This is the first draft of my dedication novel to the women and men who fought in the Philippines during WW2. The previous chapters are located at the right margin of this blog. Criticisms and questions are welcome.
April 9, 1942
Six nurses huddled close, unable to see. Barbara crouched in the inky night waiting at the jungle periphery of Mariveles Harbor for a boat to transport them to Corregidor Island. To deprive the enemy, dynamite explosions rumbled and fire flashes announced U.S. efforts to demolish weapons and ammunition. She looked at her wristwatch and tilted the face until a flare illuminated it was 0330. During the intervals between detonations, the darkness was like a dense fog that insulated them from the demolition of war. Only their voices were heard.
“Where’s our boat? It was supposed to be here at 0200.”
“Be patient. It will come.”
“I wish it were daylight. All I see in this blackness are faces. Our patients. We left them.” “How could we?”
“What were we supposed to do? We followed orders. We did our best.”
“I see the scared faces of the villagers who begged for a ride out of the jungle.”
“What of the soldiers waiting for surgery?”
“Where will the Japs take them?”
The patter of small arms fire nearby interrupted their talk. A jeep arrived at the docks. Barbara breathed a sigh of relief when a flash illuminated Captains Roland, Fox, and Lt. Nesbit. Where was Jack Schwartz? One of them whistled at the officers. In the jungle ferns, Barbara sat on a log with Cleopatra Dulay who shivered with chills. Yesterday, the Sergeant had mild symptoms, but now Malaria throttled her. Barbara blindly stretched out her hand and aimed for Cleopatra’s forehead. She was feverish. Barbara tried to distract Cleopatra from her uncomfortable situation. Curiosity prompted her. “How old are you, Dulay?”
Barbara heard teeth chattering. Cleopatra answered, “I am thirty.”
“I know. I’m so tiny, people assume I’m a girl.” Barbara sensed Cleopatra wrapping her arms around herself. Through clenched jaws, she continued, “My mother wanted me to marry and have children. My aunts and sister had problems delivering babies due to our size.” She started to wheeze. “That’s not for me.” It took time for her to regulate her breathing. “I enlisted in the Filipino Army when I was eighteen. It was the only way to bypass village life. Join the Army. Send money to the family.”
“You did a fine job as the chief supply clerk. No. 2 ran smoothly because of you, Cleopatra.”
She tapped Barbara’s hand in thanks. Her voice stuttered with trepidation. “W-w-w-what will Malinta Tunnel be like?”
“Better than the jungle, surely? Safer? Fewer bugs?”
The male officers drew closer to the nurses and stood vigilant on the sandy beach. Lt. Nesbit batted away fronds and crawled over buttress roots to get to the pair. “I thought it was your voice I heard. How are you holding up, Sgt. Dulay?”
“I’m glad you finally found us, Ma’am. What happened?”
“When we got the order to move, in the confusion, some of us had to walk until I came upon Captains Roland and Fox. Has anyone seen Ethel Thor? I can’t account for her.”
Without the luxury of sight, the nurses heard the twinge of worry that warbled Nesbit’s voice. “It’s a hodgepodge scramble. I’m sure Sgt. Thor will catch up.”
The voices whispered their assurances in turn.
“She’s a tough cookie.”
“I watched her help Capt. Roland with a complicated surgery. Her hands were inside the cavity rearranging the innards of a patient while Paul stitched his aorta.”
“A crusty old bird, that one.”
“She’s a lifer.”
Then the nurses turned to themselves. “Not this nurse. As soon as the war is over, I’m head’n back to Atlanta to kiss my future husband and watch my children grow up.”
“Fitzgerald? That you? Amen to that, Carol.”
“I’m going to live in a big city and eat in cafes every day. I’ll find a nice man who loves books, and we will live together in sin.”
“Who said that?”
“What? That was Barbara?”
“I thought you’d be back in your Minneapolis neighborhood, married, and filling up on bagels with lox?”
“And a chocolate egg cream.” Barbara chuckled. “I pledge to order both every day for the rest of my life. But it won’t be in Minneapolis.”
“And no husband?”
“Of course, if the right man came along. Someone like Jack. But I’m going to New York City. My mother will eventually get over it.” Won’t she?
Laura Wolfe said, “My mom did not want me to be a nurse. If I made this a career– it wouldn’t be in the Army. I don’t want to grow accustomed to this craziness.”
Josie Nesbit’s contribution surprised them. “My mother wanted me to marry. I told her I have had a thousand husbands and saved them from death. Isn’t that enough? Why must I be married?”
The blanket of camaraderie covered them and settled their nerves until a hefty explosion silenced their chattering. They had a clear view of an ammunition dump explosion along the coast. The fireworks catapulted upward like white ribbons reaching for the moon. Lt. Nesbit announced, “I’m going to the pier. Maybe there’s someone who can take us to Corregidor. If a boat arrives, nurses, make sure you take it.”
“I’ll go with you, Lieutenant,” said Lt. Fox. They scrambled down to the harbor buildings. Soon a Navy seaman waved his flashlight in their direction. He pulled a cord and started the outboard motor attached to the stern of a dinghy.
Captain Roland said, “Go, girls. He can take the six of you across the bay to the island. We’ll catch the next ride.”
Barbara, Cleopatra, Laura, Carol, and two Filipino nurses crept with their heads down to the dock. The waning moon kept the waters dark, and their eyes adjusted to shadows. As the boat puttered away from Mariveles Bay, no one said a word. The water was smooth, and Barbara inserted her finger into the coolness. Laura reached over and yanked on her arm. She pointed. A few yards away the water shifted and rolled. The dorsal fins of several sharks sliced up through the water testing the air. Barbara yelped and put her hand back in her lap.
* * * * * *
It did not take them long to cross five nautical miles to Corregidor Island. They thanked the inscrutable sailor who grunted he needed to return to get the others. Barbara thought of the ferryman Charon. If she had a gold coin, she would have tossed it to him, for she felt she had crossed the Styx and was indeed in the underworld. She forgot about the boat and turned to climb up the steep path that cut through a grove of Dap-dap trees. The nurses helped each other up the incline by using the flexible branches for leverage. The scarlet blossoms glowed eerily in the pre-dawn light. The two Filipino nurses gathered several blossoms and stuffed the petals in with their personal belongings.
Barbara asked, “What will you do with them?”
They answered simultaneously. “Monthly cramps. A tea for joint pain.”
“I think the Armed Forces should take advantage of your knowledge of what’s offered on the islands.” Barbara suddenly slapped her neck. “What repels mosquitos?”
Cleopatra moved slowly. She leaned against the top of a boulder to balance herself. “My lola told me to gather lemongrass and plant it next to our home. It helped keep them away.”
“Well, if you see any, point it out. I’m going to stuff the grass in every pocket I have. Hell, I’ll even wash with it.”
Laura puffed out a sound to show her amazement. “Babs, you’re the only one of us who has not come down with Malaria.”
“I’d like to keep it that way.”
When Carol was excited, her southern roots appeared. A one-syllable word became two, and the ends of her words lingered. “I’ll start a po-ol. I’ll wager a dolla’ that Kiss won’t get Malaria by the first of Ju-ly.”
“I like those odds.” Barbara stopped to breathe and stared at the east horizon brightening. She said to her friends, “I refuse to get Malaria.”
The nurses marched on. Mercury-vapor lights greeted them at the cement mouth of Malinta Tunnel. It was wide enough for a bus to enter. They moved out of the way to allow an ambulance to deliver new patients while corpsmen hurried to meet the truck. Inside, an Army private first class volunteered to escort them across the main hospital area to the nurses’ barracks.
Laura choked on her words. “Wow! It’s the size of a city block.”
Barbara counted several lateral tunnels to where stretcher-bearers disappeared with patients. They walked by several side tunnels where a blur of medical personnel entered and exited. Carol said to Barbara, “I hope they let us sleep a little before reporting to duty.” Carol’s lips contorted into a grimace as she reached behind her ear to scratch the itch from a bee sting inflicted on the way up the path. Behind her, Barbara likened Carol to the Irish Setter scratching. The PFC led them down a side tunnel to a long row of bunk beds. It was dimly lit and smelled clammy from oily shoes and hardened socks. Nurses slept two to a bunk. One set of bunk beds was empty. The PFC announced, “This is all that’s left.” Carol dragged herself up to the top bunk, and Cleopatra followed behind her. Laura and Barbara looked at the Filipino nurses who traveled with them.
“Shall we flip a coin?” said Barbara. The pair were good sports. “We’ll trade with you every other day.” They took off their metal helmets and lay on the cement floor against the tunnel wall and fell asleep instantly. Barbara and Laura flopped down on the lower bunk’s decrepit mattress. After months of noise and upheaval, the nurses were too numb to register the odors of thousands of people who hid in the Malinta Tunnel with them. In the narrow space, Laura yawned and passed out. Barbara ignored her aches and pains and welcomed the motionless moment as if she floated naked in warm waters.
They slept for four hours before a high-ranking nurse ordered them to awaken. Ringing ears, scratchy eyes, and stiff limbs made it hard to stand. The PFC who met them at the entrance now waited for them in the main tunnel. He spoke, but in Barbara’s ears, it sounded like bees buzzing.
“Chow time. Follow me.”
The new arrivals shuffled their feet behind him. Their hollow steps reflected their dopey minds until they entered the main hangar. Noisy machines and crowds of civilians and soldiers shocked them awake. They descended by stairs to a lower level where the chow hall was located. Barbara strained to catch sight of SSG Oscar Wozniak and thought, I don’t even know if he’s alive. They entered the line and grabbed a metal plate peering ahead, salivating with hope. This was more food than they had eaten in a week. Coffee. Boiled eggs. Toast. Oatmeal. They accepted all of it, squeezed into a crudely made picnic table, and wolfed down their food. Their stomachs filled too quickly, so they crammed toast into their pockets for later. They saw Lt. Nesbit a distance away with Ethel Thor, Patty Parr, and a group of Filipino nurses who they recognized from Hospital No. 2.
“Anyone surprised that Ethel and Patty made it?” asked Laura, swallowing the last spoonful of her oatmeal.
Carol snipped, “I bet when the Japs faced Parr, she growled, and they raced for the hills.”
Dulay lifted her wobbly arm and waved at them. Lt. Nesbit’s worry lines softened, and her eyes rounded with joy behind her glasses. She marched over to their table.
Carol’s eyebrows lifted and arched. “How does she have the energy to move so fast?”
“Excellent! Here you are.” Nesbit scribbled a number on a pad of paper. “We are all counted for. All eighty-eight nurses from Hospital No. 2 survived the transit with no losses.” She lifted her face up to the brick convex ceiling and mouthed to God, “Thank you.”
Barbara asked, “Have you heard anything about the patients we left behind?”
Patty Parr elbowed her way to the front of the group. “Hey, how’s it going?” Most of the nurses forced a smile and nodded back. Barbara wondered, Why do we feel the need to be nice to unpleasant people? Patty stared at Barbara waiting for a sign of recognition. Barbara looked at her short, spirally hair and squat nose. Straight eyebrows framed the eyes the color of steelies like the marbles she played as a girl. Barbara conceded Parr had an enviable, curvy figure. If she would just calm down and smile once in a while, she would be less frightening. Barbara’s face remained impassive until Patty looked away and said, “So now what, Lieutenant? What’s the plan?”
Ethel Thor stepped forward. “We just heard there are 12,000 people crammed into this tunnel. More wounded come by the hour.”
Lt. Nesbit said, “Our job is clear. We are professional nurses for as long as we stay here. I will have your assignments posted in an hour.” Josie smiled at them, her merry crinkles surrounding the warmth in her eyes. Her authority was unquestioned. Throughout the unending chaos, Lt. Nesbit kept the order, and that was what kept the unit calm. Barbara felt the mutual admiration around the table for this grand woman.
“Finish your breakfast, wash your pits and privates, and meet me back here in one hour.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” they answered in unison.
As an afterthought, Nesbit added, “Oh, before you go, I’d like to introduce you to Navy first class petty officer Vogel.” She seemed to produce him from behind her back like a magic trick and brought him forward to the nurses sitting around the table. “Petty officer Vogel briefs newcomers about Malinta Tunnel and Corregidor Island.”
“Hello.” He pushed his glasses up on his nose above his bashful smile. He picked at the button on his fatigues and took off his hat to wipe the sweat off his forehead. Barbara could not refrain. She leaned toward Laura’s ear and whispered, “a toy Spaniel.”
With the hint of a stutter, he inhaled a big breath which made his cheeks puff out like a trumpet player. Barbara instantly liked him. Goodness. Are we that intimidating? Barbara swept her eyes around the table of sunken eyes and bony bodies. Cleopatra Dulay looked faint. Laura Wolfe was plagued with dysentery. Carol Fitzgerald kept pinching her eyes and grabbing the back of her neck. Patty Parr looked like she had jaundice. For many days, they had no access to the atabrine. Barbara’s stomach cramps abated but in its place her throat was swollen and her ears rang. It was the onset of something. She was so thirsty that her swollen tongue made it hard for air to go down her windpipe. Barbara stared at Cleopatra who stood wobbling between Sgt. Thor and Lt. Nesbit.
Barbara had not been listening to petty officer Vogel. He must have asked if they were fit for duty because Carol became indignant and coughed out an answer, “We may-a-be raggedy on the outside, but our hearts are strong, and we’re still standin’.”
On cue, Dulay passed out. Arms held her up. Patty said the obvious, “Get her to a bunk bed. She’s out of commission.”
Petty officer Vogel started puffing with exasperation. “W-would you like some information now?”
Patty said, “Make it snappy, buster. We have to start working soon.”
He dove into his script and recited in a high-pitched monotone, “Estimates for Malinta Tunnel are as follows: seven thousand combat troops, two thousand civilians, and three thousand military administrators and medical personnel. Civilians are below in subterranean barracks. Your tunnel is next to the hospital, obviously.”
He paused and looked above his paper to see if the nurses were listening. He swallowed a couple times and continued. “There are several layers to the tunnel. The air ventilation system does its best, but most think it’s useless. The tunnel serves as the headquarters of the Philippine Commonwealth government. We also have a classified tunnel where Navy officers and select enlisted men decrypt Japanese radio traffic. Topside there are strategically placed pillboxes defending the island. However, the heart of our defense is Battery Way with four, 12-inch M1890 mortars.”
Barbara asked, “Can they update us on what happened with the patients in Hospital No. 2? We lost our company commander. Can we go ask where Lt. Col. Schwartz might have been taken?”
“Oh, no. That’s a top-secret tunnel. That is, there’s no way they’d let nurses in.”
Patty snapped dryly, “They would if they were hurt. What if we tossed in a grenade to shake things up?” She laughed. Petty officer Vogel stared at her mortified. He realized his mouth dropped open, and he closed it.
Barbara stood and excused herself. Laura followed her. The other nurses reacted and helped one another to stand. Petty officer Vogel stood there. He must have had more information to share, but now he had no audience. With jerky movements, he contemplated staying or leaving. Patty Parr squinted at him and walked away shaking her head. Petty officer Vogel made a decision. He saluted Lt. Nesbit and left, his cheeks puffing.
For the next two weeks, time became a rushed, repetitive cycle as though the medical staff of Malinta tunnel was hamsters running circles in a wheel and getting nowhere. Bombs shook the walls, and the dust entered their nasal passages and traveled to their lungs. Barbara learned to breathe through her mouth to avoid the stench of human waste and blood. She grew accustomed to red lights signaling an air raid. During surgeries, the lights would cut out and corpsmen stepped in with flashlights to shine on mutilated body parts. Barbara retreated into her head, fighting dyspnea by remembering lines from poems or placing herself in her future New York City apartment. In her clean, airy home she imagined tall bookshelves and a pair of velvet wing chairs facing a crackling fire. Though she tried to insulate herself, she could not escape the immediacy of war’s gruesome pressures. The tunnel bore a weight that slowly suffocated them all.
Barbara talked to her patients and asked the same questions. Where had they fallen and did they know Lt. Col. Schwartz’s whereabouts? She could not explain the persistent need to find Jack other than it became a habit to do so. She admired his goodness and his respectability among the medical staff. She felt silly for her infatuation. Was he married? Where was he from? The distraction of wondering about his whereabouts manifested into a pleasant daydream where she added him to her imaginary setting like a figurine in a dollhouse. She set Jack in the velvet wing chair facing the fire and brought him a Bourbon sliding over ice cubes. Tonight darling, let’s discuss“Rappacinni’s Daughter” by Nathanial Hawthorne. He looked up at her, his black hair shiny with waves, his sharp blue eyes loving her. A loud crash pulled her out of her reverie. She was back in the tunnel carrying morphine needles to the third ward, and she cursed the interruption. With daily rapidity, the food and medical supplies diminished, the oxygen evaporated, and in that environment what blossomed inside Barbara was loathing — an insidious flower of poison with one purpose — to hate the Japanese.
She sneaked out of the tunnel at night when the aerial attacks stopped. She swallowed the air with the hope it would sweep out of her cluttered mind. I became a nurse to serve and love. She thought herself superior to the barbaric emotion of hatred. Barbara tried to recall what Rabbi Aronsky said about tolerance and love. His voice disintegrated into a whispery memory each time Japanese pilots flew over the island dropping bombs, and as a result, debilitated soldiers arrived at the mouth of the tunnel.
One night, Barbara, Laura, and Carol exited the west entrance of the tunnel. Air became more important than sleep. Barbara said, “At least we are at the top level. Can you imagine being a civilian and having to stay down below? The crappy way the ventilators work? The air has to be too thin.”
The three followed a path upward leading to a flat ridge hidden by bushes. Should the Japanese bombers decide on a nocturnal raid, they hoped they would not attract attention. They sat shoulder to shoulder and looked at the constellations above them. Laura passed around a cigarette to share. Her platinum hair seemed too bright. Barbara gave her the combat hat she had on. Laura said bemused, “No matter what’s going on down here, the stars stay constant. They couldn’t care less about World War II.”
Carol added, “It doesn’t seem like God cares, either.”
Barbara snorted her disagreement. “Nonsense. Men in power are trying to rule the world. God didn’t create this chaos. The Japanese and Nazis did.”
Laura said, “All we can do is serve with honor.”
Carol took a drink of water from her canteen. “That’s what the Japs think, too. How has honor been so distorted?”
She passed the metal container to Barbara who declined. She did not dare share her germs. Of all the illnesses to get in the Philippines, her childhood complaint revisited Barbara like an odious guest. By the pricking of my thumbs, she remembered the witches scene from Macbeth and mumbled, “Something wicked this way comes.”
Her friends looked at her confused. Laura said, “The Japs?”
Barbara was too tired to explain. Compared to the dying soldiers she interacted with on a daily basis, it was not important enough to mention she had a sore throat. She felt sure she needed a tonsillectomy. She self-prescribed a regimen of gargling with saltwater. She had a low-grade fever, but was not everyone suffering from something? At least she avoided Malaria. Carol’s pool was up to seventeen dollars. Today was May first. In a few months, Barbara hoped to win a small fortune. Distractions. How else would they survive?
Barbara blurted, “I think God is testing us.”
“What do you mean, Babs?”
Barbara felt tears sting her eyes. “Here we are in hell trying to survive and help others survive. I don’t think there will ever be a time in my life where my actions will have this kind of meaning.”
Laura let her hair out of her rubberband and scratched her scalp. In the dark, Barbara imagined Laura on a sunny day back in her small town of Wisconsin. She saw Laura on roller skates with pink-apple cheeks and a flip-flopping ponytail while her arms swung beside her shifting hips.
Laura sounded defiant. “You’ve all seen the victory films. We are fighting against aggression and protecting our freedoms.” She folded her arms. A few days ago, the Japanese had two successful hits. One bomb destroyed the laundry room. During the next sorge, the water tanks exploded. So long clean sheets and showers. Laura exclaimed angrily, “I’d shoot myself before Hitler or Tojo ruled my world.”
Barbara mulled over how the naive girl from Mazomanie Wisconsin came to worry about dictators and death. She said a little prayer hoping Laura would not be so changed after the war that she boxed up her roller skates and stuffed them into a closet to be forever forgotten.
Part Two of Chapter 5 is forthcoming by next Friday as I’ll be leaving Arizona and heading 2,000 miles to Virginia. I am so busy, I apologize for neglecting your posts. Thank you for reading.
Love & Friendship,