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

WW2 Chapter 4, Zorka

The Lost Sisters of Bataan is my dedication novel to the women and men who fought in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation. Your criticisms and comments are welcome.

Chapter 4

April 30, 1942

Zorka did not know what to make of her feelings for Ken Suzuki. She was flattered by his persistence to see her. When the Red Cross issued her per diem to travel to San Francisco, he announced that he, too, would travel to California on the same dates via the same way. They sat together on the bus that left Minneapolis in the early morning and headed straight south to Iowa. When they reached Des Moines, they walked a mile to catch a streamliner locomotive headed to Denver with a connection to San Francisco. They sat on a bench outside the depot waiting for their train to arrive. 

“I’ll escort you and retrace my steps back to Manzanar.”

“More recruiting for the language school?” 

“Yes.” He lit a Chesterfield and looked up at cloud clusters moving across the sky. After a moment he revealed,  “My mother would cuff me any time I spoke Japanese at home.” He altered his voice into a nagging pitch. “Americans, Ken. Never forget, you are an American. We are counting on you.” He sat up straight and slowly shook his head. “How–how–”

“Strange?”

“Yes, strange that I’ve enlisted to learn Japanese at,” he enunciated for a pretentious effect, “the Military Intelligence Service Language School.” He exhaled the smoke from his lungs and dropped his cigarette. A family with five kids shuffled by their bench. Upon seeing Ken, their eyes widened, and they snapped their attention elsewhere like they had seen something unsavory. Ken squashed the discarded cigarette under the ball of his shoe. “Not only that, I am ordered to persuade my generation to learn Japanese and be ready to die for our country. And that same country doesn’t trust me. We are nothing more than guinea pigs.” 

“Desperate times call for desperate measures? You believe that’s what the politicians think, Ken?”

He frowned. “That’s a clever irony, isn’t it? Get the enemy in peacetime to fight the enemy in war?” 

Zorka gave him a sympathetic smile. She wondered how it would feel to be in a no-win situation. “But think what will happen when you serve, Ken. You’re doing something about stopping the war. It’s a noble pursuit, and I admire you. Others will, too.” 

He rubbed his cheeks as if to wipe away his sulking. “Maybe.”

“Won’t you get in trouble for the detour? I mean, I don’t need to be escorted.” 

“I asked the finance clerk at the school to wiggle me in an extra day and to replace a stop at Kansas City with seeing you off in California.”

“Oh, Ken. That’s home for you, right? KC? You should go see your parents!” 

 Ken brought her gloved hand to his lips. Zorka looked into his infatuated eyes and was impressed with his romantic gesture, but it felt inappropriate to keep him from seeing his family. They bought a sandwich and some coffee and boarded the train. Their cabin contained discarded newspapers with angry headlines, so they gathered up a few and settled into their paired seats. Des Moines rushed past their view and disappeared. Trees bordered the fields and farmsteads. 

When a town appeared in view, the sounds of the train altered as air ricocheted off the houses near the tracks followed by a loud whoosh and the clacking of the wheels hugging the tracks beneath them. As they rocked side to side, Ken squeezed her arm and kissed her behind the newspapers. Zorka blushed. When his fingertip dared to trace her breast, she felt the stirrings of arousal combined with the pricklings of entrapment. He moves too fast! In an erotic fog, her body responded notwithstanding the warnings in her head.   

Rays of sunlight fell over fields of tilled, black earth. Green sprouts of corn teased with the promise of a profitable harvest. Zorka thought of the allied soldiers in Europe. This corn will help to feed them. She said a prayer that they would hurry and save her Aunt. Where was Aunt Lotti? In a ghetto? A work camp? Dead? She stared at the fields of green shoots passing by her train window, consumed with patriotic pride and akin to Ken in that way. She wished her parents and Panna understood why she left. Zorka recalled the three-part, discordant chord the other night. Zorka arranged for Panna and her parents to meet in the parlor and braced herself. 

Mother: “What? How can you do this to me? Kade runs away to Chicago without an explanation. Now both my daughters leave me? I cannot bear this, Zorka!” 

Father: “Your schooling! The Red Cross chapter here isn’t enough? All the way to the Philippines? No, Zorka, no.” 

Panna: “I’m your best friend! You must have planned this for weeks. How selfish and mean you are.” 

At the Nebraska border, the uniformed rows looked no different. Zorka got in the habit of reading the billboards aloud; most of them demanded citizens buy war bonds. When the night came and the cabin was dark, Zorka was glad Ken simply held her hand. They dozed with shoulders pressing. The next day, after the stop in North Platte, their train car emptied except for an elderly couple at the front. Ken read Franklin D. Roosevelt’s April 28th fireside chat recorded in the recent edition of the Chicago Tribune. Zorka read advertisements demanding women to do their part on the home front.  

“This great war effort must be carried through to its victorious conclusion by the indomitable will and determination of the people as one great whole.” 

Zorka jumped in, “Do you have tires lying around? Drop off your spare for . . .”

Ken interjected, “… a few bogus patriots who use the sacred freedom of the press to echo the sentiments of the propagandists in Tokyo and Berlin.”

Zorka, “On May 1, pick up your victory seeds at Shulman’s Market and plant your own garden. Remember…” 

Ken finished with gusto, waving his index finger in the air, “‘. . . it shall not be imperiled by the handful of noisy traitors–betrayers of America, betrayers of Christianity itself–would-be dictators who in their hearts and souls have yielded to Hitlerism and would have this Republic do likewise.’” 

She clapped. The elderly couple turned to look back at them. Zorka stood and walked to the newspaper rack attached to the wall at the head of the cabin. They frowned at her. “Good morning,” she said and returned to her place. To get to the window seat, she crossed in front of Ken who was keen to give her a helping hand. Zorka’s mood crashed when she read the headline from the San Francisco Chronicle. “Bataan’s Peril Grows as Japs smash forward! Invaders pour in new troops with tanks, artillery attacks, and dive bombers.” 

Ken rubbed her back. “Try not to worry. Your sister sounds resourceful. You have to be if you’re a nurse, right? They are trained to stay calm under pressure.”  

Zorka remembered the way Barbara focused on reciting a poem to stay calm. She remembered a patch of time when it seemed like her parents argued daily. Zorka peeked around the corner of the living room where Barbara was forced to sit on the couch and listen to the argument. Zorka spied from the hallway and watched Barbara mumbling with her eyes closed. After their father fled the scene, Barbara opened her eyes and tip-toed out of the room while Mother wept in her armchair. Zorka asked what she was mumbling, to which Barbara replied, “I was reciting Christina Rosetti. ‘Another year of joy and grief/Another year of hope and fear/O Mother, is life long or brief?’” Zorka was six. Barbara was sixteen. To Zorka, her sister was a mystery, spending time behind the pages of a book or walking from room to room reciting lines from poets with strange last names. Zorka grew up thinking her sister floated on air. Barbara had an ethereal knack of performing her duties with one foot on the ground and the other far away in the past. Nothing seemed to upset Barbara.   

Outside of Omaha, the train passed an enormous factory complex of some sort. Zorka asked the conductor what it was. He informed her it was a Martin bomber plant making B-26 airplanes. “I’ve been told it’s one of the busiest in the country. My wife’s sister-in-law lives around here. She tells me many of the workers are women. Who knew they could solder metal and twist a wrench like the men?” He chuckled to Zorka. “With the men fighting on the front and women picking up the slack in the factories, you’ll see, we’ll win this war yet!” The train groaned to a stop under rain clouds. Luggage was stowed. Zorka closed her eyes and listened to the muffled stomp of passengers boarding while the crew mumbled outside. Soon a swoosh of air wrapped around her ankles and gave her goosebumps. The train accelerated as she listened to the patter of rain hitting the cold window. The night arrived, and she shivered. They huddled under their coats. Ken took his hand and gently positioned her head on his shoulder. In the darkness, at some point in the night, Ken pressed her palm over his trousered groin. She felt his bulge and did not know what to do. The impropriety of the action as well as the curiosity of where this was leading stunned her. She removed her hand and made light of his gesture by spanking his arm. What am I doing? One action of complicity led to another. Where was the stopping point? Did she want one? She sighed and excused herself to the bathroom.

* * * * * * * 

On the horizon of the Colorado plains, they passed by another large complex. A passenger on the train told her it was a factory redesigned to make munitions instead of cans of paint. Zorka chatted with a grandmother whose three granddaughters worked at the artillery plant outside of Denver. At the Denver stop, Zorka watched recruits boarding buses on their way to Camp Carson at Colorado Springs, a training base for soldiers. It appeared to Zorka that the whole country participated in the war effort. 

They changed trains that would travel through the Rockies in a westerly direction to Salt Lake City, then cut through Nevada and reach San Francisco in two days. Once more they sat in the back of the train carriage where it was less crowded. The conductor snipped their ticket and moved on. Ken and Zorka spent the day composing harmonies together. She pulled out her viola and played their score, and a few of the passengers clapped. They sang the lyrics Ken scribbled down on paper and laughed when they sang off-tune. Passengers booed. Ken whispered to her, “We better leave the singing to Bing Crosby.” 

When they did not talk about the war, they compared their families. Zorka noticed the similarities. Religion was important. The mother ran the house. Dad was aloof and worked. There were differences. Ken Suzuki was an only child. He was on the baseball team in high school. In college, he liked to play in local jazz bands on 12th Street in downtown Kansas City. Ken graduated as an architect last year. He wanted to move to Chicago and work for a firm. “By the time I’m thirty, I want to start my own firm.” He asked her what she wanted to do with her life. Zorka had no idea. It was assumed she would marry someone from the neighborhood and have children. “My family pushed me to become a nurse for the war effort.” Zorka’s throat tightened. “I–I’m not like my sister Barbara.” 

At the stop in Salt Lake City, two men in army uniforms passed through their cabin. Zorka guessed a training station was nearby. A tall man with freckles sneered at Ken. “Hey, Nip. Stay out of my way unless you want me to show you what I’m going to do to your cousins.” 

Ken’s body tensed. He sat erect and clenched his knees. Zorka was in the aisle seat. Her cheeks flushed with anger. “Save it for the battlefield. He’s in the U.S. Army and not the enemy.”

His blonde friend showed off mangled teeth. “All Japs are the enemy.” 

Ken grumbled to her, “Stop. It’s not worth it. They’re getting off.” 

The tall freckled one leaned down to Zorka’s ear. “What’s wrong with you? Sitting with the enemy?” 

His friend stunk of body odor. “She’s cute.” He touched a lock of her hair. “Let her stay, and you scram Jap.”

Ken stood and pushed around the two men taking Zorka with him. The soldiers stomped away snickering. Ken stared at his stony reflection in the window and did not say much until the California border. A billboard greeted them displaying a caricature of a Japanese soldier with squinty eyes looking like a rodent caught in a mousetrap. Zorka made a goofy face at it, and Ken smiled at her attempt to cheer him up. 

She took note of his sad eyes. “What’s Manzanar like?” 

Ken chortled. “Let’s just say I’m glad my folks live in Kansas City.”

She stared at him, at his struggle to put into words his incredulous thoughts. “I understand that the west coast is scared of the Japanese invading the U.S. I understand the hatred aroused by the attack at Pearl Harbor. I believe if the Japanese Imperial Army is not stopped, it’s only a matter of time before they do invade California, up the coastline, and into the interior of the country.” 

His eyes jumped around the cabin while he spoke with an earnest sophistication that beguiled Zorka. “What I can’t understand is how in the world did citizens–the children and grandparents–become the target? Paranoia put the families into the camps. And the very country that proudly stands for individual liberties stole them from legal citizens without a second’s thought.”

With her eyes, Zorka followed the neckline of his military haircut which accentuated his high cheekbones and the lines on his forehead. She acknowledged it was his uniqueness as a burgeoning linguist spy which gave him an aura of distinction and complexity unlike the Jewish boys and men in the neighborhood. His poise forged the impression he was older than twenty-four. She tried to imagine him huddled over a drafting table drawing up plans for a building. She was fond of how his lips smirked at one side when he smiled. There was a smell to him she found alluring. Like browned butter and mint. The longer they traveled, his scent grew stronger but did not offend. 

She made these mental notes about him while he organized his thoughts. He turned to her and took in her stare. Was he blushing? He finished, “I do all of this–recruit at Manzanar, work at the language school, agree to become a spy for Uncle Sam–because the country needs to know me as an American. When they see the Nisei serve and admit that Japanese Americans did not sabotage the country, then maybe everyone will forget to hate us.”        

*******

Curiosity won out. When they arrived in San Francisco the next morning, Zorka decided to surprise Ken by renting a hotel room with a view of the bay with her own money. She forced him to close his eyes and led him to the third floor, room 303. “Ta-da!” The space was airy. The window was open and a breeze rustled the sheers. Ken opened his eyes and grinned at her as he went about inspecting the room. Zorka watched him with wonder. Will I ever meet another man who shows me such affection? She heard the squawk of sea birds. Brushing aside the curtains, she admired the slanting streets and the sunlight flickering on the water in the bay. Ken stepped up behind her and pulled the sweater off her head. He unzipped the back of her skirt. She heard him rustle out of his uniform. She took a big breath and turned to face him. He sat on the bed and encouraged her to straddle him. As he explored her body with his mouth, he replicated the rocking they had experienced on the train. She relaxed and copied the rhythm with her hips. 

He said, “Let’s do this forever.” 

She responded, “Let’s do this today.”  

Zorka dispelled all thoughts and languished in the passing of time signified by the sun altering the white walls of room 303. Their blended limbs shared the changing hues of gold and rose until the sun’s influence left the room. In the shadows, the shade of their skin turned violet. When the room was dark, they took comfort under the blankets. Without sight, they dozed and sought the warmth of the other as would newborn puppies.  

It was noon before they dressed and left the room. Ken went to purchase his bus ticket to Manzanar while Zorka reported to the Red Cross center.  A woman wearing a crisply ironed blouse with a name tag of Sylvia Henshaw explained that due to the Japanese invasion in Manila, The Red Cross suspended orders of new recruits until further notice. “It may be weeks or months before we can send you. Musicians like yourself are not considered essential. It has been classified as a hot zone. Too hot.” Zorka tried to mask her disappointment. Sylvia Henshaw’s orangey lipstick glistened. “The center is packing plasma to be sent to Schofield Barracks in Oahu. From there, the shipment goes to Australia. You are welcome to stay in San Francisco and help us here at the center while you wait.” She left the room. 

Zorka looked through the window to the inner facility and watched girls, women, and old men packing plasma in an assembly line. Damn! Now what? A worker in the office closed the bottom file drawer to a metal cabinet. Zorka had not noticed her. The woman was petite with perfect posture; the wrinkles around her eyes suggested she was nearing the age of forty. In seemingly slow motion, she approached Zorka as though she waded through the water. Picking up a stack of papers, the woman pretended to explore the contents with her back to the volunteer workers packing plasma. She aimed bug eyes at Zorka and spoke with cool confidence. “Get yourself on that plane to Hawaii. From there, you can catch a military flight. There are civilian pilots who will take you to the Philippines. Or, have the Red Cross in Hawaii get you on a merchant marine or a civilian ship.” Zorka blinked from the surprising advice. 

“I was an officer’s wife in Manila. They shipped all the women off the island two months ago. But some women refused to leave.” The officer’s wife rubbed her fingertips together in a repetitious, circular movement. Zorka was hypnotized. The wife said, “What do you think you are going to do down there?” 

“My sister is a nurse. Last we heard, she retreated to the jungle.”

 “The jungle hospitals have been evacuated. If your sister is a nurse, she’s probably hiding out in the Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor Island.” 

“Malinta Tunnel,” Zorka repeated. She felt dejected. Her eyes dropped to the small suitcase by her ankles. Inside was the book of poetry by Christina Rossetti. She had plans to deliver Barbara the book in person. The door jingled. Ken walked in with his perfect smile. He kissed Zorka on the cheek. Zorka noticed the grimace of the officer’s wife. She reached for a piece of paper, scribbled, and folded it in half. Leaning over the counter, her long forearm stretched toward Zorka in a methodical way. She rolled out her wrist and handed Zorka the note. “When you get to Manila, go to Dewey Boulevard in the Ermita district.” Zorka looked at the contents of her note: 233 Isaac Peral Street. Mrs. Gladys Savary. 

The officer’s wife squinted at Zorka. “There are ways to help. An underground.” She opened her eyes wide and examined Zorka like a breakfast morsel. Zorka found her attention unnerving.

“One of their leaders is Gladys Savary. She owns a popular French restaurant called Le  Restaurant de Paris.” 

Ken grabbed Zorka’s hand. “Come on, let’s get going, Zorka.” 

They left the Red Cross center. Zorka tried to forget the bug lady who frowned at them. She focused on Ken’s news. “I am leaving for Manzanar tomorrow morning.”

They went back to room 303. He turned on the radio and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue flooded the room. Every time Ken took off an item of her clothing, his fingers tapped over her skin like he was playing the piano. He played her arms, her stomach, and her legs which made her giggle. Then, he surprised Zorka by reaching into a paper bag and placing chocolate candies on her skin in a long row like a train. He set about eating the pieces off her hips and feeding her the caramel-covered ones since those were her favorite. In her curly, dense hair, Ken murmured he loved her and wanted to marry her. “How do you feel about me?”

She shifted and the chocolates fell off her body. “You are talented and fun. I do care about you.” She sat up and faced him, sullen with his pushy seduction. “But let’s face the facts — interracial marriages are illegal. Our families wouldn’t approve. No one would approve.” She exhaled slowly. “I just want to focus on finding my sister.” 

He chewed one of the chocolates with slumped shoulders. After a pause, he snapped his head up and his eyes flickered with hope. “I will be patient. Please. Let me write. We’ll be friends for now.” He kissed her neck and her body betrayed her.   

She told him, “Stop talking.”

He ignored her request. “You’ve got my number and address at school.” He kissed her ribcage. “I’ll be graduating in a couple weeks. You’ll be at the Red Cross chapter in Manila.” He sealed the plan when he covered her with his body. “I’ll write to you there.” 

She moaned and listened to Gershwin on the radio. The piano exchanged themes. G Major to C Major. I love the bantering between the orchestra and the piano.  

He stopped moving. His eyes glistened with apprehension. “You’re not going to see me again, are you?”

Zorka croaked, “I am sorry. No.” That silenced him. He withdrew, dressed, and left just as the Rhapsody in Blue coda ended in B minor with passion. Zorka watched him exit the room and threw a chocolate caramel at the door. 

*****

Zorka climbed the ramp to board a plane to Oahu. She stared out the small window as the plane lifted, and she felt the inertia in her stomach. This was her first flight, and the bumpy ride scared her. She shut her eyes and tried her best not to think about it until the plane steadied over the Pacific Ocean. It was so loud, that she gave up trying to talk with any of the passengers. Once the captain rose above the turbulence, Zorka breathed with regularity.  

Ken haunted her with the echo of his passionate pressure and feathery traces. She experienced the emotional hangover, cocooned within the plane, the equivocal pairing of sadness and anger that he was gone, and she had caused it. He had caused it. She was without the coddling attention of Ken and felt vulnerable. When the plane landed several hours later at Hickam Field, Zorka hitched a ride with her viola and suitcase to the Red Cross barracks a half an hour north at Schofield Barracks. 

Zorka wondered about the recuperation efforts since the attack on December 7, 1941 and asked the Army corporal sitting in front of her. As the bus drove by Pearl Harbor, he said, “It’s what you’d expect after an attack. As of today, the Navy divers are hard at work on the USS Arizona, Oglala, and West Virginia. Patching and covering holes in the hull. Siphoning the mud. Recovering debris.” Zorka whispered a prayer for the lost souls interred within their coffin ships. 

At Schofield Barracks, she was directed to a building painted in camouflage and home to the Red Cross. The staff accepted her orders, and she was escorted to the barracks where she found an empty metal bunk bed that squeaked. She chatted with other female volunteers asking for information. She strolled over to the canteen, basking in the sunshine, and the delicate breeze lifted her mood.

A Navy sailor wearing white crackerjacks tried to buy her a rum and coke. It reminded her of the night in the Jazz bar with Ken and Panna. Was that two weeks ago? Is that what we were? A two-week fling? She asked for ginger ale. 

The bartender seemed nice. “Whaddya doin here, sweetie?”

“I’m with the Red Cross, looking for a ride to Manila. Can you help me find,” she looked at the small piece of paper in her hand, “Pilot Kay Weese? I was told she hangs out here.”

A woman with black-braided hair sat at the far end of the bar. She swallowed a shot of tequila and asked for another. The name Weese was patched above the breast pocket of her coveralls. She eyed Zorka. “You’re with the Red Cross? You want a hitch to Manila? Not a smart idea. It’s nuts down there.”

Zorka walked over to her. She sipped her ginger ale. “Why do you fly there, then?”

“I get bored easily.” She drank the shot, smacked her lips, and put a dollar on the bar. “Come on, you can help me get ready for tomorrow morning’s flight, and I’ll do my best to talk you out of going.” 

Zorka struggled to keep pace with Kay Weese’s robust movements. They transferred several duffle bags from the woman’s barracks to a jeep and drove to Wheeler Army Airfield adjacent to Schofield Barracks. Kay drove inside the hangar where a silver DC-3 was parked. Inside the plane flanking the vessel were two green benches able to carry a dozen passengers. The rest of the space was open for cargo. Zorka sniffed hydraulic fluid and engine oil along with the stringent odor of ammonia and vomit. Cans filled with spittle and butts sat underneath the benches. As instructed, Zorka dragged a duffle bag to the back of the plane. She whiffed the smell of a decomposing mouse and it made her gag. Kay saw Zorka pinch her nose. “What you smell are back-to-back runs, moving nervous soldiers who drank too much the night before. Add the evacuation of civilians who pissed themselves with relief because they made it out of Manila alive. The maintenance crew will hose her down eventually.” 

Kay drove Zorka around to different buildings on the base. They entered with an empty box and came out with it overflowing. The reaction was similar at each stop. “You’re going to make a drop over the camps to the survivors? Watch your ass, Kay. Good luck.” 

Zorka admired how nonchalant Kay handled herself while collecting donations. She had no problem asking officers or enlisted or civilians for a contribution. She asked Kay, “I heard you deliver the mail. You’re a private contractor and not with the Red Cross?” 

“I’m aligned with a couple of key players. I fly to Australia for the Red Cross in the big plane. I flew for Lt. Jackie Cochran back in the early 1930s as a one of the Ninety-nines. Jackie arranged for my clearance to ferry the mail and personnel throughout the Pacific a year ago. Once in Australia, I volunteer for Captain William Bradford. He’s in charge of the Bamboo Fleet. I fly into the Philippines to deliver quinine and whatever I can smuggle to the nurses and soldiers. He accepts my help because he knows I have over 3,000 hours in the air, and I’m crazy enough to fly his Duck.”

“Duck?”

“It’s a Grumman Navy amphibian aircraft. Shot up by the Japs so much, it is a holy mess patched together with rubber inner tubes and bicycle tape.” Kay parked the jeep outside the women’s barracks. She jumped out and covered the boxes with a tarp. They went inside to the common area, and she grabbed an orange Fanta from the refrigerator and offered one to Kay.

“We’ve got an hour before chow. This is a good time to relax.” 

Slipping off her boots, Kay lay on the couch and closed her eyes. Zorka crossed to a club chair by a picture window and watched a palm tree sway. She wished she had time to explore the exotic beauty of the island. Across the street, the sun’s rays shined on a rhododendron bush and ignited the Fuschia blooms. Anja would approve of such a beautiful specimen. She thought of Abba and missed their quiet conversations. All her life, her father had encouraged her to play for him. Their habit after the evening meal was to meet in the parlor where she gave him a solo performance. She conjured the image of his long index finger tapping the arm of his chair like a metronome. Her thoughts moved to Panna. She must write to her and try to explain her actions. Plead for forgiveness. After chow, Zorka decided she would write to them all. And Ken? Should I apologize to him, too? 

Zorka thought Kay might have drifted off, but she grabbed the end of her braid and flipped it like a rope while talking with her eyes shut. Zorka wondered if Kay was talking to her or thinking aloud. “I don’t know how much longer I can sneak into Bataan. Most of the airfields are bombed so bad I can’t land. Bataan Airfield. Kindley Field. Del Monte. Clark Field. Cabcaban Field. Destroyed or confiscated and used by the Japs.” 

Zorka did not interrupt her. 

“I’ve been landing on roads and rice paddy fields cleared by the Filipinos. Most of them hate the Japanese for invading their country. Many help the U.S. as much as they can. But not always. Whole villages are hiding in the jungle. Some Filipinos have caved to the Japanese. Last month I heard U.S. pilots and their crew were turned in by the Filipinos and now they sit in POW camps wondering how to escape. They are tortured for information. Starved.”

Kay sat up and looked at Zorka. “Malaria is rampant. Bombings happen daily. If you go to Manila, you might get captured and imprisoned in Santo Tomas, if you are lucky. The other camps I know of are horrendous. The Japs don’t follow the rules of the Geneva Convention. Whatever our nurses or soldiers have to eat or bargain with is smuggled in.”

Zorka asked, “Where are you going?”

“There’s a priest and Red Cross Catholic nurses who are going to the interior on a Humanitarian Mission to Camp O’Donnell. I’ve got medical supplies for them and some canned food.” Kay did some stretches and checked her wristwatch. “There’s a civilian underground in Manila. I’m going to try and get these donations smuggled into Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor Island.” 

Kay signaled to Zorka that it was time to get ready for chow. They took turns freshening up. “What’s your plan, Zorka?” 

She pulled out the little slip of paper the bug lady had given her in San Francisco. “Le Restaurant de Paris. I’m supposed to ask for Gladys Savary.” 

Kay laughed. “Gladys is part of the underground. She’s great.” 

Zorka sighed with relief. “I’m hoping she will help me get a job, so I can find my sister and help her stay alive or escape.” 

“Is your sister with the Red Cross, too?”

“No, she’s an Army nurse. The last time I heard from her, it was in January. The Japanese invaded in December and personnel retreated into the jungle.”

Kay released her hair and scratched her scalp with her fingernails. She rebraided her hair. “I made a few trips to the two jungle hospitals. Then the Japanese attacked from the sky and flushed them out. The nurses escaped to Corregidor Island and are holding up in the Malinta Tunnel.” 

Was Barbara there? Zorka washed and dried her face and hands. “What about the patients?”

Kay dropped her head. “They were marched along the East Road to Camp O’Donnell. I hear the road is littered with the dead. I’m trying to figure out the best way to smuggle goods to the survivors. It’s a nightmare. I seriously recommend you stay here at Schofield Barracks.” 

* * * * * *

Later in the evening, Kay stood in the middle of the barracks and shouted to the women, “Ladies, last call! Show me the goods. The nurses need whatever you can give!” 

Aiming for the box Kay carried, women pilots, nurses, secretaries, and Red Cross volunteers amicably threw tampons, shoes, socks, brassieres, hairbrushes, pads of paper, pencils, and bars of soap while Zorka helped pack the last empty duffle bag. After a restless night thinking about Ken, the Hawaiin sun shone through the barracks window and Zorka woke up. They ate quickly in the mess hall and drove to the DC-3. Kay sat in the cockpit going over a pre-flight checklist. Her copilot arrived. She called him Eddie, and they chatted while Zorka took a seat closest to the cockpit. Soon soldiers and two civilian engineers claimed a seat while stowing their possessions underneath the bench. They pulled out the butt can and smoked cigarette after cigarette. Nervous energy filled the plane. Zorka smiled but did not engage in conversation. 

Kay entered the cargo area and took out a pen and a dollar bill from her coverall pocket. “Okay, friends. Let’s see your short-snorter.” 

Zorka watched Kay inspect the dollar bills. She handed the pen to them.” Sign your names. A private looked at his buddy sitting next to him. “What’s this?”

Eddie flipped a switch and controlled the gas with a lever. The propellers rotated and the plane roared to life necessitating shouting the answer. “A souvenir. Wherever you fly, passengers sign your dollar bill. It becomes a good-luck piece. When we get to Australia and have a drink, if you can’t produce a short snorter, you have to buy a round. Try to get as many signatures as you can.” 

Kay handed her short-snorter to Zorka. “Sign.” Zorka obliged. Kay said, “Hey, don’t you have a dollar?” 

“Sure.” Zorka took one out of her suitcase. She passed it around the plane. When it returned to her, she had nine signatures scribbled on both sides. Eddie whistled to Kay and gave her a thumbs-up sign. “Rest easy, folks. Here we go! Only 5,500 miles to Australia. The first pitstop is Wake Island followed by a stopover in Port Moresby, New Guinea. We’ll reach Port Darwin, Australia tomorrow.” She pointed to the rear of the aircraft. “If you need to use the head, the can is behind the curtain.” She double-checked that the cargo was securely fastened and made her way back to the cockpit. Before getting into the pilot’s seat, she squatted in front of Zorka and looked at her with an expression of “last chance.” Zorka thought about Barbara and prayed she was alive and safe in the tunnel on Corregidor Island. For the POWs, she thought about her Aunt and the rumors of Jews in Europe locked in concentration camps. She could do nothing for Aunt Lotti in Budapest. But maybe in Manila…

“Get this stinking plane up in the air, Kay.” 

* * * * *

After an alarming ride in a carromata, Zorka walked down Dewey Boulevard looking for Isaac Peral Street. She tried to steady her nerves and looked down so her hat shielded her face. The Filipino driver spoke Tagalog and no English. She said the address and he nodded enthusiastically. More than an hour went by driving around Manila Bay in the horse-drawn cab, and Zorka started to panic. She kept repeating the address, but he never arrived. He stopped at a major intersection, and Zorka recognized Dewey Boulevard on the street sign. That had a familiar ring to it from her conversation with the officer’s wife in San Francisco. She tossed a two peso note into his lap and leaped out of the carriage with her viola case and suitcase. The driver yelled at her, but she ignored him and walked briskly away.  

When she intersected Isaac Peral Street, she turned down a wide street festooned with magnificent Acacia trees. On the sidewalk, it was like walking inside an arboretum tunnel. The neighborhood contained ornate homes hiding behind massive shrubbery and enclosed with wrought iron fences. Zorka looked for the house numbers. There are 233. She walked into the courtyard and admired the Spanish-style stone home. A fanciful sign with an ornate spelling of Le Restaurant de Paris welcomed her. She ascended wide steps and entered the lobby and removed her hat. She asked for Mrs. Gladys Savary.

 “I am she.” Gladys Savary was thin and tall with painted lips and wore an expensive suit. She looked at Zorka with indifference and glided past her. Gladys frowned. Inside the restaurant, four Japanese soldiers sat at a corner table. They were loud and yelled at the waitress. Then they called for Gladys Savary in choppy English.  

“What you mean no more beer? How about we search your place?” The Japanese officer stood and took out his pistol. He was tipsy and pushed Gladys toward the kitchen. Her face was a stone, and she led him with poise to the back room. Zorka sidestepped to the hallway and stood underneath the staircase and waited. She felt like a child hiding from her parent’s arguing. There was muffled yelling and a gunshot went off. Zorka’s heart pounded as she stood frozen in place. Soon, the Japanese officer staggered back to the table, and the four soldiers left grumbling with displeasure. The patrons in the restaurant sighed with relief when Gladys emerged from the kitchen and greeted her guests calmly, apologizing for the intrusion. Gladys ambled to the reception area and stood behind the podium. She held her shaking hands behind her back. Zorka marveled how Gladys could keep her composure.  A Filipino worker brought Gladys a wet washcloth to apply to her cheek where the Japanese officer slapped her. Her cheekbone was puffy and red. Some internal decision snapped her into action.  Gladys picked up the reception phone and dialed a combination of numbers. 

She spoke firmly. “Twice he has come to my establishment. He is a nuisance and insufferable. That goes against your code of conduct. He destroyed my pantry. He should be reprimanded.” She listened to the response. Her expression altered from anger to disgust. She hung up the phone. She inhaled and exhaled. Then she noticed Zorka standing next to the staircase. “Come out and quit lurking. Who are you?” 

“I was given your name in Oahu. I was hoping you had a room I could rent. I wanted to talk to you about–”

“All my rooms are booked. Sorry. It’s only a matter of days before they will shut me down. I’m trying to figure out my next move. What’s your name?”

“Zorka Kiss.”

“Here, breakfast is on me. But then you better move along.”

“To where? I have come to find my sister. I think she might be in Malinta Tunnel. She was a nurse at Hospital No. 2. In the jungle. Her name is Barbara Kiss.” 

Gladys lit a cigarette. She offered one to Zorka who declined. “Well, Zorka Kiss, your timing couldn’t be worse. The Japs have destroyed Manila. The Filipinos are the only ones allowed to move about. The rest of us, Americans, British, French are either locked up or forced to leave. You came here for nothing.” 

Zorka thought for a moment. “Mrs. Savay?” 

“You may call me Gladys.”

“Gladys, I am a musician. I was told there were nightclubs needing musicians for their orchestras to entertain the Japanese. I want to help the underground.” She whispered, “I know you are part of it. Can you at least steer me in the right direction? I want to be around when my sister is freed from that tunnel. I want to help in the meantime.” 

Gladys posed with one hand holding up her cigarette and expressed a look of disdain. “In the meantime, you’ll end up in a camp or get shot. Or worse. Where are you from?”

“Minneapolis.”

“Go home to Minneapolis where it’s safe. Wait for your sister there.” 

Zorka looked out the window. She looked up and down the street. “Should I go this way or that way?” 

Gladys examined Zorka by walking around her and puffing her cigarette. She picked at Zorka’s sweater and touched her hair which was corkscrew curly and barely held in place at the base of her neck. Zorka did not need a mirror to know her hair was an unruly mess with ringlets coiled down her back. Zorka thought Gladys acted like a cat. Svelte. Arrogant. Classy. She picked up a pad of paper on the podium.  “Go see Dorothy Fuentes down at the wharf. There’s a strip of nightclubs and casinos. She just opened Club Tsubaki and would need musicians and pretty women to flirt with the Japanese officers. Are you up for that?”

“Yes!”

She took out a card from the top drawer of the desk. Here’s the address. Tell her Gladys sent you.”

For the first time, Zorka was optimistic. Seeing her smile, Gladys tried to douse it. “Have fun with the Nips! If they don’t kill you, and you bide your time waiting for the Americans to return, you might see your sister. That is if she hasn’t died of malaria or starvation first.”

Zorka nodded, unruffled. “Thanks for the encouragement, Gladys. I’ll take that breakfast first, please.” 

“Come on.” 

Gladys asked a Filipino employee to escort her. “Here. Put these drab clothes on and keep your face covered. You’ll go when it’s dark. A boy around ten approached the table with bright eyes and a shy smile. “Manuel will keep you in the shadows.” 

******

The rain came suddenly with voracious energy. The pattern was intense deluge followed by a break as if the storm needed to take a deep breath before it dumped more water on Manila Bay. At 2000 hours, Zorka followed Manuel out of Le Restaurant de Paris and walked in a downward direction. The slanting street caused the rainwater to slap against her ankles. Zorka knew she was in for blisters and ignored the uncomfortable squishing and rubbing inside her shoes. She could see the lights flickering on the wharf ahead. During one of the torrential intermissions, Zorka asked Manuel how far they would need to walk to get to Club Tsubaki. 

His face was in the shadows, the silhouette of him darker than the night. “Club Tsubaki is down this street.”  

Zorka followed him block by block at a pain-staking pace. One more mile. Half a mile. They were out of the elite residential neighborhood and into a commercial street of tall buildings lined next to the other. They quickened their pace.

That was when they collided with three Japanese soldiers turning the corner.

Zorka crashed into the chest of one. His mouth was open and his breath stank of booze. Zorka was not sure what happened to Manuel. He squeaked and twirled and disappeared into the rubble of a bombed building. Her viola case and suitcase slid across the street. She looked up into the hungry eyes of the three soldiers. They grabbed her arms and pulled her over to the street lamp to have a look at her. They hollered as though they had won the lottery. Zorka was glad the rain drowned out their voices as they chittered in Japanese to each other. It was a harsh, strange sound. They pushed and pulled her across the street to an abandoned building. One smashed the glass door and opened it. More laughter. Another one spoke halting English. He pulled on her hair and exposed her ear. “American girl. You are dog.” He backhanded her jaw. She fainted.  

Zorka awoke on the floor to the sounds of thudding and garbled voices as if she were suspended in a tank of water. Woozy and disoriented, she felt detached from her body. In her semi-conscious state, she saw their uniforms in swirls of grays and blacks and tan. Slanted eyes and drooling mouths spit on her. She turned her head away, thankful her unruly hair covered her face as a shield. Outside, a street lamp illuminated the rain pelting down with a fury. 

She was a rag doll. She tried to scream, but she only heard it in her head. When she raised her hands to protect herself, the one who liked to hit her, did so until she stopped resisting. She floated out of her body.

They left as suddenly as they arrived.

Zorka tried to move but her body parts would not cooperate. She wanted to cry, but her sobs were stuck inside her. She flinched when someone entered the building, crouched, and attempted to cover her exposed body with her jacket.  

She gasped, “Manuel?” 

“Yes, miss.” 

He pulled her up to a sitting position. She tried not to cry. “Come, miss. I take you to a friend. She is close by. A friend of Gladys.” 

Zorka wobbled up to a standing position. Manuel repositioned her skirt and put a shoe back on her foot. Zorka vomited when she smelled the bodily fluids of her assailants. “Come now, miss. Before others see you. Please! Curfew is at ten o’clock. Then I go to jail, too. Please, take a step, miss.”

They left the building and walked into more rain. This time, Zorka looked up and was glad the water washed the smells off her. Her head pounded and she could not see well, for her right eye was swollen shut. She slobbered the air in and out of her bruised mouth. When she inhaled, the pain in her ribs was acute. The tender mash of her pelvic area pulsated.   

Zorka had an urge to laugh. This surprised both of them. 

“They all tried to warn me, didn’t they?” Did she say this or think it?   

She stood in the street convulsed with laughing spasms. It hurt her ribs to do so, but it only made the impulse of release stronger until her cackle turned into sobbing and her wailing diminished into a mew like a lost kitten. Manuel scrambled to pick up her viola case and told Zorka to carry her instrument. He held her suitcase with his other hand, and they shuffled down a side street for a block. The rain paused. She concentrated on the water rushing in the gutters as he dragged her along. Manuel propped her up against the front of an apartment building.  

“Here, miss. Don’t move.” 

Manuel raced up the stairs and knocked on a door. Zorka heard voices mumbling. Down the stairs came a woman in the dark. Zorka could not see her but through a small slit in her left eye. She was a black woman who shook her head and clucked with alarm. She was thin but strong and half-carried Zorka up the stairs to her apartment. Manuel placed Zorka’s viola case and suitcase at the landing. She heard him race down the stairs and the night swallowed him up. She fell into the apartment anxious for the door to close as if doing so would shut out the beasts of the night.

She heard the door bolted shut, but no matter how hard she clenched her eyes, the beasts waited for her in her mind.

Thank you for taking the time to read.

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

WWII: The Lost Sisters of Bataan, Chapter 1, (2 of 2)

This is my dedication novel to the women and men of World War II in the Pacific theater. Your questions and comments are welcome!

Hospital No. 2 sprawled outward in size as patients arrived each day. On the third morning, the bombing intensified, and the nurses braced themselves for a grueling wave of incoming casualties. Barbara overheard Lt. Nesbit’s sorrowful tone of resignation. To Sgt. Dulay, Nesbit said, “No more distant bombing. No rear areas. We are backed into a corner.” 

Donning an apron and face mask, XO Fox motioned Lt. Nesbit to bring the incoming patients to the surgical tent from the staging area. Pointing to Barbara and Laura, Nesbit ordered, “Kiss and Wolfe. You’re with me.” Barbara gathered the surgical equipment to be sanitized. She put them in a steel drum pressure cooker over a Bunsen burner. Barbara organized the clean gowns, linen, gauze, towels, and swabs. Lt. Nesbit ordered Laura to get the morphine shots ready. Wolfe gently sharpened the needle tips on a smooth, round stone. She boiled the water and sanitized the needles. Into the glass syringe, she dropped a morphine tablet and watched it dissolve. She repeated the process until her movements were swift and efficient.  All the while, the Japanese planes buzzed above while the angry dialogue in the trees above reminded Barbara of Beth El Synagogue elders disapproving of changes suggested by the young Rabbi, David Aronson.  

Medics worked around the surgical tables, delivering patients and carting them away to convalesce. A truck arrived at the triage station. Nurses filled out the Emergency Medical Tag for each patient they registered. The bedlam of noise distressed Barbara. She recoiled when wheels screeched or patients yawped. The bombing grew louder. More trucks arrived filled with the wounded. Sgt. Cleopatra Dulay orchestrated events by directing the ambulances to triage. Assisting Dulay was Patty Parr. Cleopatra pointed to her clipboard and Patty blasted directions at the incoming traffic. Barbara’s teeth clenched at the sound of Patty’s shrill tone.  

At one of the surgical tables, Barbara provided cotton supplies to Captain Fox, Captain Roland, and Sgt. Ethel Thor. Barbara noticed Laura moving around the surgical tables delivering trays of morphine shots with petrified eyes. She passed by Captain Roland who bellowed at Nurse Thor to compress both hands on a chest wound spouting with blood. As Laura absorbed the scene, she looked faint. Barbara touched her elbow and suggested delivering the morphine to the neighboring surgical tent. Laura staggered away, muttering, “Pretty soon, I’m gonna need some for myself.”   

A Filipino doctor, Captain Garcia, asked Barbara to assist him. He had slicked black hair and a somber slit for lips. He directed the medics to carry eight new patients on stretchers and situate them into ward three. Barbara kept close to him, trying to hear over the nightmarish orchestra of whining humans and machines. Captain Garcia rapidly examined each soldier assessing their needs. Barbara filled out the tags when he announced his verdict.  “Shattered Pelvis.” 

He renamed the patient by the title of their injury. Her job was to match the injury to the name on the dog tag and fill out the form.  

One was quiet. “Superficial head and neck.”

One groaned. “Internal bleeding.” 

Another screamed. “Bullet hole to the femur.”  

One whimpered. “Burn wound on the right arm and hand.”  

Captain Garcia veered to a patient at the end of the line. The soldier breathed with a dry, hacking cough. He panicked and started to shake. Captain Garcia told Barbara to get a syringe and hose, ASAP. When she returned seconds later, the patient stared at Barbara with alarm. She held his hand. “It’s going to be okay. Breathe with me, now. Inhale, exhale. Again. Inhale, exhale. Good.” She looked at his dog tag. Frances Talbot.
“Come on, Frances. She puffed in quick shallow breaths, and they breathed together. Captain Garcia poked a hole through his skin. The air pressurized and caused his lung to collapse. His body thrashed and his eyes rolled back into his head. “Hold him down, nurse. He’s going into Anaphylactic shock.” Barbara grabbed his shoulders while the doctor administered a shot of morphine and inserted the hose into his lung. Soon his breathing stabilized. Captain Garcia exhaled and smiled at Barbara. “Good work, Nurse Kiss.” He looked around him and motioned medics to take the wounded to surgery. “Until the next round arrives, help out where needed.” 

Barbara crossed her arms and shoved her trembling hands under her armpits.  

****** 

The sky transitioned from day to night until someone’s alarm clock chimed it was five o’clock in the morning. They had all worked through the night, and Barbara could not recall when the previous day began. A few of the nurses staggered into the sleeping room and collapsed. Barbara lay on her cot and ignored the pounding of her feet and the stench of herself. She looked at her pruney fingers from being in surgical gloves for too long. Barbara stared into the trees above her. A family of macaques chattered at her like a judge and jury, and she was found guilty. Her dulled senses kept her immobile. Twenty-four hours ago, she flinched at their agitated calls. Now, Barbara would not budge if they shat on her. 

The nurses whispered to one another in the cool morning air. Who knew how long they would be allowed to rest? The sheet dividing the makeshift barracks from the hospital grounds flapped rhythmically in the breeze. Barbara was hypnotized while watching Carol Fitzgerald wash plastic surgical gloves and hang them to dry on a bamboo clothesline. When she finished her duty, Carol entered the room hunched over. She took her time stretching and contorting her body back to an erect standing position. She offered a loud yawn and sagged to her cot, eyes closed, fast asleep. Barbara returned her gaze outside their sleeping quarters and noticed Patty Parr gesticulating in front of Lt. Nesbit. Barbara overheard Parr volunteering to ride with the last transport truck back to the coast at Mariveles to make contact with the new pilot who agreed to satisfy their wish lists.

Lt. Nesbit said, “You two will return by jeep later today. It is a dangerous proposition, Nurse Parr. Are you sure you are up for it?”

Patty scoffed. She pushed back her shoulders and lifted up her chin. “Let the other nurses sleep. I can handle a drive in the jungle.”
Barbara wondered why Patty’s need to be the hero annoyed her. She watched Patty sprint, leap and twist her boyish frame like a track and field star onto the back of the truck. She sat at the edge dangling her feet with one hand on her cap waving goodbye to no one in particular. Go. Bring us the mail, Barbara thought. Bring us our precious delights. Be our Santa Claus. Barbara’s mysterious contempt for Patty grew.  Is it because she acts like a twenty-four-hour shift is nothing? Perhaps she wanted a break from the blood and the guts and the flies. Can you blame her? The gears winced, and the truck carrying Patty Parr disappeared into the jungle foliage. 

At the main compound, Barbara watched Laura staring at a pile of laundry. The duty roster listed Laura to wash the soiled sheets and surgical gowns. A large canvas hamper on wheels overflowed with the gory results of the war. Lt. Nesbit told Laura to drag it down to the river and rinse them out as best as she could. “When you return, the civilians will boil and hang them.” When Barbara thought about the mosquitoes and biting flies that would descend on the imbrued pile, her fear of malaria prompted her into action. Barbara knew she should pretend to be asleep, let Laura do her own chore, but she made the mistake of observing Laura’s devastated expression. Her friend’s eyes pooled with tears, and she stood there helpless as a lost puppy. Barbara could feel her body rise, and she hobbled over to Laura, feeling eighty instead of thirty. She tried to tease her friend. “Laura Wolfe, stop looking so pathetic.” 

“I don’t think I’m cut out for nursing, Babs. I’m a wreck inside.” 

“Push it back down. Remember what Lt. Nesbit said? This is all temporary.”

Laura and Barbara scooted and lifted the hamper into a wheel barrel. It did not fit, but it was easier to move the heavy hamper over the uneven ground. They aimed for a sandy inlet of the Real River. A medic passed by them and smirked, “Watch out for the vipers down by the rocks.” 

Laura’s face blanched and Barbara swore at him. They clumsily rolled away from Hospital No. 2. The sun shone on the shallow river, and the sparkles guided them to the waterside. 

“Babs, recite a poem. It’s such a good trick, that.”  

“I’m too tired.” 

“Did you hear the bushes rustling? What if it’s a panther smelling the blood in this hamper?” 

“I don’t think panthers live in the Philippine jungle,” Barbara replied, although she had

no clue whether or not they did. Better to avoid thinking about predators hiding behind the thickets and vines of the jungle.    

Laura stumbled, and the wheelbarrow scraped against the rocks. She dropped the wooden handle, and Barbara’s sore shoulder stiffened under the weight. Barbara could not suppress her anger and snapped,  “Come on, Laura, lift! Oh, nevermind. Forget the wheelbarrow, and let’s drag this damned hamper the rest of the way to the water.” 

At the clearing, other medical staff rinsed soiled garments in the river.  Two sentries with guns stood nearby overseeing the area. Barbara remembered Lt. Nesbit’s voice buzzing in her head. The Philippine Scouts are militia and agreed to protect the hospital. You will recognize them by the yellow shoulder patch with a red caribou as its marking. Barbara gestured to Laura. “See, we’re safe. They’re keeping watch.” Laura nodded and faked a smile. 

The cool temperature at the river’s edge made Barbara’s skin turn to gooseflesh. They dragged the hamper to the sandy inlet and pushed it over on its side. She took off her headband and wrapped it around her nose and mouth. They bent over and pulled the aprons and bedsheets into the water to soak. Fleshy pieces and blood floated downstream. Laura said, “What a meal for the fish and scavengers, eh?” Laura was too busy gagging to reply. 

To divert her attention from the disgusting job, Barbara considered her friend Laura. They both arrived at Sternberg General Hospital at Manila Bay last October 1941. They shared the same shifts and drank beer at the base canteen during their off time. Barbara responded to the naivete in Laura. She reminded Barbara of her little sister Zorka. There was an invisible pull to safeguard the younger, pretty girl in a place so foreign. While their work solidified a working friendship, she did not know much about Laura other than she was from a family of Swedes who owned a dairy farm in Wisconsin. One evening after a shift, they sipped beer, and Laura confided to Barbara, “When I turned sixteen, my parents gave me two choices. Pick a service career or stay on the farm and help with the milkers.” Her blue eyes blinked and crinkled. “I hate milking cows. So I went to Madison and became a nurse. When the war began, I never thought Uncle Sam would send me to Manila.” 

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese turned to the Philippines and invaded. The war became real for Barbara when she watched the plumes of black smoke billowing out of buildings at Manila Bay. Their unit was forced to evacuate Sternberg and retreat to the jungle, and Hospital No. 1 was created. News and communication in the jungle were sporadic. Not knowing if the next whistle from the air would hit its mark affected everyone in different ways. When the Japanese detonated their bombs near the first jungle hospital, Barbara watched the panic permanently set in Laura’s baby blues. Barbara knew caring for her young friend was another way to escape from fully feeling the terrifying situation. 

Now they wrung the aprons and sheets before them. They rolled them up in balls and put them back in the canvas hamper. Carrying it back up to the trail was much harder. Laura waved to two medics up the path who helped them lift it into the wheelbarrow and push it up to camp to a designated area of the hospital where boiling stockpots of water waited to sanitize the balls of rinsed cloth. Filipino women spoke to them in Tagalog. Barbara smiled and nodded her thanks. Finally, they were done. The pair of nurses tiptoed into their partitioned barracks and joined their sleeping sisters.

Next week, Chapter two. Thanks for reading!