Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission
By Hampton Sides. (New York: Doubleday, 2001. Pg 352. Photos.) ISBN: 0-3854-9564-1
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 24, 2001
On April 9th, 1942, Major General Edward King surrendered Bataan to the Japanese. For the soldiers fighting in Bataan, both American and Filipinos, the surrender was both welcomed and despised. For far too long they had been fighting without proper food or military supplies. Many soldiers had been reduced to eating monkeys and other wildlife just to survive, many more were ill. The surrender was an inglorious, but seemingly a necessary end to what had long been an inglorious campaign. No matter how exhausted or hungry they were, King and his men would have fought to the last man, had they but known what was to come...
The soldiers that surrendered to the Japanese began their decent into hell via a modest 75-mile 'hike' into captivity, that was later to be known as the Bataan Death March. It was to result in the deaths of around 6,000 of the vanquished soldiers. Many died from sheer exhaustion or disease. Many more were simply slaughtered.
"Had the deaths been apportioned evenly over the entire seventy-five-mile route, one would have encountered a corpse every twenty yards." (Pg. 150.)
The death march was but an inkling of the horrors they were to endure, horrors which Hampton Sides unflinchingly illustrates within the pages of Ghost Soldiers. In captivity the soldiers endured grueling work as slave laborers. Starvation was a real threat, as was disease and pestilence. Thousands died from curable maladies due to their weakened condition and the lack of medicines. Worse was the unrelenting brutality and a strict discipline of the camps. At every turn the POWs faced the threat of instant execution, or torture, for the smallest of infractions. By the time that MacArthur began his campaign to retake the Philippines, the survivors of the Bataan Death March had been reduced to a pitiful remnant.
Late in 1944, retreating Japanese massacred the POWs of the Puerto Princesa Prison Camp in Palawan. A handful of men managed to survive the massacre and make it back into friendly territory, bringing with them their unimaginable tale of mass murder. The allies feared that more POWs would be slaughtered as they advanced into territory previously held by the Japanese. To forestall this slaughter, a daring plot was hatched to rescue the 513 POWs housed in the Cabanatuan Prison Camp. It is the story of this rescue, which is the main focus of this riveting narrative.
In Ghost Soldiers, Sides juxtaposes the history of the POW's captivity with the ongoing efforts to rescue them. Led by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci and Captain Robert Prince, 121 Army Rangers slipped behind enemy lines to liberate the prisoners at the Cabanatuan camp before the Japanese could eradicate its inmates. Aided by two guerrilla groups led by Captain Juan Pajuta and Captain Eduardo Joson, and with the unselfish aid of countless civilians, the rescue was a phenomenal success.
Throughout Ghost Soldiers, Sides has taken pains to give intimate portraits of the men involved, from both sides. This helps the reader to better understand why events transpired as they did, and it elevates the men from being viewed as statics. These biographical sketches also help explain how these men managed to survive in the hellish environment in which they found themselves. In addition, it helps explain why the Rangers, and the Guerrillas, who sought to rescue them, would be willing to risk their lives in what could have very easily turned into a suicide mission.
In Ghost Soldiers, Hampton Sides has chronicled the history of the Bataan campaign leading up to the King's surrender to the Japanese and the surrender itself. It also covers its aftermath, including the daring rescue of a handful of POWs who survived the Bataan Death March, and their years of captivity in inhuman conditions. This book is extremely well written and well researched. Much of the material contained in the book was derived from eyewitness accounts and numerous interviews that Sides had with some of the former POWs and their rescuers. Sides has penned a riveting work that is unbelievably disturbing, yet so compelling that it is impossible to set the book aside. Be forewarned, Sides pulls no punches. His descriptions are graphic, and many of the events that he chronicles are appalling. Nonetheless it is important that these events are retold so that the bravery and spirit of the men that endured them are not forgotten.
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