Sunday, October 16, 2011

Army Nurse

By Barbara Bonham, ©1965
Cover illustration by Mort Engel

I can’t believe it,” Connie said in a stunned voice to the Communist agent. “We were so sure she was dead. Can you get her out of China?” “For a price,” Bo Duc said. “You could be very useful to us.” Connie shuddered. It was the cruelest form of blackmail, one the Communists used masterfully. “You devils!” she said through clenched teeth. Lt. Constance Moorehead had two great secrets—her war mission and her love for Captain Harmon. To carry out her duty she was prepared to risk her loyalty, her love, and even her life.


“What’s a gorgeous girl like you doing in this place?”
“Fighting Communism,” Connie replied.

“Connie had had to hold herself back the last few times Niles had kissed her to keep her lips from revealing her love for him.”

“I’m familiar with Communist tactics. I cut my teeth on them.”

“And you guys think you can conquer the world! You can’t even make a decent whisky.”

Lt. Constance Moorehead is the first nurse heroine I’ve met who isn’t white – she’s biracial, as her mother was Chinese. Her parents met when her American father was teaching English in China, but when Connie was six years old, the Communists began to overrun China, and her family fled the country on a sampan for Hong Kong. En route, however, they were strafed by a Communist patrol boat, and her mother was killed. Which explains her burning hatred for the Commies. Now that she’s 22, she’s enlisted in the army has been stationed in the Southeast Asian country of Surbaco, which is struggling against a Communist take-over, serving capitalism the only way a girl can. “Nursing the wounded is the next best thing to actually carrying a gun against the Communists myself,” she says.

As much as she hates the Communists, she loves Capt. Niles Harmon, MD, whom she just met a month ago. He’s attracted to her “mysterious and exotic beauty,” as he puts it. Then Bo Duc, the waiter at the officer’s club, jumps out of the bushes next to the nurses’ quarters and tells her that the Communists have her grandmother. Unless she cooperates with them, they will kill Nana. She responds with the most vehement curse she can think of: “You devils!” she spits through clenched teeth. But she proves to be somewhat resourceful: She sends a letter to American Ambassador Kilby, who checks into the hospital six hours later, complaining of chest pain. Connie can’t get over the coincidence, but guess what? It’s all a big hoax so he can talk to Connie alone! He tells her to cooperate with Bo Duc for now, as they may have an opportunity to track down the communist leader through him. Though Dr. Niles is perplexed that he can’t figure out what’s wrong with the ambassador, he doesn’t suspect anything. Yet.

Connie leaves a window open in the supply room along with a list of the supplies that the bad guys need. Niles, discovering the break-in, sees Connie slip the list, which the thieves have inconveniently left behind, into her pocket. You’d think this would be an opportunity to bring up Connie’s racial background and use it against her, but Dr. Niles is made of sterner stuff, and just frowns. But the Commies aren’t satisfied, and soon come back with another assignment: She’s to put a bomb under the bed of the Surbacoan president. A few days later, at a ball at the president’s mansion, Dr. Niles catches her coming out of the president’s living quarters. The president, who has been informed of the plot by Ambassador Kilby (who Connie keeps in the loop), isn’t hurt, the scuttlebutt goes, because an aide had woken him to take care of an important matter that had just come up. Niles ups the ante and gives her the cold shoulder on rounds that afternoon.

Next the Communists kidnap Connie and Niles, dragging them out into the jungle to care for their general. Connie doesn’t have enough time to contact Ambassador Kilby, but she does manage to mail a letter – though she has no idea where in the jungle they are to be taken, so things are looking glum for the medical team. At first Niles is pretty pissed – “You lousy traitor!” he hisses at Connie – but after they’ve amputated the general’s gangrenous foot and they have a minute alone, she fills him in on her double-agent duties, and soon they’re smooching behind the general’s tent. But the Commies are threatening to kill them both as soon as the general is better. Will they be found in time?

As action-packed as the plot may seem in the retelling, I just couldn’t bring myself to care whether Connie and Niles were rescued or not. The ending was wholly predictable, the writing uninspired, and the only fun in it from the puerile jabs at communism. It’s interesting for its view on war in Southeast Asia at a time when the country was actually fighting one there, but apart from that, it’s pretty much a waste of time.

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