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

(7) Creating Historical Fiction: DC-3, Short-snorter, Nisei and Racism

Some of my blogging friends have expressed interest in the inner-workings of creating historical fiction. Or, they love history in general, especially WW2, and wanted to read about the research. These topics might interest you.

In chapter 4, the character Zorka Kiss moves by train and plane to get to the Philippines. With her is Ken Suzuki, a Nisei language student. He’s been assigned to Manzanar to recruit other Nisei to join the Army and become a spy for the U.S. Racism surrounds him from all sides.

To get some idea of what obstacles faced Nisei on the homefront, I read the 1957 memoir by John Okada. After the release of Japanese Americans from internment camps, it was expected they move forward with their lives as though nothing happened. Those men who resisted were known as “no-no boys,” for twice having answered no on a compulsory government survey asking whether they were willing to serve in the U.S. armed forces and to swear allegiance to the United States. 

No-No Boy tells the story of draft resister, Ichiro Yamada, whose refusal to comply with the U.S. government earns him two years in prison and the disapproval of his family and community in Seattle. I highly recommend it. 

Photo by Amber Brierly on Pexels.com

DC-3

At one point, Zorka prepares to fly from Oahu to Australia to Manila. To describe what that was like, I enjoyed the 2010 Flying article, “DC-3, A Real Man’s Airplane” by female pilot, Martha Lunken who describes, “The truth is that a “real” working DC-3 is a man’s airplane — incredibly grungy inside and out; dripping black stuff; reeking of Mil-5606 hydraulic fluid, engine oil and 100LL; with leaking relief tubes, dead animals and body odors of the unwashed freight dogs who fly it. You’re likely to find tins half-full of tobacco juice, decades-old candy bar wrappers and rusty soda pop cans, sometimes full of cigarette butts, on the cockpit floor.” You can read the article in its entirety here: https://www.flyingmag.com/pilots-places/pilots-adventures-more/dc-3-real-mans-airplane/

Another article in JSTOR gave insight to the planes and conditions after the Japanese Imperial Army took over Manila and the surrounding islands. I had never heard of the “Bamboo Fleet,” but it added to my understanding the chaos of the takeover, the dangers, the heroism of the pilots. Here is a brief excerpt written by John Farrell:

“As with the fighter aircraft, the initial missions of the Bamboo Fleet were comprised mostly of transporting passengers. Between 100 and 120 personnel were evacuated through the Bamboo Fleet. (42) Bradford alone evacuated twenty-two key personnel from Bataan. (43) Some of the more interesting Bamboo Fleet evacuees included a Chinese emissary from Chiang Kai-shek caught on Luzon when the Japanese invasion commenced. (44) Also evacuated on the same flight were two Nisei American spies who had been undercover among the Japanese community in the Philippines gathering intelligence. (45) Had they been taken prisoner, their ethnicity and status as spies would have made them subject to treason in the eyes of the Japanese. Had the Bamboo Fleet not gotten them out, they would have most probably been executed. Most of passengers, however, were fellow pilots. Although fighter pilots served in infantry units while on Bataan, their skills and experience would be needed in cockpits for the future air operations. Some were ferried to airfields in Mindanao to fly up some of the three fighter aircraft shipped in from Australia, but most were being evacuated to Australia to serve in other flying units.

While the fleet flew out passengers, the return trip would usually bring extra food and ammunition to Bataan. As the siege wore on, medical supplies became the more vital cargo, particularly quinine to ward off and treat malaria. By the end of January, most of the troops were infected with malaria parasites. By March 23, 1942, 750 cases of malaria were reported daily. The Bamboo Fleet’s flying in 758,000 quinine tablets helped alleviate the situation, but three million tablets per month were required to prevent the spread of malaria. (46) Despite their efforts, whatever supplies the Bamboo Fleet could fly in was never enough.”

Farrell, John F. “THE BAMBOO FLEET: HOW A RAGTAG AIRLIFT OPERATION SUPPORTED BESIEGED U.S. FORCES IN THE PHILIPPINES IN WORLD WAR II.” Air Power History, vol. 59, no. 2, 2012, pp. 14–23. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26276176. Accessed 30 Jan. 2021.

Notice Nisei spies were airlifted. A perfect opening for my fictional character Ken Suzuki to be a part of the plot. And, Kay Weese, from book 2 becomes associated with the Bamboo Fleet.

Photo by Signal Corps – US Army, Eleanor Roosevelt signing short-snorters

The Short-snorter

Learning about the short-snorter from the National Museum of the United States Air Force was perfect trivia to include in the scenes where pilot Kay Weese incorporates authenticity to the flying experience. The ultimate goal in writing historical fiction is to place the reader back in time and have them feel with all their senses what it was like to be in the Philippines in 1942. I’m always looking for the little bits that give the fiction a sense of reality.

https://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/Museum-Exhibits/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/196124/a-useful-souvenir-the-short-snorter/

The souvenir was a way for soldiers sharing an aircraft to obtain as many signatures on a currency bill. When a soldier made it to the base bar, “show me your short-snorter” was the challenge. If you precured one, you did not have to buy a round. Those with the fewest signatures had to buy a drink, too. Even if one wasn’t into drinking games, it was a souvenir along the likes of a passport stamp showcasing all the places a soldier traveled in the world.

Racism

Two memoirs helped me understand the fight to survive after the Japanese takeover. One, from a navigator’s perspective (Edgar Whitcomb) and two, from the Navy officer trying to save his crew (John Morrill). Their job specific vocabulary, the flight patterns, the activities of mine sweepers, subs, various ships as they escaped from Corregidor was helpful when I created fictional scenes that felt like 1942.

I have a historical dilemna perhaps you can help me with. Whatever memoir I’m reading, whatever memory I recall growing up of people referring to the Japanese, they were referred with the racial slur, “Jap” or “Nip”. If I were to use the term today, I would be considered a racist. I would never use the term. But if I lived in 1942…

If I am creating a historical fiction, wouldn’t it make sense that my characters would refer to Japanese Imperial Army soldiers as Japs and Nips? I bring this up because in the first novel, my African American character is called the N word and the editor at the time warned me it would offend readers.

If I don’t refer to the Japanese Imperial Army with the ubiquitious slang at the time, I would not be creating the historical climate. After all, it’s history that informs the present society how the past society acted. Historical fiction allows the reader to compare the past with the present. Time is a gauge that helps change the future. To implant present morays to the past, alters the past. That feels very Orwellian to me. What do you think?

Thanks for reading! On to Chapter 5…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1940s, historical fiction, history, Research, writing

(2) Writing historical fiction: What’s in a name?

In book three, with a possible working title “The White Flash Made By Little Boy,” the year is 1942 and the setting is the Philippine jungle on the Bataan Penninsula. The principal character in Chapter 1 is Barbara Kiss. You met her before found HERE. What have I been researching? How does one create a historical climate?

Resources

Naturally, books are what I grab first to catch up on general knowledge of events. I picked Pure Grit by Mary Cronk Farrell whose non-fiction account is well researched and an easy read. I didn’t know much about the nurses who were forced to evacuate Sternberg General Hospital, Manila, into the jungle after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese pressed. By the end of December, Hospital No. 1 was forced to retreat into the jungle. The Japanese pressed some more. The Army decided to send bulldozers deeper into the jungle ten miles by the Real River. Hospital No. 2 was created. It resembled an ant farm of interconnecting rooms that served as wards. It was open-aired, and the walls were vines while the roof was trees. Under the Acadia branches, the hospital hid from a Japanese attack from the sky. Initially, it was a convalescent hospital, but became a surgical hospital, too.

World War II sites abound. My buddy and WW2 expert, GP,  was kind enough to relay applicable links for personal testimonies.  The most informative site, thus far, is the WW2 Medical Research Center. I can read unit histories, articles, testimonies, and inspect the database. Check out their site at WW2 US Medical Research. Why would I do that? I’m not a nurse from 1942. I haven’t a clue how they treated the wounded. What did nurses wear in the jungle? Malaria was a huge problem. What were the symptoms and what was it like for the nurses and patients who suffered? Testimonies are vital for the details that help me recreate a time period. For example, monkeys, iguanas, caribou, rats, spiders, snakes, and the omnipresent flies and mosquitos made it extremely difficult to ignore while administering aid or to sleep at night. Now add strafing, half rations, capture, and enduring time in a POW camp. The nurses lost a third of their body weight from starvation before rescue in February 1945. Pictures provide clues for the answers to my questions and allow me to accurately describe the past. 

The Filipino medical staff and civilians 

The Filipinos helped the US Army by providing civilians to build Hospital No. 2. Filipino nurses and doctors worked alongside American nurses and doctors. If I’m attempting to create the past, I need to know something about Filipino culture, including their names. As it happens, I have a high school student whose father is Filipino. Great! I asked her to investigate and create a list of her ancestors who lived in the Philippines during the WW2 era. That was helpful. In short, asking people to share their personal histories is paramount in looking for the similarities soldiers and medical staff experienced. It’s not surprising that veterans worried, cried, laughed, and leaned on each other to get through the catastrophe. The number one reaction of being in a nurse under attack? Most said there was no time to be scared. There were too many patients to take care of.

NARA (National Archives and Records Association, Washington DC)

Here’s where the fun is. It’s detective work. The primary documents tell a story and reveal a truth whereas recollections over the decades can be selective. I found daily reports, rosters and hospital records, 1941-42. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/16837727

The records show me the numbers, the names and rank of personnel–both Filipino and U.S. doctors and nurses. Supply lists show me what they had and what they needed. This helps me “see” the hospital. For example, at its height, Hospital No. 2 had over 2,000 patients. I didn’t conceptualize the jungle hospital was that large and/or crowded. The facts shape my descriptions.

Writing historical fiction is about asking questions and finding clues to the answers. Everything requires research when you describe a setting and create believable characters across the world. For book two, Inside the Gold Plated Pistol, the setting is outside my front door. I live and breathe the history of Clarkdale, Arizona. But the Philipines in 1942? I know very little. It’s more of a challenge, but I enjoy the process of envisioning the past. During this month of Coronavirus, I have been allowed to research and write at home. It’s my silver lining. Do you have any personal stories about nurses or about Bataan? I’d love to hear what you have to say. I will be back at the end of April to share more.