Walter Reed General Hospital
Army Medical Center
October 2, 1942
Lt. Philomela Blake believed mornings should start gently, with the nighttime melting into golden sunshine and birdsong luring to wakefulness.
Most nurses on the morning shift assaulted the patients with electric light and harsh voices, but not Mellie. She pulled the cord of the blackout curtain and sang “At Last,” and the volume of her tune built with the intensity of light. Hurting and healing men deserved a soft hand.
On the nearest bed, Corporal Sloan shifted under the blankets. He’d undergone an appendectomy late last night.
“Any dame . . .” He cleared his throat, his voice raspy from the ether. “Any dame with the voice of an angel must have a face to match.”
Mellie’s song and her hands stilled. How many soldiers dreamed of a beautiful nurse who might fall in love with them? He rubbed his eyes, looked at her, and his smile flickered. Papa called Mellie his exotic orchid, but American men seemed to prefer roses.
Mellie opened the blackout curtains all the way. “How do you feel this morning, Corporal?”
“Um, fine. Fine, ma’am.”
“I’ll be back with your morning meds.” She patted his shoulder and headed down the aisle to the nurses’ station. Her cap felt loose, so she adjusted a bobby pin that clamped it to the helmet of thick black braids coiled around her head. Her crowning glory, Papa called it.
Poor Papa. Acid ate at her stomach, and Mellie dove into song to neutralize it. The Filipino folk song “Bahay Kubo” reminded her of traipsing through the jungle with Papa on his botanical excursions. It reminded her of his love, as warm as the Filipino sun. It reminded her to pray for him. If only he hadn’t sent her stateside a year ago. If only he’d come with
her. No news had arrived since the Japanese conquered the Philippines a few months before, and the State Department and Red Cross hadn’t found out Papa’s fate. How could she go on without him?
Work kept her busy, but worry pricked up and made her restless.
She opened another blackout curtain and gazed out onto Walter Reed’s manicured grounds. A year in Washington DC was enough. So much more of the world waited to be explored. The war thrust barriers between her and adventure, but it offered new paths as well.
The door to the ward opened, and Lieutenant Newman, the chief nurse, leaned in. “Lieutenant Blake? Please come to my office on your lunch break.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The meeting had to be about her upcoming transfer to the Air Evacuation Group forming at Bowman Field in Kentucky. A smile climbed too high on Mellie’s face, and she covered her mouth.
When the Army Air Force announced plans to train nurses to assist in air evacuation, Mellie had begged the chief for a recommendation. Flight nurses would fly into combat areas,
load the wounded, and care for them in the air. They would be stationed all over the world. Perhaps even in the Pacific, close to Papa.
Next month, Mellie would begin training. That thought put an extra trill into her song.
“Must you?” At the nurses’ station, Lieutenant Ingham scrunched her heart-shaped face into a frown. “That infernal singing. Honestly, Philomela, we’re all sick of it.”
“Sorry.” Mellie’s cheeks warmed, and she picked up the tray of meds she’d prepared earlier. How could she stop doing what she was born to do, something that provided relief to her patients? When she sang, pain-wrinkled brows smoothed. She returned to the ward and her song, but in a softer voice.
Philomela meant “nightingale,” and her first storybook was The Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen. The emperor of China treasured a pet nightingale and its song. But when he received a mechanical singing bird, he forgot the nightingale, which retreated to the lonely forest. While the little bird in the story longed to return to court, Mellie felt most at home in the forest, bringing musical comfort to passersby.
Next month, she’d enter a new forest.
“I can’t believe you missed last night’s meeting, Philomela.” Lieutenant Newman’s big blue eyes stretched even wider. “I thought it was optional. For a morale program.” Mellie shifted in her seat in the chief nurse’s office.
“It is, but I want everyone to participate. You do want to participate, don’t you?”
“Well, I . . .” She lowered her gaze and straightened the skirt of her white ward dress. “I didn’t really consider it.” The chief walked to the window and heaved a sigh. “Oh, Philomela, I don’t understand you. You’re an excellent nurse, but I simply don’t understand you.”
“It’s a letter-writing campaign, isn’t it? To men we’ve never met?”
Her lovely face lit up. “Yes. To the officers in my husband’s unit. It’s an Engineer Aviation Battalion based in England. It will all be anonymous. Isn’t that fun?”
England sounded like fun. Writing to a strange man did not. “I wouldn’t know what to say to someone I’ve never met.”
“Say anything you like. I imagine you write a nice letter. You speak excellent English for a foreigner.”
Mellie restrained her sigh. Always with one foot in one land, one foot in the other, never belonging in either. “Actually, ma’am, I’m an American. I was born in the Philippines, yes, but my father’s American and my mother was half-American, half-Filipino.”
“Yes. Well then.” The chief fingered the window casement. “Well then, I’m sure you write a lovely letter.”
Mellie rolled the hem of her skirt in her fingers. “But I’ve never . . . I’ve never written to a stranger before.”
“He’s hardly a stranger. He’s an American officer. All the other nurses are excited about it. I need one more volunteer, or one poor gentleman won’t receive a letter.”
She stretched her skirt back down over her knees. “That would be horrible, but maybe . . . maybe someone would be willing to write two letters.”
“Come now.” Lieutenant Newman sat on the edge of her desk, right in front of Mellie, and she leaned close. “Please, Philomela? I would be so disappointed if you didn’t participate. Especially after I recommended you for the Air Evacuation Group. I didn’t mention how you don’t have any friends here. Perhaps I should have.” She glanced down to the desk and traced her finger back and forth, as if erasing her recommendation. Mellie’s throat swelled shut. “But—but why would any man want to hear from me?”
The chief flashed a bright smile. “Remember, it’s anonymous. No names, no pictures. Just a nice letter to encourage our boys overseas.”
Mellie dropped her chin and squeezed her eyes shut. She felt so awkward in social situations.
“Oh please, Philomela? Please? It’s only one letter.” Mellie lifted her head. Outside the window, the horizon beckoned. “One letter,” she whispered.