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Waking Up to War

The Burning Base

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

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 slip-ups. 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 am. 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.

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

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