The Bataan Peninsula is largely covered by dense vegetation. There is a steep mountain range cutting through the area, with Mount Natib, about 4200 feet high in the north, and Mount Bataan, 4700 feet high in the south. Seven-inch tall tarsiers are one of the world’s smallest primates, and their adorable huge eyes study their surroundings, looking for danger. They are harmless but annoying when they become curious, especially when nearby humans are, say, performing a delicate operation on a fellow human. Long-glanded coral snakes are plentiful in the Bataan jungles as well. These are venomous snakes, as are cobras, vipers, and sea snakes, all native to the area, each fully capable of completely ruining a single nurse’s day in a heartbeat. Also, about twenty species of bats make their homes in the peninsula. Probably the most memorable is the giant golden-crowned flying fox, also known as the golden-capped fruit bat. It is one of the largest bat species in the world, weighing about three pounds, and having a “forearm length” of over eight inches. Not a welcome visitor during nighttime patient checks.
Why, one might ask, would the United States Army and Navy want to take patients out into this horrid jungle with potentially deadly species of snakes and many other animals all around them? The answer was clear: the Japanese wouldn’t be looking for them there, and hopefully, the Americans could hold off until more troops were sent in to rescue them.
Christmas Day was the first day several nurses were sent out to Bataan to begin setting up a hospital in a tiny town called Limay. At the same time as this new outdoor hospital was becoming a reality, the Army was trying to get beds sent to what would be called simply, “Jungle Hospital.” This facility was soon renamed Hospital Number Two. Hospital Number One had been set up at a place called Little Baguio, which had been a Philippine Army engineers’ headquarters. Hospital Number One had a building and double-decker patient beds were built inside. The doctors and nurses assigned to Hospital Number One tended to their patients inside this building.
Sally was assigned to Hospital Number Two. They had no buildings. They had no double-decker beds. They had bivouac mattresses lying on the ground. There were no bedside tables, no chairs, no furniture at all to speak of. The only protection against the elements was a makeshift covering over the medical records.
“This is the bleakest affair I ever saw in my life,” Sally said the day she arrived.
Water was drawn from a creek, by the nurses, for use for their patients. The only baths given to the patients were with cold water from that creek. Water was heated for cooking, but not for bathing. The nurses and officers bathed in the same creek where they got water for their patients, and the water was just as cold. They learned early on to wash hair and bodies expediently, get out of the creek and dry off, and dress as quickly as possible.
Within a short period of time, there were eighteen wards in Hospital Number Two, strung out along a small river called the Reall. Whenever the wards all filled up, a bulldozer would come in and cut a pathway through the jungle. Just the bottom foliage was cut; the canopy was left alone so the Japanese could not see where the Americans were hiding. In those days, there were no heat-sensing technologies, no GPS, nothing but the very beginnings of radar technologies. If the Japanese or the Americans saw enemy aircraft, they would shoot at it. The dense foliage in the Bataan region allowed the Americans and Filipinos to “hide in plain sight.”
“I felt completely protected,” Sally said later. “The canopy completely obliterated our view of the airplanes flying over and their view of us. I loved it! I guess what you can’t see can’t hurt you!”
NEXT WEEK: RAINFOREST HOLIDAY (continued)