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

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

This is my dedication novel to the women and men of World War II in the Pacific theater. While this is historical fiction, I’ve done a lot of research and will present the bibliography soon. My goal is to recreate the historical climate in Manila and the surrounding area. Many of the characters are real, like nurse commander, Lt. Josephine Nesbit of Hospital No. 2, the spy Claire Phillips known as High Pockets, and Lt. Colonel Jack Schwartz whose perils represent many soldiers’ experiences during the Japanese occupation. Sharing in installments for easier reading, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Two Jewish sisters from Minneapolis become intertwined in love, racism, and survival in the war-torn Philippines…

January 17, 1942

Barbara Kiss sat on a boulder at the edge of the Real River in the Bataan jungle. It was the first time the nurses had a moment to rest since they vacated Hospital No. 1. and retreated to the interior of the peninsula for the purpose of establishing a convalescent hospital. She used rocks and sand to scrub out the hardened oatmeal that clung to the bottom of a kitchen pot that had not been washed due to the rush. The air was balmy, and the water moving over her toes calmed her. She surveyed her surroundings and focused on the giant fronds of the Anahaw tree. On the opposite bank, she absorbed the contrast of the dark Mahogany trunk next to the bright bamboo leaves flickering in the breeze. She thought that under different circumstances, the Philippines would be an exotic oasis. While Barbara waited for the order to move on, her thoughts drifted home to Minnesota. She strained to remember her life before arriving in Manila, avoiding the bombardment of an enemy trying to take over the world.  

Barbara Kiss loved her name. It was the only pretty thing about herself. With a pudgy nose and thick eyebrows, she believed she looked too manly. Friends told her she had expressive eyes and nicely-shaped lips, but when she caught sight of her reflection, she saw frizzy hair the color of a mud puddle. She was built like a poyer and looked like her grandmother in Budapest who suffered from leg ulcers that would not heal. No man had ever kissed Barbara, and the irony took hold. She hoped when men heard her last name, the association would be a subliminal suggestion, but Barbara was thirty and becoming exactly what her mother feared, a spinster.  

Barbara was proud of her intellect. What she lacked in looks she compensated with brainpower. She adapted to public school with top grades. Hebrew school on Sundays with the girls in her synagogue was not difficult. She possessed a passion for literature. She savored the images created in Dante’s Inferno. She contemplated the themes in Shakespeare’s tragedies, memorized Victorian poetry, and wept for Jane Eyre. She admired Ben Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Edith Wharton. For the last decade, her mother whined that Barbara wasted too much time reading British poetry when she should focus on obtaining a husband. 

Barbara rationalized that if men would not come to her, then she would go to them. To quieten her mother and increase the odds, nursing became a logical career choice. Barbara graduated first in her class at the University of Minnesota in 1939. She joined the Women’s Army Corps to her mother’s disapproval. She begged Barbara to join the local Red Cross or assist her father with his dental practice. She told Barbara to encourage the affections of David Goldfarb, a widower on 14th Avenue, and stay in the neighborhood. Barbara grasped the second irony about herself. She did not want a man who was old and ugly. Getting assigned to the Philippines at Manila felt like a blessing, initially.  

As a nurse, she was surrounded by hundreds of men, and they all wanted her. Eyes followed as she made her way from ward to ward, bed to bed. It was immaterial to soldiers that she looked nothing like Hedy Lamarr or Carol Lombard. She felt their gratitude when she held their hand or listened to them talk about their lives. Many of her patients looked like petrified boys. She gave them what they wanted, which was a shot of morphine and an embrace with maternal eyes. Her brand of intimacy with men was unusual, albeit it was a real connection. Was this how mothers felt for their suffering sons? She thought. Was this the affinity married couples shared? Barbara felt a kinship with the soldiers in an unquestioning, safe way. They assumed she was Christian. She felt like a Jewish nun. Am I an irony or a walking contradiction?    

The quiet moment at the stream ended when Barbara heard the whistle of a plane dropping a land bomb. The ground grumbled. From the dark recess of the trail from where they had come, the head nurse, Lt. Josephine Nesbit, appeared and performed a headcount of nurses. “Come on, girls. We need to move. Now.”

Barbara rushed to dry her feet and tie her shoes. She lifted the stretcher with her friend Laura on the other end. They were part of a detail assigned to transport mess supplies. Moving quickly, Barbara and Laura stuffed towels around the metal pots to keep them quiet. In the flurry, someone chucked a Red Cross parcel filled with cans of spam onto the stretcher. Her shoulder muscles pulled, but Barbara did her best to ignore the pain. Lt. Nesbit said they had a few kilometers to go, and they would be far enough away from Hospital No. 1 and from immediate danger. Army bulldozers preceded them and cleared a space in the jungle to set up a makeshift hospital for the overflow of casualties. Barbara flinched when an explosion behind her sounded near. Her arms felt rubbery. There was nothing to do but to keep calm and march.

Her mind wandered back to Minnesota to her family. As the oldest child, Barbara Kiss understood her mother more than her brother and her little sister, Zorka. The move in 1910 to Minneapolis had been too much for Margit Kiss. Barbara grew up listening to Anja complain about her new life in Minnesota. After thirty years in her “new” life, Margit still longed for the old one back in Budapest. She wrote weekly letters to her sister Lotti or to her bedridden mother. Margit Kiss felt two emotions. Guilt for leaving her mother and sister behind and resentment toward her husband for dragging her to Minneapolis while pregnant with Barbara. The Depression had not helped. The Kiss savings dwindled as patients had no money to pay to fix their teeth. During the 1930s, Barbara grew up alert and tall while her mother turned querulous and shrank. Margit puffed when she breathed and fretted like a hen trying to keep her chicks in line of sight. She developed the habit of grabbing Barbara’s arm as if she were in a perpetual state of unbalance. Her dependence on Barbara was nerve-wracking, so reading books and reciting poetry had been a way to escape. Barbara shook her head and muttered to herself, “Always trying to escape. First Anja and now the Japanese.”   

 Laura and Barbara were in the middle of the line surrounded by nurses and enlisted men from the medical core. Filipino civilians were a part of the team, and they all hiked near the Real River on a path barely able to squeeze a jeep through. Everyone carried something to the new hospital which was unceremoniously named Hospital No. 2. The bulldozers shoveled the underbrush away to clear a 30×50 feet area. The single-file team emerged to the cleared space, and the canopy of enormous Acacia trees served as an umbrella to hide them from enemy planes.   

The bombs were audible but distant. Lt. Nesbit ordered two civilians to dig holes in a deep trench by the hospital grounds. She supervised the burying of wooden crates. Quinine. Sulfa. Morphine. Vitamins. Carpenters chopped bamboo and made tables and cots for the patients. Civilian women stuffed rice straw into mattress covers. As the task force made beds and benches, Barbara and Laura delivered their supplies to the mess area and introduced themselves to the cook, Staff Sergeant Oscar Wozniak.   

Sweat pooled in droplets on his forehead and made his olive skin glisten. As he carried a stockpot to his propane stove and lit a flame to boil water for rice for evening chow, he yelled, “Move out of my way, you two. Go fix someone and leave the kitchen to me. In Polish he swore, “Zostaw mnie w spokoju!” 

Laura stuck out her tongue at him behind his back. Wisps of platinum hair framed her face. Barbara had an aversion to cooking. She did not mind finding something else to do. She saw movement behind a wall of tangled vines. Someone tied sheets to create a privacy screen. “Come on, Laura, let’s go over there to help.” 

Barbara was impressed by how fast the hospital evolved after a few hours of their arrival. Workers created paths with their machetes and chopped through the brush to make another room. They hacked through the jungle growth until Hospital No. 2 looked like a sprawling ant farm. The creatures of the jungle angrily protested the intrusion. Added to their bleats and mewls, the flies and mosquitoes buzzed. It never occurred to Barbara how loud the jungle would be. A Filipino carpenter named Matibag created fly swatters out of a pile of bamboo reeds and passed them out to the nurses. Matibag skipped around swatting flies with enthusiasm, but Barbara worried about Malaria, and she could barely shape her lips into a smile when he gave her one.  

“No worry, nurse. My fly swatters magic. They keep sickness away.” She nodded her thanks and holstered it to the hemp belt around her waist. 

The afternoon air was warm. Lt. Nesbit ordered the nurses together in formation and stood before them. Barbara found the sound of Nesbit’s high voice unusual but arresting. She churned the words in the back of her throat with humming sounds before she expelled a thought. “Nurses, I just filled out the daily report and there are 178 of us here at Hospital No. 2. Civilians, medics, doctors–the nurses make up an important part of that number. There are 43 regular Army nurses and 22 Filipino nurses among us.” Then she paused, took a deep breath, and charged forth with another statement. 

“Ladies, I’m in charge of 65 nurses. I’ll do my best to keep you safe and help you keep our patients alive. Although this jungle is an unusual place to build a hospital, we will act like we are indoors with a proper floor and walls and a roof.” 

The Lieutenant had a diamond-shaped face. She looked up at the cracks between the branches to the blue sky that dotted above her. “Do not compare our jungle hospital to the conveniences of Sternberg Hospital because you will always be disappointed, and the last thing we have time for is self-pity.” 

After readjusting her glasses, her voice overflowed with resolve. “We will carry water from upstream to our patients for bathing. We will bat the flies and stay sanitized. There’s a spot downstream reserved for when you need the latrine.”

She put her knuckles on her hips as though her hands needed a rest. “I have set up sanitation stations in each of the wards. It’s all our duty to see that our medicine and supplies are carefully organized and administered.” 

Lt. Nesbit paused to think. She tapped her clipboard with her pencil. “In addition to 65 nurses, many civilians are helping us. The Philippine Scouts are a militia and agreed to protect the hospital. You will recognize them by the yellow shoulder patch with a red caribou as its marking.”

She glanced at her report. “In total, at Hospital No. 2, we have become an instant family of 178. Major Bernard Fox is our Executive Officer. The assisting surgeon is Captain Paul Roland. Our Chief Surgeon and CO is Lt. Colonel Jack Schwartz. Add the other civilian doctors and nurses, well, you can understand Lt. Colonel Schwartz has a lot to worry about.” 

She pointed away from the main area of the hospital from where the mess and surgical tent were located to a section cleared for personnel. “The men will sleep on the north side of the hospital. We nurses will bunk on the south side.” 

Barbara felt the sweat at the small of her back staining her Army fatigues. She could see her hair frizzing in her peripheral vision and wished she could tuck it back under her headband. Why didn’t you cut it when you had the chance last month? Her hair was heavy, and her neck felt like a pin balancing a bowling ball. Her mind went numb. Her eyelids drooped. Laura nudged her elbow and whispered, “Babs, wake up! How can you sleep standing up?”

Lt. Nesbit paced in front of the nurses while the last of the day’s sun reached through the leaves and struck their faces with slivers of light. Barbara sighed when she realized Nesbit had more to say. She pointed to a nurse in front of the formation. “My job is in the capacity of Chief Surgical Nurse. Sgt. Ethel Thor will take over for me if I become incapacitated.” 

Nurse Thor stepped forward crisply, turned about-face, and saluted the nurses. Her salt and pepper hair was cropped short, and her uniform looked baggy on her. She grinned, which was nice to see, but Barbara wondered if the nurse mocked her position with her enthusiasm, or was Nurse Thor really this excited to be at the jungle hospital surrounded by bugs and humidity? She returned to her spot at the end of the first row. Barbara hoped Sgt. Thor closed her mouth before a fly flew in.

Lt. Josephine Nesbit’s speech was drawing to a close. “Girls, your job is to make sure our soldiers are as comfortable as possible. Your work assignments will be posted daily. There’s no need to complain because I will rotate the responsibilities. The key to enduring this assignment is to remember this is all temporary.”

Barbara read between the lines and whispered to Laura, “Don’t complain when it’s our turn to take the soiled sheets to the river to clean.” Laura rolled her eyes. 

Lt. Nesbit allowed herself a small smile. She swung her head to the left and right looking for someone. “I’d like to introduce to you my new right hand if you will. She is from the Philippine Army. Ladies, Sergeant Cleopatra Dulay. See her for requisition forms and obtaining supplies. By God, where’d she go?”

 Sgt. Dulay backed out of a pup tent which kept the medical records safe. When she turned and saw the platoon staring at her, she nearly dropped a stack of manila files. She stood at attention. Her smooth hair was pulled back into a bun so severe, it made her eyes bulge. She rushed over to Lt. Nesbit and stood next to her. It was a comical sight. Josephine Nesbit was close to six feet tall while Cleopatra Dulay barely stood five feet. Her eyes were alert and shiny like coals in the rain. The toe of her boot tapped the ground as she attempted to hide her nervousness. Barbara thought She can’t be more than eighteen. How is she a sergeant already? 

“Thank you, ladies. Dismissed.” 

They treated dozens of patients. By dusk, the wounded lay on cots low to the ground and covered under a mosquito net. SSG Wozniak hung a cowbell on a tree branch next to his mess station and clambered it. Crude picnic tables set under large canvas tarps. The nurses accepted a tin plate of fried spam and an ice cream scoop of rice. Barbara gave her slice of spam to Laura. 

“This is when I am glad you’re a Jew, Babs,” she said and devoured the slice in one bite. In exchange, Laura rolled her ball of rice to Barbara’s plate.  Lt. Nesbit carried over a bamboo stool and sat down at the head of the long table. “Finish eating, girls, and then we’ll chat.” 

Barbara took out her teabag wrapped in her chambray shirt pocket and stood. She walked over to the SSG’s kitchen to request water for a cup of tea. Oscar Wozniak appeared calmer now that he cooked and served chow. He filled up her tin cup with boiling water.  “How long have you had that teabag?” 

“Hmmm. It arrived last October. A package from my folks back in Minneapolis.” 

He raised his eyebrows. “Does it have any flavor left?” 

“I pretend it does.” 

“I got a whole box of teabags. Want a new one?” 

Barbara thought about her mother’s care package and how this wimpy bag was somehow a piece of her. “Maybe next week, Staff Sergeant.”

He was a beefy man with thick limbs and a massive chest. He squinted at her while he read her stenciled name over her breast pocket. “Nurse Kiss, right?” 

She liked his countenance, complete with kind eyes and voluminous mouth. She motioned “yes” with a nod. 

“Okay, Kiss, you can call me Oscar.” 

“Thanks, Oscar. Where are you from?” 

He began scraping a griddle. Sweat dripped from the fleshy skin around his neck. “Philly. Port Richmond. Salmon Street.” He wiped his forehead with his arm and set down the metal spatula. He looked at Barbara and informed, “The men in my family are butchers and stuffers.”

“Stuffers?”

“I learned how to stuff sausages from my grandfather and make perogies from my babka.” 

Barbara sipped from the tin cup. The hot water nourished her parched throat.  

“The Wozniak Meat Shop. Ever hear of it? ” 

“Can’t say that I have.” She thought of the Jewish women back home who spent their lives cooking delicacies for their families and neighbors. While Barbara did not share their devotion to the kitchen, she happily devoured their tokens of love. “I like potato and onion knishes.”

“You Jewish?” 

She reached for the Star of David hanging around her neck and waved it. 

Oscar smiled. “If I ever see potatoes again, I’ll make you a batch.”

Barbara raised her mug to him in salute and returned to the nurses’ table. Her place disappeared, so she sat next to Patty Parr who swore at her transistor radio to work. Her curly black hair was short. Her eyes were fierce like the pinpoint of a gun barrel. She twisted the frequency knob until she found a signal broadcasting from San Francisco. She turned up the volume knob. It was the voice of President Roosevelt reassuring the Pacific fleet. “Have no fear, the skies will be black with planes over your heads.” The table listened to a commercial jingle for Milk of Magnesia. An announcer in a clipped voice returned. “And now for the week in review.”  

Laura rubbed her neck and yawned. “What day is it?’

Patty shouted, “January 17.”

Announcer: “Today, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9024 thus creating the War Production Board. Gather your bronze, brass, and copper for our men at war, folks. It’s a full-scale civilian effort issued by the president.” 

President Roosevelt’s melodious voice addressed the nation in between static interruptions. “. . . time to revamp our industries to produce items for the war effort. We need planes. Tanks. Munitions. Furthermore, I’m asking all women and children to participate in the fight for freedom on the homefront. Sew parachutes. Recycle precious materials by orchestrating drives. Use your ration cards wisely.” 

The announcer interrupted Roosevelt. “Important commodities needed are plastics, gasoline, heating oil, rubber, and paper. Let’s do our part, America!” The sound of canned clapping and whistles crackled over the airwaves. 

Barbara could imagine him with slicked-back hair hugging the microphone in a closet of a radio house. “After the following announcements from the good friends at General Foods, stay with us at KGMZ for another episode of the newly married couple, “Claudia and David.” 

Lt. Nesbit took out her notepad. She signaled Parr to silence the radio. The head nurse pushed her glasses up onto the bridge of her nose. “I found a pilot who is willing to smuggle in necessities.” Her voice was high and clear. “I’m making a list, so shout out your requests. No promises.”

The nurses drummed the table. They went around the table taking turns.  

“Lt., I need socks.”

“Yes, and tampons.” 

“Mascara.”

Patty Parr chided, “What’ da ya need mascara for Carol? You’re gonna sweet talk a monkey?” 

The other nurses giggled. Unperturbed, Carol Fitzgerald smoothed her russet waves. “I just met Larry last week at the No. 1. He says he’s gonna hitch a ride over here as soon as he can get away.”

Laura Wolf touched her blonde ponytail. “I left my hairbrush back at Hospital No. 1.” 

“My toothbrush has gone AWOL.” 

Barbara said, “Books. Let the pilot surprise me.”   

Lt. Nesbit told them, “Our mail will be delivered soon. My goal is to establish communication and get supplies and . . .” 

“Cards! A new deck of cards,” Patty Parr blurted. “And shampoo. I hate washing my hair with bar soap.”

Cleopatra Dulay said, “A pair of size four shoes.” 

Lt. Nesbit lifted her hands up in defeat. She raised her voice over their cries. “The pilot I heard from. She’s a civilian who flies for the Red Cross. She’s agreed to deliver the mail and meet our supply requests within reason. Next time she flies into Manila Air Field, she’ll see what she can do for us.” 

Barbara looked around at the jubilant faces. It was easy to ignore stiffness and fatigue when someone promised to deliver toiletries and a letter from home. Nesbit stood up. “Ok, time to turn in. Your barracks are ready.” 

With a long stride, she crossed the compound, and the nurses followed her. Along the way, a patient reached out and waved to Barbara. He pointed to his poorly wrapped arm. “This arm is slashed. Can you look at it? It seems juicy to me.” 

Barbara grabbed a medical bag and squatted down next to him to change his bloody bandage. He reminded Barbara of the neighborhood newspaper boy who had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah before she enlisted. Such smooth skin. “How are you feeling? Where are you from?”

“San Francisco.”

“Ah, in that case,” Barbara gently removed the wrapping from his deltoid and blinked at the infected laceration. She closed her eyes and recited:  

The air is chill, and the day grows late,

And the clouds come in through the Golden Gate:

Phantom fleets they seem to me,

From a shoreless and unsounded sea;

Their shadowy spars and misty sails,

Unshattered, have weathered a thousand gales:

Slow wheeling, lo! in squadrons gray,

They part, and hasten along the bay . . .

Barbara chuckled. “There’s more, but, you get the idea.” It was a lifetime ago since she won first place reciting Edward Pollock’s poem in school.  

He wiggled in his cot. “Wow. That was nice. I’ve heard of it, I think.” 

Barbara sprinkled sulfa powder over the slash as she chatted. “It’s called, “Golden Gate.” She swatted away the flies that instantly appeared. “What happened?”

“I got in between a radiator and a palm tree. I was waiting for the convoy, minding my own business, when a supply truck turned a corner too fast. It bumped me into a palm tree. Sliced me up like butter.”

Barbara finished wrapping the wound with gauze strips. She stood and hailed the civilian doctor walking nearby to ask if she could administer a penicillin shot. He nodded.  

“Roll to your side, San Francisco.” She poked his rump with the needle.  

Laura waved to Barbara. “Babs, hurry up.” 

San Francisco closed his eyes, and she covered him with a sheet.  

Barbara rubbed her aching shoulders and walked to the partitioned section where Laura disappeared. Inside the room hung hammocks attached to Acadia trunks and thick vines. Young palm trees provided natural privacy for a row of crammed bamboo cots. Barbara was the last of the nurses to claim her cot. She was in the middle of the room with little privacy, close to the flap that functioned as a door, and her bed was next to Patty Parr. Barbara frowned but said nothing. Eight Army and four Filipino nurses shared the room. Many were already asleep.   

Barbara collapsed on her cot and covered herself with a mosquito net. It made her feel like she was a corpse. Into her head entered the vision of Emily Dickinson. Barbara mumbled a few lines as she nodded off:

Because I could not stop for Death– 

He kindly stopped for me–

The Carriage held but just Ourselves–

And Immortality. 

Patty rolled away from her. “Damn it, Kiss. Either recite a happy poem or forget about it altogether. It’s creepy you saying poetry all the time.” Barbara only heard mumbling. With closed eyes, she stretched out her arm and brushed the net with her fingernails, and murmured:   

He passed Us–

The Dews drew quivering and Chill–

For only gossamer, my Gown–

My Tippet–only Tulle–. 

Lt. Nesbit entered the sleeping area for a final look. Carol Fitzgerald was bold enough to break rank, her hair loose around her neck. “Thanks, Josie, for the privacy.” 

Patty Parr yawned loudly, “Where’ ya sleeping, Lt.?” 

“I’m right next to you. See, just over there, by the pup tent? Within hollering range. Night, ladies.” 

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Part 2 in a week or so. Thank you for taking the time to read.