1940s, authors, books, history, Research, writing

Book 3: WWII research, POW Nurses, Bataan

Nurses of Bataan

While conducting research about the American WWII nurses who survived battle and prison camp in the Pacific, Mary Cronk Farrell’s Pure Grit is informative and detailing. In January 1941, orders are given for the U.S. Army General Hospital no.2, to move ten miles down a narrow trail deep into the jungle to create a convalescent hospital. Japanese bombs drop forcing the emergency evacuation. Carrying their supplies, their blankets, their dirty pots and pans to escape, nurses, doctors and patients trek ten miles to the new site.

Real-life Josephine Nesbit is the head nurse of over seventy Filipino and U.S. nurses who work tirelessly to attend to soldiers. This is only one part of the recollections of American nurses in Pure Grit. They who dodged bombing, improvised medicine, survived the trials of retreat, hid on Corregidor Island, and starved at Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, 1941-1943.

In this time of U.S. History, Book 3 of my twentieth-century series gives life to a new character. She is Barbara Kiss, a Jewish nurse from Minneapolis, Minnesota who serves as a WAC in the Philippines. Barbara Kiss becomes a fictionalized part of history. Here is an introduction to Barbara:

January 1941

Barbara repositioned her sitting position on a boulder at the edge of the Read River. She used rocks and sand to scrub a dirty kitchen pot not washed because of the emergency evacuation. The air was balmy, and the trickle of the water moving over her toes was calming. She glanced around at the palms, the Mahogany trees, the bamboo groves, and thickets of jungle vines. Under different circumstances, she might have thought Bataan was an exotic oasis. She indulged herself to daydream about her life back in Minnesota. 

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. People told her she had expressive eyes and a funny personality, but when she saw 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 wouldn’t heal. No men kissed Barbara. She was 30 and becoming exactly what her mother feared, a spinster.  

Barbara was proud of her intellect. What she lacked in looks she compensated with brainpower. How easy it was to sail through school with top grades. She possessed an aptitude for understanding the Latin classics. She savored the images created in Dante’s Inferno. She contemplated the themes in Shakespeare’s tragedies, memorized the poetry of the British Romantics, and wept for Jane Eyre. She admired Ben Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain. For the last decade, her mother whined that Barbara wasted too much time reading when she should focus on obtaining a husband. To quieten her and increase the odds, nursing became a logical career choice. Barbara rationalized if men wouldn’t come to her, she would go to them. Barbara graduated first in her class at the University of Minnesota in 1939. She joined the Woman’s Army Corps to the dismay of her mother who had begged her 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 from 14th Avenue and stay in the neighborhood. Barbara grasped the irony that she did not want a man who was old and ugly. Getting assigned to the Philippines felt like a blessing, initially.  

As a WAC, she was surrounded by hundreds of men, and they all wanted her. Eyes followed her 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 combined with the affinity married couples shared? Barbara felt a kinship with the soldiers in an unquestioning, safe way. Like a Jewish nun.   

As the oldest child in the Kiss family, Barbara understood her mother more than her two brothers and her little sister, Zorka. The move in 1910 to Minneapolis had been too much for Margit Kiss. Barbara grew up listening to her complain about her new life in Minnesota. After thirty years in her “new” life, Margit longed for the old one back in Budapest. Most days she wrote letters to her sister or to her bedridden mother. Barbara’s anya felt two emotions. Guilt for leaving her sister and mother behind and anger toward her husband for dragging her to Minneapolis while pregnant with Barbara. The Depression hadn’t helped. The Kiss savings dwindled as patients had no money to pay to fix their teeth. During the 1920s and 30s, Barbara grew up alert and strong while her mother turned querulous and shrank. Margit puffed when she breathed and fretted like a hen trying to keep her four chicks in line of sight. She manifested 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 had been a way to escape.  

The quiet moment at the stream ended when Barbara heard the whistle of bombs dropping and the ground grumble. From the dark recess of the trail from where they had come, the head nurse, Josie Nesbit, appeared. “Come on, girls. We need to move. Now.”

Barbara rushed to dry her feet and tie her shoes. She stood and pushed the thoughts of her family away. She lifted the stretcher with her friend Laura on the other end. They were part of a group assigned to transport mess supplies. Moving quickly, Barbara and Laura stuffed towels around the metal pans to keep them quiet. In the rush, someone chucked a Red Cross package filled with cans of evaporated milk, tins of dried meat and apricots on to the stretcher. Her shoulder muscles pulled, but Barbara did her best to ignore the prickle of pain. Nesbit said they had a few miles more to go, and they would be out of immediate danger. Far enough away from Hospital No. 1, to where Army bulldozers had cleared a space in the jungle for them to set up a camp and a makeshift hospital for the overflow of casualties…

Thank you for reading!