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Waking Up to War

Clark Air Field and Fort Stotsenberg

Converted for the Web from "We Band Of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese" by Elizabeth M. Norman

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!

Copyright © 1999 by Elizabeth Norman. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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