Teresa Messineo spent seven years researching front line military nurses of the Second World War. Her historical fiction novel, The Fire by Night, is in stores now. Get your copy, and read about how she wrote the book below.
I’m definitely a leap before you look type of person. I’ve raised four children without once reading a book on parenting. I’ve home schooled them (pre-K – 12) without reading a single pamphlet on education. A few years back, I decided I also wanted to get into the medical field, so I started taking classes like Microbiology and Organic Chemistry – the prerequisites for which I had taken 21 years earlier. And when I set my mind to writing a historical fiction novel about front line military nurses during the Second World War, I was confident I could wing it, like I’ve winged most of the successes in my life.
I was absolutely wrong.
Writing believable historical fiction takes a great deal of research – in my case, it would be seven years before I had dug up enough material to even begin writing. Part of the reason it took so long was that my topic was obscure. But another factor was, wherever I went for answers, I was told the topic I was researching simply did not exist.
Military nurses serving overseas during World War II were never meant to be in harm’s way. According to the manuals they studied during training (in places like Ft. Meade, Maryland), there were three tiers of medical support – aid man, collection station and clearing station – between the front line and the field hospitals in which the women lived and worked. Field hospitals were the closest any American female was ever supposed to get to the front line, thus assuring the nurses’ safety and security.
As a writer, I was sure it couldn’t have always worked out that neatly.
Lines change quickly during war. When an infantryman receives the order to retreat, all he has to do is turn around and run. But nurses surely would have had to stabilize their patients, get them ready for transport, break down their tents. The women couldn’t have fallen back as quickly as the men. And, as a result, some of the nurses must have been near, at or even in front of the front line, at times. I was so sure of myself I had finished a forty-one page, four-color outline, with four main characters spanning three theatres of war before someone at a national museum dedicated to the military and military medicine told me I was wasting my time. ‘There were no women anywhere near the front,’ the voice on the phone told me. ‘They were way back. You can stop researching now.’ Apparently, this was solely a man’s war.
But my outline was so good. Stubbornly, I just couldn’t abandon my characters. I gave up on mainstream sources – museums, documentaries, and books written about the war purely from the male point of view. I started nosing around World War II encampments. I met with female veteran nurses from the era. I read oral transcripts given by the nurses themselves. I poured over old photographs from the Library of Congress archives. One thing that struck me immediately was that the photos and transcripts had only just become declassified a year or so earlier (this would have been in 2007). Why had they ever been classified? Here were women telling their stories about being taken prisoner of war by the Japanese, photographs of the camps they were interned in. Why was I – a middle-aged woman in the 21st century – one of the first Americans to ever see these? Was that the reason even experts – like the man at the museum who had told me to give up on my research – honestly believed what they were saying? Why millions of Americans still today have no idea of the sacrifices and bravery their grandmothers and great-aunts made during the war?
I eventually discovered that women returning from places where war crimes had been committed against them had to sign Oaths of Secrecy promising they would never reveal their wartime service – not to the press, not even to their own families – for 60 years. With a life expectancy, at the time, of something just over 50, the military was, in effect, ensuring that no American nurse would be alive in 2005 to tell her story (luckily, with better nutrition and advances in medicine, enough women lived into their 80’s and now 90’s to leave us the oral and written testimony of a nearly forgotten human experience).
Once I started down this path, I couldn’t stop. The topic was too fascinating. And I found out I was right – there were numerous occasions when United States military nurses found themselves where no female officer was ever intended to be. In North Africa, during the amphibious landings which were to be the training ground for the later, successful D-Day landings, nurses landed alongside soldiers, coming under direct fire and sinking under the weight of their heavy packs weighing nearly as much as the women themselves. Later on, when their hospitals in Tunisia were evacuated, the nurses were the last to leave. The MPs who brought up the rear guard yelled at the women standing in the desert with their few remaining patients, waiting for the last ambulance to come back and collect them – the sandstorm from the approaching German tanks already visible on the horizon. But they would not leave their men.
Time and time again, American women endured incredible hardships in their service to their country. When the roads became impassible in Europe in 1945, during its coldest winter on record; or as convoys laden with 4,000 American injured crawled through the jungle on their sweltering retreat towards Corregidor, the nurses were there, saving lives and helping to patch humanity back together again.
Nurses in the three theatres of war faced very different challenges. Nurses in Europe – the World War II narrative Americans are most familiar with – had their hair turn white and teeth fall out due to malnutrition (canned C-rations) and overwork – nurses received the Silver Star after 72 consecutive hours of surgery, no coffee break. Theirs was a relentless, grueling war of never-ending physical labor, with hardly a moment to process the bloodshed all around them. And the bloodshed was not limited to the Allied and Axis patients they selflessly served. Over 200 US nurses died in combat, going down in hospital planes, being bombed onboard hospital ships. They were shot where they stood at the operating tables, the thin canvas offering no protection for them in hellish places like Anzio. They crash landed in Albania. They were taken as prisoners of war by the German army.
Nurses already stationed in the Pacific pre-Pearl Harbor faced a different sort of war. Evacuated south along with their patients on Christmas Day, 1941, those women saw firsthand the brutality of the Japanese Army. Disregarding the Geneva Conventions (which made all medical personnel and hospitals off-limits as military targets) Japanese flyers used the huge Red Cross emblazoned on the medical tents as a bull’s-eye to zero in on. The doctors and nurses ripped off their Red Cross armbands to avoid being picked off by snipers. Buried alive in Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor, until America’s surrender of the Philippines in early 1942, the nurses were then separated from their medical units (the Japanese commanders did not recognize the women’s 2nd Lieutenant rank or consider them military officers). These women were interned in squalid, civilian prison camps like Santo Tomas in Manila where they slowly starved to death from the beginning until the end of the war. Some statistician thought to compare the weight of Army and Navy nurses in the Pacific at capture with their weight upon liberation and found one of the nurses who survived went in at 125 pounds and came out at a tenuous 74. For these women, it was a mind game to stay sane as the world around them crashed down into chaos.
Not to be forgotten, nurses in the CBI (China-Burma-India campaign) faced isolation and a sense of never really belonging to the war like their sisters in the more active theatres. While the men of the Allied military rushed to complete the 1,000-mile Ledo Road (to supply China after the Burma Road fell), Allied nurses struggled with culture shock and an inability to maintain even the most rudimentary of sanitary conditions. Villagers were unwilling to risk leaving their livestock behind when they became the nurses’ patients and concealed ducks and chickens beneath their cots; one nurse screamed upon finding an ox standing in the middle of her ward. Coupled with these challenges was the very real sense that their presence in the CBI – unlike Europe or the Pacific – was unappreciated. General Joseph ‘Vinegar’ Stilwell, Deputy Allied Commander in China, called the American nurses serving under him ‘the most irritating damn thing about the entire Second World War.’ Faced with these conditions, some women chose to become pregnant, receiving the dreaded ‘Blue Card’ of dishonorable discharge, just to escape the vacuum they found themselves in, cut off from the rest of the war effort.
Once I had collected these – and a thousand other – nearly forgotten stories, the novel pretty much wrote itself. Working on it very, very part-time (maybe two hours per week – remember, I like a challenge and had given up none of my other pursuits), I completed the first draft in six months. My main characters – Jo and Kay, two friends who are military nurses shipped to the European and Pacific theatres, respectively – are fictitious, but everything around them is real. You cannot ‘make up’ the Second World War. If Jo’s transport goes down it must be the Newfoundland, it can’t be any other ship. When MacArthur’s tanks crush down the prison walls it must be the Forty-Fourth Tank Division and they must be in Manila, nothing else will do. Nearly every date and time and place and even the very injuries the nurses treat – all of these are real. I’ve had people ask me about specific scenes, heart-wrenching scenes of loss or valor under unbearable conditions – ‘And that wasn’t real, was it?’ they ask half-hopefully, brow furrowed, smiling wryly. Please don’t let that be real. And I have to kind of comfort them. Yes. It was real. The nurses really did deal with that. These brave women really did overcome that.
Whatever the reason for the gap in the American war narrative – the lack of appreciation for the stern stuff these nurses were made of – it is time that record be set straight. These women volunteered for a war many of their male counterparts were drafted into. They signed up willingly, believing in the ideals of democracy and freedom and independence – in everything that made their country great. And when those ideals began to fade in the horror of war – when these women were nearly crushed by hard labor, by isolation, by imprisonment or starvation or the loss of everything they held dear – they kept to their posts for no other reason than that they were women, they were human and – for as long as they could endure – they would continue to bring humanity to a world gone mad.
I love these women. I love their stories. I am proud – and humbled – to offer a glimpse of their world.
– Teresa Messineo