded with joy behind her glasses. She marched over to their table. 

Carol’s eyebrows lifted and arched. “How does she have the energy to move so fast?” 

“Excellent! Here you are.” Nesbit scribbled a number on a pad of paper. “We are all counted for. All eighty-eight nurses from Hospital No. 2 survived the transit with no losses.” She lifted her face up to the brick convex ceiling and mouthed to God, “Thank you.”   

Barbara asked, “Have you heard anything about the patients we left behind?” 

“No, nothing.” 

Patty Parr elbowed her way to the front of the group. “Hey, how’s it going?” Most of the nurses forced a smile and nodded back. Barbara wondered, Why do we feel the need to be nice to unpleasant people? Patty stared at Barbara waiting for a sign of recognition. Barbara looked at her short, spirally hair and squat nose. Straight eyebrows framed the eyes the color of steelies like the marbles she played as a girl. Barbara conceded Parr had an enviable, curvy figure. If she would just calm down and smile once in a while, she would be less frightening. Barbara’s face remained impassive until Patty looked away and said, “So now what, Lieutenant? What’s the plan?”

Ethel Thor stepped forward. “We just heard there are 12,000 people crammed into this tunnel. More wounded come by the hour.” 

Lt. Nesbit said, “Our job is clear. We are professional nurses for as long as we stay here. I will have your assignments posted in an hour.” Josie smiled at them, her merry crinkles surrounding the warmth in her eyes. Her authority was unquestioned. Throughout the unending chaos, Lt. Nesbit kept the order, and that was what kept the unit calm. Barbara felt the mutual admiration around the table for this grand woman.  

“Finish your breakfast, wash your pits and privates, and meet me back here in one hour.” 

“Yes, Ma’am,” they answered in unison. 

As an afterthought, Nesbit added, “Oh, before you go, I’d like to introduce you to Navy first class petty officer Vogel.” She seemed to produce him from behind her back like a magic trick and brought him forward to the nurses sitting around the table. “Petty officer Vogel briefs newcomers about Malinta Tunnel and Corregidor Island.”  

“Hello.” He pushed his glasses up on his nose above his bashful smile. He picked at the button on his fatigues and took off his hat to wipe the sweat off his forehead. Barbara could not refrain. She leaned toward Laura’s ear and whispered, “a toy Spaniel.”  

With the hint of a stutter, he inhaled a big breath which made his cheeks puff out like a trumpet player. Barbara instantly liked him. Goodness. Are we that intimidating? Barbara swept her eyes around the table of sunken eyes and bony bodies. Cleopatra Dulay looked faint. Laura Wolfe was plagued with dysentery. Carol Fitzgerald kept pinching her eyes and grabbing the back of her neck. Patty Parr looked like she had jaundice. For many days, they had no access to the atabrine. Barbara’s stomach cramps abated but in its place her throat was swollen and her ears rang. It was the onset of something. She was so thirsty that her swollen tongue made it hard for air to go down her windpipe. Barbara stared at Cleopatra who stood wobbling between Sgt. Thor and Lt. Nesbit. 

Barbara had not been listening to petty officer Vogel. He must have asked if they were fit for duty because Carol became indignant and coughed out an answer, “We may-a-be raggedy on the outside, but our hearts are strong, and we’re still standin’.”  

On cue, Dulay passed out. Arms held her up. Patty said the obvious, “Get her to a bunk bed. She’s out of commission.” 

Petty officer Vogel started puffing with exasperation. “W-would you like some information now?” 

Patty said, “Make it snappy, buster. We have to start working soon.”

He dove into his script and recited in a high-pitched monotone, “Estimates for Malinta Tunnel are as follows: seven thousand combat troops, two thousand civilians, and three thousand military administrators and medical personnel. Civilians are below in subterranean barracks. Your tunnel is next to the hospital, obviously.”

He paused and looked above his paper to see if the nurses were listening. He swallowed a couple times and continued. “There are several layers to the tunnel. The air ventilation system does its best, but most think it’s useless. The tunnel serves as the headquarters of the Philippine Commonwealth government. We also have a classified tunnel where Navy officers and select enlisted men decrypt Japanese radio traffic. Topside there are strategically placed pillboxes defending the island. However, the heart of our defense is Battery Way with four, 12-inch M1890 mortars.” 

Barbara asked, “Can they update us on what happened with the patients in Hospital No. 2? We lost our company commander. Can we go ask where Lt. Col. Schwartz might have been taken?” 

“Oh, no. That’s a top-secret tunnel. That is, there’s no way they’d let nurses in.” 

Patty snapped dryly, “They would if they were hurt. What if we tossed in a grenade to shake things up?” She laughed. Petty officer Vogel stared at her mortified. He realized his mouth dropped open, and he closed it.  

Barbara stood and excused herself. Laura followed her. The other nurses reacted and helped one another to stand. Petty officer Vogel stood there. He must have had more information to share, but now he had no audience. With jerky movements, he contemplated staying or leaving. Patty Parr squinted at him and walked away shaking her head. Petty officer Vogel made a decision. He saluted Lt. Nesbit and left, his cheeks puffing.  

******

For the next two weeks, time became a rushed, repetitive cycle as though the medical staff of Malinta tunnel was hamsters running circles in a wheel and getting nowhere. Bombs shook the walls, and the dust entered their nasal passages and traveled to their lungs. Barbara learned to breathe through her mouth to avoid the stench of human waste and blood. She grew accustomed to red lights signaling an air raid. During surgeries, the lights would cut out and corpsmen stepped in with flashlights to shine on mutilated body parts. Barbara retreated into her head, fighting dyspnea by remembering lines from poems or placing herself in her future New York City apartment. In her clean, airy home she imagined tall bookshelves and a pair of velvet wing chairs facing a crackling fire. Though she tried to insulate herself, she could not escape the immediacy of war’s gruesome pressures. The tunnel bore a weight that slowly suffocated them all.   

Barbara talked to her patients and asked the same questions. Where had they fallen and did they know Lt. Col. Schwartz’s whereabouts? She could not explain the persistent need to find Jack other than it became a habit to do so. She admired his goodness and his respectability among the medical staff. She felt silly for her infatuation. Was he married? Where was he from? The distraction of wondering about his whereabouts manifested into a pleasant daydream where she added him to her imaginary setting like a figurine in a dollhouse. She set Jack in the velvet wing chair facing the fire and brought him a Bourbon sliding over ice cubes. Tonight darling, let’s discuss“Rappacinni’s Daughter” by Nathanial Hawthorne. He looked up at her, his black hair shiny with waves, his sharp blue eyes loving her. A loud crash pulled her out of her reverie. She was back in the tunnel carrying morphine needles to the third ward, and she cursed the interruption. With daily rapidity, the food and medical supplies diminished, the oxygen evaporated, and in that environment what blossomed inside Barbara was loathing — an insidious flower of poison with one purpose — to hate the Japanese. 

She sneaked out of the tunnel at night when the aerial attacks stopped. She swallowed the air with the hope it would sweep out of her cluttered mind. I became a nurse to serve and love. She thought herself superior to the barbaric emotion of hatred. Barbara tried to recall what Rabbi Aronsky said about tolerance and love. His voice disintegrated into a whispery memory each time Japanese pilots flew over the island dropping bombs, and as a result, debilitated soldiers arrived at the mouth of the tunnel. 

One night, Barbara, Laura, and Carol exited the west entrance of the tunnel. Air became more important than sleep. Barbara said, “At least we are at the top level. Can you imagine being a civilian and having to stay down below? The crappy way the ventilators work? The air has to be too thin.”

The three followed a path upward leading to a flat ridge hidden by bushes. Should the Japanese bombers decide on a nocturnal raid, they hoped they would not attract attention. They sat shoulder to shoulder and looked at the constellations above them. Laura passed around a cigarette to share. Her platinum hair seemed too bright. Barbara gave her the combat hat she had on. Laura said bemused, “No matter what’s going on down here, the stars stay constant. They couldn’t care less about World War II.” 

Carol added, “It doesn’t seem like God cares, either.” 

Barbara snorted her disagreement. “Nonsense. Men in power are trying to rule the world. God didn’t create this chaos. The Japanese and Nazis did.”

Laura said, “All we can do is serve with honor.” 

Carol took a drink of water from her canteen. “That’s what the Japs think, too. How has honor been so distorted?” 

She passed the metal container to Barbara who declined. She did not dare share her germs. Of all the illnesses to get in the Philippines, her childhood complaint revisited Barbara like an odious guest. By the pricking of my thumbs, she remembered the witches scene from Macbeth and mumbled, “Something wicked this way comes.” 

Her friends looked at her confused. Laura said, “The Japs?”

Barbara was too tired to explain. Compared to the dying soldiers she interacted with on a daily basis, it was not important enough to mention she had a sore throat. She felt sure she needed a tonsillectomy. She self-prescribed a regimen of gargling with saltwater. She had a low-grade fever, but was not everyone suffering from something? At least she avoided Malaria. Carol’s pool was up to seventeen dollars. Today was May first. In a few months, Barbara hoped to win a small fortune. Distractions. How else would they survive? 

Barbara blurted, “I think God is testing us.”

“What do you mean, Babs?”

Barbara felt tears sting her eyes. “Here we are in hell trying to survive and help others survive. I don’t think there will ever be a time in my life where my actions will have this kind of meaning.” 

Laura let her hair out of her rubberband and scratched her scalp. In the dark, Barbara imagined Laura on a sunny day back in her small town of Wisconsin. She saw Laura on roller skates with pink-apple cheeks and a flip-flopping ponytail while her arms swung beside her shifting hips.  

Laura sounded defiant. “You’ve all seen the victory films. We are fighting against aggression and protecting our freedoms.” She folded her arms. A few days ago, the Japanese had two successful hits. One bomb destroyed the laundry room. During the next sorge, the water tanks exploded. So long clean sheets and showers. Laura exclaimed angrily, “I’d shoot myself before Hitler or Tojo ruled my world.” 

Barbara mulled over how the naive girl from Mazomanie Wisconsin came to worry about dictators and death. She said a little prayer hoping Laura would not be so changed after the war that she boxed up her roller skates and stuffed them into a closet to be forever forgotten.   

****

Part Two of Chapter 5 is forthcoming by next Friday as I’ll be leaving Arizona and heading 2,000 miles to Virginia. I am so busy, I apologize for neglecting your posts. Thank you for reading.

Love & Friendship,

Cindy

1940s, books, historical fiction, history, The Lost Sisters of Bataan, World War II, writing

WW2: Chapter 3, Barbara

This is my dedication novel to the women and men who fought in the Philippines during World War II.

Chapter 3

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.”

“Excellent choice.” 

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.”

“Where to?” 

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.” 

“What?”  

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.

1940s, books, historical fiction, history, World War II, writing

WW2: Chapter 2, Zorka Kiss

This is the first draft of The Lost Sisters of Bataan, my dedication to the women and men who fought in the Philippines during World War Two. Your comments and criticisms are welcome.

Chapter 2 

April 1, 1942 

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 were 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 Kade came 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 paternal 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 Kitzinger’s. It produced little comfort, but she understood it was not important in light of the times. It was 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 rehearsal. 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 anxiety. The northside neighborhood exhaled hand-wringing energy that made her insides flip.  

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 to the sky at the globe veiled behind wispy clouds and concentrated on the tips of the trees that sprouted leaves. Zorka counted 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.   

Zorka picked up a branch and poked at the brick sidewalk like the hoyden from her youth. She turned the poking into a rhythm, and her feet marched to the beat. Dot dot dot dash. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Due to its morse code equivalency of the letter V, the allies adopted the opening of the symphony as their anthem. The “V is for Victory” movement began. To Zorka, there was no victory to celebrate. Discussions and discarded newspapers informed Zorka of alarming incidents as the war continued into 1942. German Luftwaffe night raids pulverized the United Kingdom. News leaked of the deportation of Austrian Jews to ghettos in Poland. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the papers reported one Japanese assault after another upon the islands of Southeast Asia. Scared of a Japanese invasion on the west coast, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 forcing Japanese Americans from their homes to detainment camps. Zorka worried for her sister Barbara stationed at Manila Bay. Barbara’s recent letter notified the family of her retreat to a jungle hospital with an indifference that belied the situation. Zorka did not trust her words. Her penmanship was too slanted like the strokes bore an inexorable weight. Zorka participated in various causes to help the war effort, but recycling rubber and using a ration book felt piddling. She visualized the woes of all who suffered, and her frustration multiplied like cysts growing on her organs, filling her, leaving little room to breathe.

 Her pressing worry was the whereabouts of Aunt Lottie. At times, when Zorka’s mother volunteered at Beth El Synagogue, she snuck into her mother’s desk and read their correspondence. Tied with ribbons, in the bundle labeled “1938”, Zorka’s mother begged her sister Lottie to immigrate to Minnesota. Lottie replied it was too far away to move their bedridden mother. She would not leave Budapest. “Be patient, Margit. Hungary is allied with the Nazis. The restrictions will pass if we are patient.” In the “1939” stack, there was a tone of aggravation in Aunt Lottie’s letters as though she responded to demands made by her sister. “The war will end soon, Margit. My life is here. I did not find a good husband like you. Who will take care of Anja if I leave?” 

Zorka dropped the stick and picked up her pace. Her thoughts went elsewhere, and her heart sank once more. She was embarrassed with the knowledge that she was not cut out to be a nurse. Zorka was woozy at the sight of blood. Body fluids made her gag. She did not like learning the parts of the anatomy, and she fumbled when wrapping a wound of a stranger. This was her second semester, and she hated the idea of becoming a nurse. She thought, How does Barbara stand it?

Zorka arrived at 14th and Penn Avenue. She climbed the steps and entered the grand semi-circle arch of Beth El Synagogue. She met the other musicians of the quartet in the social hall and sat next to her friend, Panna. They rehearsed Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14. During the fifth movement, Leib, the first violinist, let the tempo drag which caused the second violinist to stray. Zorka wanted to hit Leib’s pimply face over the head with her bow. Finally, the rehearsal was over. By holding her hand and pulling, she rushed Panna out of the building. Panna adjusted her glasses and almost lost a loafer as they raced down the front steps. 

 “Where’s the fire, Z?”
Zorka puffed out her indignance. “I’m too old to be playing with kids.” 

“Don’t let Leib get to you. He’s trying.”

“How many times have we gone over movement five? Twenty? Forty times? He still 

can’t get it right.”  

“It’s his first time as the lead.” 

They had practiced for almost a year. Zorka memorized her part of the viola months ago and longed for next week’s Minneapolis Spring Festival concert to hurry up and be over. She had outgrown adolescent rehearsals and parent-audience recitals. There had to be something more–adult–to do with her instrument. She did not have a plan, however, and quitting was not an option. Her bow was an extension of her arm, and the viola was her second heart. The viola selected the girl at a young age. Her natural ability delighted her parents and Rabbi David Aronson made a point of praising her abilities. Such reinforcement helped her motivation. Throughout her young life, she aspired to master difficult pieces until she became one of the best musicians in the twin cities.

The two friends walked down St. Paul Street together. The sun disappeared behind treetops, and their shadows grew long. Zorka sniffed the perfume of Lily of the Valley. It meant she reached the corner flower bed at her home. Panna accepted the invitation to dine with the Kiss family; she followed Zorka up the front steps past the porch swing, and they entered the two-story craftsman, careful not to slam the door. The runner absorbed their steps past the dining room to the kitchen at the back of the house. The light was on. Zorka’s mother had bread baking in the oven. It was a large room with tall cupboards and in the center was a metal dinette set. The meal plan was Rakott Krumpli, a potato-egg casserole. Zorka guessed her mother was upstairs freshening up before her father returned from working at his dentist practice. Panna was petite, and the apron she wrapped around her hips overlapped. She giggled at herself. She helped Zorka by peeling and slicing the potatoes. Zorka heated the water to boil eggs and then chopped and sauteed onions in butter. 

Zorka blurted, “I’m thinking I ought to enlist as a WAC and serve like Barbara. Or go to Budapest and find Aunt Lottie.”

Panna grabbed the casserole dish from a cupboard and handed it to Zorka. “Don’t be ridiculous. They’d arrest you, and you’d be a goner like your Aunt.” Panna smacked her tiny palm to her forehead. “Slica, Zorka! That came out terribly.” Her dark eyes watered. “Please, forgive me.” 

Zorka was quiet. She ran cold water over the boiled eggs and peeled them on the front page of the Star Tribune. She responded,  “I know something bad has happened. My mother won’t accept it. We haven’t heard from Aunt Lottie for months.” Zorka sliced up the boiled eggs. She grabbed sour cream and a block of cheddar from the icebox. “You know what I heard the other day? The Germans have built several hundred ghettos throughout Eastern Europe. What if they make a ghetto in Budapest?”

 Panna’s expression hardened. She sprinkled pepper and salt on top of the layers. “My cousins are from Erd. That’s only ten miles outside of Budapest. I didn’t know them, but it is sad to think they are in the path of that megalomaniac. My mother hasn’t heard from our cousins in ages.” 

Zorka looked out the window to the backyard where a few chickens picked at the grass. She needed to put them in their hutch for the night. Zorka tried to think of different news. New news. “The Star Tribune reported that there is a new Japanese military language school starting up at Camp Savage.”

Panna followed Zorka out back and helped her chase the chickens into their coop. “Why on earth in Minnesota?” 

“Since Roosevelt issued the order to gather up Japanese Americans in detention centers out west, no state wants to house a spy school for the Nisei —”

“Nisei?”

Zorka smoothed her skirt and reentered the house. “Their parents are Japanese who immigrated to the states and had children. The Nisei are U.S. citizens.” Zorka stopped at the herb garden on the enclosed porch. She pinched off some parsley and reentered the kitchen. “Since the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese aren’t much liked.”

Panna joined Zorka at the sink to wash her hands. “But they are Japs, right? I mean, their parents live here, but in their hearts, are they Japanese?” 

Zorka thought about it. “Well, what are we? Are we Hungarians, or Americans? Or worse–Bohunks?”

Panna looked into a mirror in the hallway and smoothed her straight hair. “Tsuris. I’m American! Our parents speak Yiddish, but I rarely do unless at home. I’ve been told my whole life to act American and to fit in at the public school. I speak English. Buy Christmas presents for friends. Go to baseball games. Just like you, behind closed doors, we are Hungarian Jews honoring the traditions.”

Panna returned to the kitchen to help clean up. She lifted the newspaper holding the potato peels. “Do you suppose the grown children of the Japanese–Nisei–think of themselves as American?”
Zorka shrugged. “How would I know?”  

Panna blinked away the topic. “Let’s go downtown tomorrow night.”

“To do what?” 

Panna inhaled sharply. “Let’s go dancing.” 

“How can you think of dancing? There’s a war on, you know. Besides, the pickings are thin.” 

Panna held the entertainment section. She bent her head sideways to decipher the page and said, “I’m tired of thinking about the war. Let’s go to the World to see a movie, then.” 

“Fine by me. I’m tired of studying the Endocrine system. Big test on Monday.”  

“Bambi is playing.”

A cartoon for children. Zorka rolled her eyes. “Bambi. Oi vey.” 

* * * * * 

At The World Theater, Zorka and Panna sat at the back of the lower level. From there, they admired the pretty hats and slicked-back hair of the couples in front of them. The theater filled quickly. A female usher wearing a blue suit and a pillbox hat walked down the aisle. She carried a tray of candies, popcorn, and cigarettes. They paid for a bag of popcorn. When the film began, Zorka felt exasperated. It’s Thursday night. I’m twenty. The best I can think to do is to watch a movie for children? When the scene came to when Bambi’s mother was shot, Panna started to cry. Zorka suggested they step outside. The lights from window displays and the steady line of cars passing by suggested possibilities; it was not long before Panna recomposed. They walked in silence at a loss of anything important to say.    

Zorka and Panna turned down a side street to where a diner’s neon lights pulsated at them. They entered, slid into a booth, and ordered french fries and a Coke to share. A Johnny Mercer tune played on the jukebox. In a booth next to them were two Japanese men in Army uniforms each drinking a cup of coffee. Zorka tried not to look, but she kept stealing glances at their mannerisms. When Zorka heard them speaking English, she leaned toward them and asked if they were associated with the new intelligence base. Panna’s eyebrows raised in shock. 

The soldier nearest to Zorka surveyed her face and smiled. She said a silent prayer of thanks that tonight she remembered to apply fuschia lipstick.   

The soldier’s eyes were the color of roasted almonds. “I’m Joe and this is Sam.” 

Zorka rolled her eyes. “Stop it. I’m not stupid.” 

He laughed at her. “Sorry, pretty girl. Really, it’s Ken. This is Frank.” His companion had narrow shoulders and bony facial features. He looked as though he had eaten bad oysters.       

Zorka wasn’t sure if she should believe they had American names, but she let it go. “Are you two stationed at Camp Savage?” 

“Yes, we sure are. We have R&R tonight. Want to join us?” 

“Sure!”

Panna frowned. Zorka ignored her and moved across the aisle to sit next to Ken. Panna had no choice but to join them in the booth and distanced herself from Frank.    

Zorka asked, “Tell us about the intelligence base. What do you do there?”

The skinny man called Frank leered at her and over-enunciated, “It’s top-secret.” 

Zorka tried again, softening her voice. “What can you share that won’t compromise your position?” 

Frank lit a cigarette. Ken took Zorka’s hand and examined it. “Come on, Frank, ease up. Do these look like the hands of a spy?”

Frank was smug. “That’s what we are, ladies, spies for the U.S.A.” 

Panna turned in her seat to face them, her curiosity getting the better of her. “You enlisted, then, to come here? What about those new Jap camps in California?” 

Ken winced. “Please, that’s harsh, eh? They are Japanese Internment Camps. The Army asked me to recruit at Manzanar. I convinced Frank to enlist.”

Zorka blurted, “Why would you join the Army when the government put your people in camps?”

“Wow, you sure get to the point.” Ken wiped his face pretending she had thrown a glass of water at him.

Zorka blushed. “I’m sorry–not very lady-like, I get it.” 

Panna added, “We don’t see many Japanese in Minneapolis. You are an anomaly.” 

Ken shrugged off his irritation and laughed. “That’s a new one. I like it. Hey, Frank, we’re anomalies.” 

Panna scooted out of the booth. “This was a bad idea.” 

Ken tried to stop her by placing his hand on her forearm. Panna raised her eyebrows, and he removed his hand. He returned his gaze to Zorka and admired her dainty nose and lips like a Japanese flower in bloom. “We don’t get out much. It’s very nice to sit across the table with pretty girls. There’s only a few at the school.” 

“What do you do there?” 

Ken took a drag from his cigarette considering the question. He exhaled above their heads. Zorka appreciated the courtesy and liked how his expressive mouth made his words more lively. “We’re linguists. We’re learning how to read and decipher Japanese. We will be assigned as interpreters and shipped somewhere where there’s a need.” 

Zorka concentrated on his lips, but Ken’s friend interpreted something different. Frank’s scowl reappeared as he studied Zorka’s mystified expression. “We’re Americans, dammit. I grew up in Seattle. He’s from Kansas City. Our parents wanted us to enlist to demonstrate our loyalty because they were upset by how many white people think we aren’t American.” He inhaled his cigarette deeply and exhaled. “We went to American schools. We watch American movies.” He leaned back in the booth and closed his eyes until they were slits on his face. 

The waitress set the plate of fries and a glass of Coke with two straws at their table. She plopped down the red ketchup dispenser. Frank’s eyes opened and stared hard at Zorka. He reached over and grabbed a crinkled french fry and blew on it. “We went to college before the war broke out. I studied accounting, and Ken is an architect.”  

Panna looked at Zorka with impatience. Annoyed eyes behind her glasses said, Are you satisfied? Can we go? 

Zorka looked at Ken. She wished he’d pick up her hand again. Instead, he looked at her fingers, noticing the depressions in the digits of her index finger, and the way the tips of her fingers curled gracefully on the table.  “Ah, you are a musician. Violin?” 

Zorka smiled brightly. “Viola.” 

Resigned, Panna added after a moment, “I play the cello.” 

Frank ate their fries one by one without apology. Ken volunteered, “I like to play the piano.” He wrote down the name Ken Suzuki with his phone number on a napkin and passed it to Zorka. His eyes shone as if they had been dipped in chocolate. “Your name?” 

She thought of saying, Sue or Jane. Something American. “Zorka. Zorka Kiss.” 

Ken’s grin revealed a perfect line of white teeth. “You are a killer-diller.” He rubbed the back of Zorka’s hand with his index finger. “Next time we have the day off, Zorka and–”

“Panna.” 

Ken’s voice was energetic. “There’s a jazz bar a few blocks away. The place will be empty, and we could play together? Have our own jam session? Are you free on Friday or Saturday?”

Zorka said, “Better make it a different day. We observe the Sabbath.” 

“Oh, Jews.” He said it like he had found a unique shell on a beach. “I’ve never met Jewish girls before. What do you do during Sabbath? Wait! Nevermind. Tell me all about it next time we see each other.” He smacked the table with confirmation. “Alright, I’ll put in a request chit for a Monday or Tuesday off. The bus ride isn’t long from MISLS.”   

Panna took a polite sip of the Coke. “What’s that stand for?”

“Military Intelligence Service Language School.” 

Zorka tried to be friendly to Frank. “What do you play?”

“Nothing.” 

Panna’s round eyes pleaded to Ken. “Maybe you have another friend who plays an instrument?” 

“Sure, sure. I got friends. Don’t mind Frank. He doesn’t like anything.” Ken twisted his torso to look for the waitress. She stood at the cash register skimming through a magazine. He set two quarters on the table to cover the tab. “Nice to meet you, Zorka and Panna. Call that number soon. Ask for me. We’ll set it up.” 

Later that night in bed, Zorka recreated Ken’s face in the dark. She liked his friendly demeanor. She liked his muscled arms. His big hands. She imagined him touching the keys on the piano. She imagined his hands touching her body with the same sensitivity. It would be a long few weeks, but she was glad there was something to think about other than the war.

* * * * *

Zorka skipped her classes on Monday. Instead, she reported to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Red Cross center and volunteered to fill care packages for the Europe Production Corps. Second Lieutenant Mary Stone was a silver-haired, WWI veteran in charge of the local chapter. Every time Zorka volunteered, Stone’s sales pitch was only a matter of time. “There are eleven branches of the Red Cross, Zorka. Why don’t you pick one and sign up to be a leader? You can make a big difference in the war effort. How about working for the USO? 

“Can you get me a job and send me to the Pacific?”

“Wouldn’t you rather work in Europe at an allied base for the USO?” 

“I’m not interested in serving coffee and donuts, Lt. Stone.”

“How about the administrative corp?” 

“I can’t type.” 

“Nurses assistant? Blood donor program? Aren’t you studying to be a nurse?” 

“Turns out I’m squeamish about blood.”  

“What about the Motor Corp? You’d be transporting the sick and wounded and delivering supplies. It’s a crucial part of the war. Much more interesting than passing out donuts.” 

Zorka bit her lips in consideration. The pause was enough for Lt. Stone to proceed. “Of course, as a part of the Motor Corp, you’d receive training in auto mechanics as it would be expected you’d fix your vehicle if it broke down. We could send you on a troopship to the Pacific. Where did you say you wanted to go?” 

“The Philippines.” 

“Okay. Let me see what I can find out. Can you volunteer this Wednesday or Thursday? We’re packing comfort kits.”   

“Sure.” 

Zorka stopped going to classes. She avoided Panna. On Thursday, Zorka arrived at the Red Cross station and packed various items in goodwill boxes heading to Europe. This week the station packed raisins, coffee, corned beef, sugar, dried milk, biscuits, orange concentrate, chocolate bars, and cigarettes. Other packages contained medical supplies, clothing, toilet articles, seeds, and gardening materials. At the end of her shift, Lt. Stone requested Zorka to come to her office. “There’s a spot needed in the Motor Corp in the Philippines. The steamer Orinoco is leaving San Francisco in a week. After an introductory session of what to expect, the Red Cross will send you to the Philippines. We will pay for your tickets to get to San Francisco.”

Lt. Stone’s expression clouded over. “Zorka, I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you that what you’re requesting is a danger zone. The Japanese have taken control of Manila. I can’t guarantee your safety. We’ve heard of evacuations and quite honestly, there’s been reports of the Japanese not allowing Red Cross packages through to U.S. soldiers.” 

Zorka thought of Barbara. Backed into a corner in the jungle of Bataan. Was she even alive?    

* * * * *

Zorka and Panna took a cab to the address of the jazz club Ken suggested. It was three in the afternoon, and they entered the club carrying their instruments. Panna whispered to Zorka, “I don’t know how to play jazz. Are there jazz cellists?” Zorka sighed. “Who cares? We’ll improvise.” On the small stage, Ken played the piano while another Japanese American soldier improvised playing the drums. The owner was away from the bar, so Zorka helped herself to a rum and Coke. Panna had a Coke minus the alcohol. The music was soothing as they positioned themselves on the bar stools. When Ken turned his head and recognized them, he waved them over with that boyish enthusiasm that appealed to Zorka. Zorka took out her viola and jumped on stage, the white horse hairs of her bow finding the pure notes on the strings. Panna joined in, too. After a bit, she grew awkward and the notes stumbled.  She could not break free from structure or maybe she did not want to be a part of the loose, improvisational experience. She retreated from the stage and hid in the shadows to watch. 

Zorka let Ken kiss her cheek. After two stiff drinks, she relaxed and wanted to dance. They started dancing. Zorka told Panna to stop pouting and play something on her cello. Ken pulled her close and put his cheek on hers. How wonderful to smell his aftershave. How wonderful to have a handsome man have his hand on her back. She was sitting on a cloud of delight and decided to ruin it.  

“I’m leaving next week.”

Ken pulled back and then closed his eyes and swung her around. “Oh, yeah? Where you going?”

“I signed up with the Red Cross. I volunteered to go to Manila. My sister is there.”

“Umm. Not a good idea, you know. The Japanese Imperial Army took over the city.”

“How do you feel about that? Ach, sorry. How strange to be you!”

Ken chuckled. “I don’t want to think about how strange I am.” He dipped her and looked into her eyes. “I keep telling you, I consider myself American. I think the Japanese Imperial Army is evil and God Bless America.” He twirled her some more and brought his hand over her tailbone. Ken whispered, “I think you’re perfect. For a Bohunk.” He winked at her. 

Zorka acted offended and excused herself. After more music and alcohol, Zorka was jubilant. Even Panna had one Coke with rum and talked to Ken’s buddy. Zorka felt an emotional tug about saying goodbye. Ken gave her a salute. “Long live the brave Zorka who is leaving us to fly to the Philippines. Who knows what will happen. May she return to Minneapolis older and wiser. What do you say? Let’s agree after the war we meet back here and have a reunion party. We have to keep in touch, okay?” 

Panna sat down. Zorka was tipsy and felt her face flush. 

Panna said loudly, “Brave? You coward! I’m your best friend! How could you not tell me?” She put her violin in its case and marched out of the club sniffling.  Chagrined, Zorka did not go after her. She looked at Ken and put her arms around his neck and asked, “Don’t you have some Japanese girl at home?”

He pushed aside a section of hair that fell in front of her nose. “Nope.” Ken kissed her lips, then whispered, “Wanna be my pen pal?” 

Zorka smiled. “You bet.” She wrote down her address on a cocktail napkin. “In case, after the war, you want to look me up.” 

Ken grabbed another napkin and scribbled down an address. “I can do one better. Write to me at the intelligence school. They will forward any letter you write to my future assignment.”

“Oh, what if we never see each other? Ouch!” 

He kissed her hard. “Bye, pretty girl.” 

Zorka put away her viola and waved goodbye. As she left, she hoped the smile she placed on her face covered the conflicted emotions of sadness, regret, and happiness. 

Thank you for taking the time to read Chapter 2.

In case you would like to peruse a past post about the research, I invite you to check out the following link. https://wordpress.com/post/cindybruchman.com/18646