NURSE ON BATAAN
By Howard Fast
The hospital was just four tents.
TO look at Helen Lang, you'd find it hard to believe her story. Picture a small, plump, very pretty girl of 21. Blue eyes, brown hair. Dressed in skirt and sweater sleeves pushed up tan-and-white shoes, anklets. Like any other small-town American girl.
But Helen Lang was a nurse on Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines. And her story's absolutely true. The day she told it to us, she was expecting a commission as an Army nurse in the next mail. During the terrible days on Bataan, you see, she'd been a registered nurse a civilian.
"And lucky to be there," she said gravely. "They were so short-handed."
She'd gone there to visit an aunt at the Cavite Naval Base on Manila Bay. It was her first trip outside the United States. The night the Jap bombers came over, they were short-handed at the base hospital. So this girl from Illinois thought she'd go see whether she could help.
Her aunt didn't think it would be safe with so many bombs falling but Helen Lang went. It was seven blocks; she ran all the way, and was breathless when she stumbled through the hospital door.
The first thing they asked was her age. "They thought I was only about fourteen," she smiled. "When I convinced them and showed my card, they gave me a uniform. I worked all that night"
It was a night of dreadful destruction. She didn't see her aunt again. She thinks her aunt is still alive, but she doesn't know.
* * *
In the morning they asked if she would go with a party of wounded to Corregidor Island, out in the harbor. She agreed though she hadn't slept in 24 hours.
"They were so short-handed," she repeated.
In the boat she dozed, even though it was machine-gunned from the air twice. "I was learning about sleep," she explained. "If you're tired enough you can sleep through anything."
She was rather shy in admitting that she had volunteered to go on from Corregidor to Bataan. They needed help there, more so than on the island. Helen Lang was apologizing for being at a place where she was badly needed!
"At Bataan it was very hard," she continued. "We were bombed day and night. The hospital was just four tents. It was bombed seventeen times.
"Afraid? Usually I was but that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was that we couldn't do our work. My own work wasn't so much before; sometimes I'd been ashamed of being only a nurse. On Bataan I learned to be proud, to believe it was the best work anyone could do but the Japs wouldn't let us do it.
"I didn't want to hate them. But after they bombed the hospital so many times"
She didn't want to talk much about Bataan. She told a little about the bombing, a little about one young surgeon who worked all night by flashlight. "He was very wonderful and very brave," she said.
Then she went on: "After a while they wanted the women to leave. Two sailors took us back to Corregidor by rowboat and left us there. We never saw them again. A little while later it was all over on Bataan."
And then the Japs came after Corregidor full-force.
"At first," Helen Lang said, "we wanted only to sleep. I slept for a long time. After the heavy bombing began, we talked it over. I don't think any of us cared much about escaping. We wanted to be with the men to take care of them. We began not to be afraid"
We thought about that as she was talking. And we looked at her again a young girl, fresh and clean. A girl who hated no one, who would be going to proms and worrying about a new dress, if it were not for the war.
She was still talking. Of how the end came on Corregidor, and how they were ordered to go. Six of them were in a little speedboat for four days. They traveled by dark, hiding in coves and river-mouths by day. Once they outran a Jap cruiser while the shells splashed regularly behind them.
"We sang a lot," she smiled. "Remember the song about the three little fish? It was old in the States, but quite popular in the Islands.
"We sang it again and again it seemed so fitting. You know, We're off to see the Wizard is the battle song of the Australians. Well, The Three Little Fishies became ours. We must have sung it three or four hundred times."
In their flight from the Philippines they met a freighter, an old tramp that had nosed its way into the Islands. It loomed up out of the night, and they were taken aboard. Then they ate steak and potatoes and ice-cream, and Helen remembers it as the most wonderful meal she ever ate.
* * *
The freighter's crew was very good to them. Helen Lang said that never in her life had she met such kind people as those sailors. They gave the women their clothes; they brought out an old phonograph and played records.
"And then we went to Australia," she said. She added, as an afterthought, "We were dive-bombed twice, but no one was hurt. We were very lucky."
And now she means to go back.
"Want to go? That's not the question. I have to. I'm just a kid, and I want to be a kid again but not until that's over.
"I learned to know our people out there. They're good and kind and strong. If I can help them how can I stay here?"
We saw her like a high-school senior in her skirt and sweater, the sleeves pushed up. A small-town girl with bright cheeks and blue eyes.
And we thought of other lands, where young people learn only hatred and cruelty, clicking their heels, screaming "Heil Hitler!"
We thought: Helen Lang's story is worth remembering.