Chapter 1: Waking Up to War
In the fall of 1941, while the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy secretly stockpiled tons of materiel and readied regiments of troops to attack American and European bases in the Pacific, the officers of General Douglas MacArthur's Far East Command in the Philippines pampered themselves with the sweet pleasures of colonial life.
For most, war was only a rumor, an argument around the bar at the officers club, an opinion offered at poolside or on the putting green: let the bellicose Japanese rattle their swords just so much sound and fury; the little island nation would never challenge the United States, never risk arousing such a prodigious foe.
The Americans had their war plans, of course MacArthur had stockpiled supplies and intended to train more Filipino troops to fight alongside his doughboys but most of the officers in the Far East Command looked on the danger with desultory eyes. They were much too preoccupied with their diversions, their off-duty pastimes and pursuits, to dwell on such unpleasant business. To be sure, there were realists in the islands, plenty of them, but for the most part their alarms were lost in the roar of the surf or the late-afternoon rallies on the tennis court.
Worry about war? Not with Filipino houseboys, maids, chefs, gardeners and tailors looking after every need. And not in a place that had the look and sweet fragrance of paradise, a place of palm groves, white gardenias and purple bougainvillea, frangipani and orchids orchids everywhere, even growing out of coconut husks. At the five army posts and one navy base there were badminton and tennis courts, bowling alleys and playing fields. At Fort Stotsenberg, where the cavalry was based, the officers held weekly polo matches. It was a halcyon life, cocktails and bridge at sunset, white jackets and long gowns at dinner, good gin and Gershwin under the stars.
Word of this good life circulated among the military bases Stateside, and women who wanted adventure and romance self-possessed, ambitious and unattached women signed up to sail west. After layovers in Hawaii and Guam, their ships made for Manila Bay. At the dock a crowd was often gathered, for such arrivals were big events "boat days," the locals called them. A band in white uniforms played the passengers down the gangplank, then, following a greeting from their commanding officer and a brief ceremony of welcome, a car with a chauffeur carried the new nurses through the teeming streets of Manila to the Army and Navy Club, where a soft lounge chair and a restorative tumbler of gin was waiting.
Most of the nurses in the Far East Command were in the army and the majority of these worked at Sternberg Hospital, a 450-bed alabaster quadrangle on the city's south side. At the rear of the complex were the nurses quarters, elysian rooms with shell-filled windowpanes, bamboo and wicker furniture with plush cushions and mahogany ceiling fans gently turning the tropical air.
From her offices at Sternberg Hospital, Captain Maude Davison, a career officer and the chief nurse, administered the Army Nurse Corps in the Philippines. Her first deputy, Lieutenant Josephine "Josie" Nesbit of Butler, Missouri, also a "lifer," set the work schedules and established the routines. For most of the women the work was relatively easy and uncomplicated, the usual mix of surgical, medical and obstetric patients, rarely a difficult case or an emergency, save on pay nights or when the fleet was in port and the troops, with too much time on their hands and too much liquor in their bellies, got to brawling.
For the most part one workday blended into another. Every morning a houseboy would appear with a newspaper, then over fresh-squeezed papaya juice with a twist of lime, the women would sit and chat about the day ahead, particularly what they planned to do after work: visit a Chinese tailor, perhaps, or take a Spanish class with a private tutor; maybe go for a swim in the phosphorescent waters of the beach club.
The other posts had their pleasures as well. At Fort McKinley, seven miles from Manila, a streetcar ferried people between the post pool, the bowling alley, the movie theater and the golf course. Seventy-five miles north at Fort Stotsenberg Hospital and nearby Clark Air Field, the post social life turned on the polo matches and weekend rides into the hills where monkeys chattered like children and red-and-blue toucans and parrots called to one another in the trees. Farther north was Camp John Hay, located in the shadow of the Cordillera Central Mountains near Baguio, the unofficial summer capital and retreat for wealthy Americans and Filipinos. The air was cool in Baguio, perfect for golf, and the duffers and low-handicappers who spent every day on the well-tended fairways of the local course often imagined they were playing the finest links this side of Scotland. South of Manila, a thirty-mile drive from the capital, or a short ferry ride across the bay, sat Sangley Point Air Field, the huge Cavite Navy Yard and the U.S. Naval Hospital at Canacao. The hospital, a series of white buildings connected by passageways and shaded by mahogany trees, was set at the tip of a peninsula. Across the bay at Fort Mills on Corregidor, a small hilly island of 1,735 acres, the sea breezes left the air seven degrees cooler than in the city. Fanned by gentle gusts from the sea, the men and their dates would sit on the veranda of the officers club after dark, staring at the glimmer of the lights from the capital across the bay.
Even as MacArthur's command staff worked on a plan to defend Manila from attack, his officers joked about "fighting a war and a hangover at the same time." A few weeks before the shooting started, nurse Eleanor Garen of Elkhart, Indiana, sent a note home to her mother: "Everything is quiet here so don't worry. You probably hear a lot of rumors, but that is all there is about it."
In late November of 1941, most of the eighty-seven army nurses and twelve navy nurses busied themselves buying Christmas presents and new outfits for a gala on New Year's Eve. Then they set about lining up the right escort.
Monday, December 8, 1941, just before dawn. Mary Rose "Red" Harrington was working the graveyard shift at Canacao Naval Hospital. Through the window and across the courtyard she saw lights come on in the officers quarters and heard loud voices. What, she wondered, were all those men doing up so early? And what were they yelling about? A moment later a sailor in a T-shirt burst through the doors of her ward.
They've bombed Honolulu!
Bombed Honolulu? What the hell was he talking about, Red thought.
Across Manila Bay, General Richard Sutherland woke his boss, General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander in the Pacific, to tell him that the Imperial Japanese Navy had launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Later they would learn the details: nineteen American ships, including six battle wagons, the heart of the Pacific fleet, had been scuttled, and the Japanese had destroyed more than a hundred planes; through it all, several thousand soldiers and sailors had been killed or badly wounded.
After months of rumor, inference and gross miscalculation, the inconceivable, the impossible had happened. The Japanese had left the nucleus of the U.S. Pacific fleet twisted and burning. America was at war and the military was reeling.
Juanita Redmond, an army nurse at Sternberg Hospital in Manila, was just finishing her morning paperwork. Her shift would soon be over. One of her many beaus had invited her for an afternoon of golf and she planned a little breakfast and perhaps a nap beforehand. The telephone rang; it was her friend, Rosemary Hogan of Chattanooga, Oklahoma.
The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.
"Thanks for trying to keep me awake," Redmond said. "But that simply isn't funny."
"I'm not being funny," Hogan insisted. "It's true."
As the reports of American mass casualties spread through the hospital that morning, a number of nurses who had close friends stationed in Honolulu broke down and wept.
"Girls! Girls!" Josie Nesbit shouted, trying to calm her staff. "Girls, you've got to sleep today. You can't weep and wail over this, because you have to work tonight."
Some slipped off alone to their rooms while others rushed to a bank to cable money home. Two women, apparently resigned to whatever fate was going to bring, shrugged their shoulders and strolled over to the Army and Navy Club to go bowling.
At Fort Mills Hospital on the island fortress of Corregidor, Eleanor Garen and the rest of the night-shift nurses headed for the post restaurant for a cup of coffee or a glass of Coke. Their custom was to sit and relax after work, but on this particular morning they were chatty and impatient. Would war come to the Philippines? they wondered.
The news so concerned Eleanor that she took out a pencil and slip of paper and started a shopping list supplies she considered important in case of an emergency: Noxema face cream, tooth powder, a comb, bath towel, shampoo, Kleenex, chocolate candy and another pair of lieutenant's bars.
At Fort McKinley Hospital just outside Manila, the day-shift nurses, doctors and medical staff were issued steel helmets and gas masks. Two women coming off the night shift stuffed their helmets and masks in their golf bags and headed for the links.
None of the nurses knew it, of course, but the war was already on its way to them.
Two hundred miles north of the capital, in the cool mountain air of Baguio, Ruby Bradley, a thirty-four-year-old career army nurse on duty at Camp John Hay Hospital, was busy sterilizing the instruments she would need for her first case, a routine hysterectomy.
All at once a soldier appeared at the door and summoned her to headquarters. No surgery that morning, she was told; the Japs had attacked Pearl Harbor, the high command was convinced the Philippine Islands would be next, and Baguio, the most important military and commercial center in northern Luzon, might be one of the enemy's first targets.
Bradley stood there stunned, almost unable to move. What did it mean? she asked herself. Was the hospital truly in danger? Surely the Japanese would not waste their ordnance on such an up-country post. She reported to the surgeon's office for further instruction.
Then the bombs began to fall.
The first hit so close the explosion left their ears ringing. Nurse and doctor ran to the window. Airplanes with big red circles on their wings and fuselage were coming in low, so low Bradley was sure she could see the pilots staring down at her. By instinct she glanced at her watch it was 8:19 A.M., December 8, 1941. Scuttlebutt was now substance; war had come to the Philippines.
A few minutes later the first casualties started to crowd the wards and hallways at John Hay Hospital. A civilian dependent named Susan Dudley and her year-old son had been out walking and were severely wounded in the attack. A Filipino passerby snatched up the wounded boy and rushed him to the receiving room. Bradley could see that the child was in bad shape; his face was blue clearly something was wrong with his heart and his kneecap seemed to be shattered. Bradley felt herself starting to flinch. She was a sturdy and experienced clinician, but even years of practice had not prepared her for something like this. Her heart raced, her stomach started to tighten.
The doctor on duty tried giving the boy oxygen, then he and Bradley took turns at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but nothing worked, and it was clear that the child was slipping away.
Leave him, the doctor ordered. The wounded were beginning to mount, he said, and they had no time to linger over a dying child.
Bradley balked. "How about a stimulant in the heart?" she said, imploring him.
The doctor thought for a moment; it was probably hopeless, he said, but if Bradley wanted to try it, she should do it herself.
The needle was six inches long; if she plunged it into the wrong place in the baby's heart she would instantly kill him. Meanwhile the boy was turning a deeper shade of blue, and the nurse, watching him wane, was growing angry and afraid. Then, looking around the room, she hit on an idea. In the medicine cabinet she spotted a bottle of whiskey and, remembering that liquor was sometimes effective as a heart stimulant, she took a piece of gauze, laced it with some sugar, soaked it in whiskey, and stuck it in the boy's mouth. At first the baby did nothing. Then, slowly, he started to suck, harder, and harder, until, at last, blue gave way to white, white to pink, pink to crying.
"Where's my baby? Where's my baby?" his mother yelled from her bloody gurney. Bomb fragments had shattered the woman's legs and she faced certain amputation.
"You hear him in there yelling?" said the nurse, bending over her. "Well, he's...he's all right now."
After Baguio, the Japanese attacked their primary target, Clark Air Field and Fort Stotsenberg, the main base of the Army Air Corps in the western Pacific. There on the runway sat scores of American fighters and bombers, lined up wingtip to wingtip, fully armed, unmanned, a perfect target.
The Japanese pilots probably could not believe their luck. They had approached cautiously from the South China Sea at 25,000 feet, hoping to elude radar and observers on the ground. The Japanese high command had been convinced that the Americans at Clark Field, having heard the news of Pearl Harbor, would be waiting to repel them, but through a series of communication and command blunders, American air chiefs and MacArthur's staff had left their airplanes like so many sitting ducks for the Zeros Mitsubishis now coming in from the sea. In fact, as the enemy approached, almost everyone at Clark Field was enjoying Monday lunch.
At 12:35 P.M. a tight group of twenty-seven Japanese aircraft making a low moaning sound appeared suddenly from the Zambales Mountains and startled the Americans at their noon repast. American pilots scrambled to their planes, but it was too late the bombs were already falling. And the ground shook from the shock of the attack.
Some of the startled soldiers and airmen took potshots at the attackers with Springfield rifles, antiquated firearms from an earlier war. In a matter of minutes the diving, screaming attackers reduced the squadrons of planes at Clark to seven aircraft, seven.
A second wave of twenty-six Zeros followed, machine-gunning the field. By 1:37 P.M. the raid was over, and the once beautiful and tranquil Fort Stotsenberg and Clark Field were littered with shrapnel and thousands of pieces of mangled, twisted and burning aircraft. The oil dump was ablaze. The enlisted men's barracks, officers quarters, aircraft hangars and machine shops were leveled. A flash fire was raging in the tall grass around the perimeter. And everywhere, everywhere, lay the wounded, and the dead.
Off-duty nurses sprinted to the hospital and found themselves almost overwhelmed by the slaughter. Some of the women filled large syringes with morphine dissolved in sterile water, then walked among the wounded administering injections to kill the pain and quiet the screaming. Others performed triage, literally deciding who might live and who might die, a practice they had read about in their textbooks but never imagined they would have to employ.
Many of the wounded had dived head first into holes and ditches and were lying facedown during the raids, and the concussions from the bombs and strafing runs had blown dirt and cinders into their faces, lacerating their eyes. Using bath towels soaked in cool water, the women tried to wipe the debris from the faces of the blind.
By mid-afternoon, three hours after the raid ended, the doctors and nurses at Fort Stotsenberg were so overwhelmed with work, they put in an urgent call to Sternberg Hospital in Manila. Send help, they pleaded. Send it now!
Early on the morning of December 8, army nurse Helen Cassiani, "Cassie" to her friends, reported for her regular shift at the ear, nose and throat clinic at Sternberg Hospital in Manila. At twenty-four she was pretty and bright, with dark, curly hair down to her neck, a round face and an inviting smile. She had been in paradise only some six weeks, but already she was taken with the place the exotic trips, the spectacular landscape, the impassioned encounters. Now suddenly "public events and private lives had become inseparable," crowding out a future she had been planning for a long time.
When word of the bombings at Baguio, Stotsenberg and Clark reached Manila, the nurses at Sternberg Hospital began to wonder whether the capital would be next. And now someone came through the wards spreading word that an invasion force had been spotted; General Masaharu Homma's 14th Army was streaming toward the Philippines to launch a ground attack.
Headquarters tried to reassure everyone that Manila was safe, but the assurances sounded empty, and Cassie, a bit stunned by the turn of events and somewhat bitter that her tour in paradise was about to turn into an exercise in anxiety and distress, went about her tasks like an automaton, shifting without thinking from one little job to the next. Soon her feet began to hurt and she got a helluva headache.
At 2:00 P.M. the thirty-five doctors and thirty-seven nurses at Sternberg were ordered to a meeting with their commanding officer, Colonel Percy Carroll. Aides passed out gas masks and issued instructions on their use. The Japanese, the colonel explained, were known to use a variety of poison gases. Cassie, listening carefully, began to feel a little dizzy.
At that point an aide rushed into the room and summoned the colonel to a telephone. A few minutes later he returned; Cassie thought he looked pale and seemed to be struggling to maintain his self-control.
The commanding officer at Fort Stotsenberg had just called him, the colonel said. It seemed the attack there had been a disaster for the Americans, and the medical staff desperately needed more nurses, preferably women with surgical skills. The colonel said that he and Maude Davison had decided to send five army nurses from Sternberg and fifteen Filipino nurses from local hospitals north to Stotsenberg. Were there any volunteers?
The room was quiet. All at once, a nurse whose fiancé was stationed at Clark Air Field raised her hand. Then came another, and another, and one more after that. Davison waited; she needed a fifth. Who would it be? Cassie looked around the room, studying the faces of her colleagues. She wanted to go, wanted to be part of what was unfolding, this great historical convulsion. But she was afraid. Then, as if acting on its own, her hand went up, and before she had time to think, she was collecting her helmet and gas mask and heading toward a bus that would take her to war.
She was, at heart, a farm girl, and like many farm girls, she had a capacity for hard work and a curiosity about the ways of the world.
Her parents, Sarah, a diminutive woman, and Peter, well over six feet, had left their Tuscany village as newlyweds and arrived in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, with plans to build a new life. Peter Cassiani worked in a foundry at first, then saved enough money to buy a five-acre chicken farm at 54 High Street, a plot of ground surrounded by two-story houses filled with Irish immigrants. The Irish, of course, resented the newcomers "the wops on High Street," the neighborhood called the Cassianis but as Peter and Sarah began to have children, and as those four children exposed the family to the neighborhood and brought the ways of the new world into the family's house, the Italian Cassianis and their Irish neighbors made peace.
Born on January 26, 1917, Helen, or "Eleana," as her mother liked to call her, was an outgoing girl with dark brown hair, deep brown eyes and an easy laugh. As the youngest of the four, she had the benefit of her siblings' experience and the gift of their attention. Her older sister, Rose, for example, once bought Cassie a doll with money Rose earned selling soap bars door to door, and one of her brothers, Louis, a minor-league shortstop, taught her to play baseball and gave her a lifelong love of the game.
When her siblings were grown and gone, Cassie spent part of each day helping her father with the farm chores. She loved her father and flourished in his company. They built chicken coops together, repaired fences, fixed farm implements. "I learned the busy end of a hammer," she said.
Her father was not an educated man but he tried to turn his farmyard into a kind of school for his daughter. To be a farmer, he taught her, was to learn to deal with the unpredictable and unexpected. A farmer, he said, had to know how to size up a problem and quickly find a solution. She listened closely and learned well; it was a skill that would later help her survive.
Cassie found pleasure in the hauling and hard labor and often used the work as an excuse to ignore her studies. She was smart enough, curious too, but no one had ever taught her how to study, and, untutored as she was, school work was often overwhelming, and her lack of skill left her feeling embarrassed. Then one day two friends from the neighborhood sat her down in the library and showed her how to study. Soon she acquired the habit of reading history, science, stories. Somewhere in all those books an idea took hold of her. "I became fascinated with illness and taking care of people," she said. And after high school, with some money she had saved and a little help from her parents, she moved to Boston and entered the Massachusetts Memorial Hospital School of Nursing.
Then tragedy struck. Her father, in a freak accident, died of carbon monoxide poisoning and, concerned for her mother, she considered leaving school and returning to the farm. She wrote home often that semester, always in Italian, reassuring her mother that she would not forget the family or her roots.
After graduation Cassie joined the Red Cross. That winter, January 1941 , the army, desperate for nurses, invoked a provision of the mandatory national military service law that allowed it to mobilize Red Cross professionals, and Helen Cassiani became a twenty-four-year-old second lieutenant in the Army Reserves.
She was assigned to the hospital at Camp Edwards in Hyannis, Massachusetts. It was routine duty, too routine for someone so self-possessed, someone who "was out to experience as much as I could." So she put in for a transfer.
A week or so later she went home to tell her mother. She had to deliver her news cautiously, for Sarah Cassiani had just had a heart attack.
So Cassie laid it out a bit at a time. She had put in for a transfer, she said...a transfer overseas...the transfer had been approved...she would be going soon, going overseas ...overseas to the Pacific...to the Philippines...the Philippine Islands.
"You're going where?" her mother said. She looked bewildered. Why was her daughter going half a world away?
Cassie tried to reassure her. "Let's face it, Mom did you know what was going to happen to you when you left Italy and came to this country? Did you know what was in store for you? No, but you came."
Sarah sat in silence for a while, and Cassie was sure her mother would try to persuade her to stay, plead loneliness, perhaps, or invoke her ill health.
At length she leaned forward.
"I'll pray for you," she said.
And that was that.
In August 1941, less than four months before the first bombs fell on paradise, Sarah Cassiani kissed her daughter goodbye and bid her bon voyage. It was to be their last embrace; they would never again set eyes on each other.
The relief bus, loaded with five army nurses, fifteen Filipino nurses, two doctors and a few dozen enlisted men, left Manila around 4:00 Pm. and crept along without lights for five hours before the driver finally arrived at his destination.
Stotsenberg, a shambles, was still burning, and the runways at Clark Field were destroyed. Almost every aircraft had been stripped of its skin, either blown off or burned down to the frame. The twisted hulks reminded one of the nurses of "dinosaur bones."
In the darkness the medical team had trouble locating the hospital, and it was only when they heard the moans and cries of the wounded that they knew they were in the right place.
The nurses tried to set to work, but nothing in their experience had prepared them for the wanton slaughter of war, the sights, sounds and smells that make the heart race, leave the mouth dry, buckle the knees.
Cassie had never seen so many broken bones, so much scorched flesh, and the groaning and sobbing and wailing unnerved her. At one point she happened upon a large pile of discarded uniforms covered with dirt and blood. In the middle of this detritus lay a helmet, twisted like so much tin. What, Cassie wondered, had happened to the head inside it?
She tried to keep her bearing, hold on to her assurance. Stay in control, she told herself as she headed for surgery. No mistakes, no slipups. Be quick but be careful. Watch the sutures, check for shock, manage the bleeding.
Nearby, Phyllis Arnold was working on a sergeant who had bullet wounds in both feet. He was anxious to get back to the fighting, he said, and wondered how quickly he would heal. Arnold put him off; rest easy, she told the man, then she turned to the surgeon, who was standing behind her, waiting to amputate the man's legs.
The last surgical case left the operating room at 5:30 A.M. During the long night, the surgical team lost only seven patients, a remarkable record for peacetime clinicians, inexperienced with such trauma. But no one stopped to pat themselves on the back. At that point the number of dead at Stotsenberg totaled eighty.
In a daze of exhaustion the doctors and nurses wandered over to a makeshift mess hall for breakfast. Afterward some dragged themselves to temporary quarters for showers and sleep, but a few of the women, worried that the enemy might mount another raid, returned to the hospital and huddled in a concrete bunker under the pharmacy.
The chamber was small, putrid and cramped. Cassie looked around for a moment, then stepped outside for some fresh air. Just then, the enemy came roaring back.
Again the Zeros came in strafing. Cassie dashed across the compound and jumped into the deep end of an empty swimming pool, pressing herself against one of its walls. In minutes the raid was over, and she made her way to the shallow end and climbed out.
The base was burning again and thick black smoke from the fires filled the tropical sky, casting a dark veil on the green mountains beyond
Among the other volunteers at Stotsenberg was Ruth Marie Straub, a quiet, square-faced woman who had joined the army in 1936 after graduating from Mount Sinai Hospital School of Nursing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, her hometown.
Ruth was somewhat of a mystery to her comrades. They remembered her as a quiet woman who spent hours writing letters to her mother, Elsie Straub.
On a troop transport to Manila, Ruth had met Glen M. Adler, an army pilot and a graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles. Across the months that followed, she and Adler, both twenty-four years old at the time, fell in love and planned to marry. Adler, convinced that war was at hand and hoping to take advantage of an army regulation that allowed officers to send their wives home, was eager to wed right away. "But I wanted to wait until he could go with me," Straub said. So they delayed. Then the bombs started falling.
Adler was stationed at Clark Field, and when word reached Manila that the field had been hit, Straub was the first to raise her hand to go. That night, she also began to keep a diary.
The document shows her to be a sentimental and, at times, fragile woman. Some people by temperament are ill-equipped for war they feel it too deeply and Ruth Straub was one of these. At one point she suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized and sedated. Often in the face of such savagery the psyche simply shatters.
Still, Ruth, the nurse, did her job, and every evening wrote in her little book.
[Straub Diary, December 8, 1941] News that Pearl Harbor had been bombed is here today. During a meeting of nurses and doctors Colonel Carroll announced that Clark Field had been bombed and that nurses and doctors were needed badly up there.
I had to volunteer. Thought I couldn't wait to get there. Arrived at Stotsenberg at nightfall. The hospital was bedlam amputations, dressings, intravenouses, blood transfusions, shock, death...Worked all night, hopped over banisters and slid under the hospital during raids. It was remarkable to see the medical staff at work. One doctor, a flight surgeon, had a head injury, but during the night he got up and went to the operating room to help with the other patients.
[December 9] Reported off duty tonight and several of us crawled into a cement enclosed cubicle under a hospital ward. It was damp, and the air was putrid, but we really slept. Pure exhaustion. The girls are taking this beautifully.
Copyright © 1999 by Elizabeth Norman