Theater of the macabre 

Grisly tales of death and survival in World War II

How does Stephen Ambrose do it? It seems like every year when it’s time to buy Dad something good to read for Christmas, he’s got a new book sitting right there in the Panzer section.

And you know how it is with dads and war books. They really get into ’em. Mine was too young to fight in Korea and too old for Vietnam, but for various reasons has always been borderline obsessed with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and the costly, heroic Soviet defense. He gets most of his books on the topic from a military book club, which is actually why I started buying him the Ambrose books: to get him hooked on a different theatre of operations. The old obsession was getting pretty hard to shop for.

The best book about World War II to come out in the past year, as it happens, is neither written by Stephen Ambrose nor concerned with Yank soldiers in Europe. The book is Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides, a moving reconstruction of the 1942 defeat of American forces in the Philippines, the ghastly diaspora of American POWs to forced labor camps scattered around the island of Luzon, and the scarcely believable rescue operation that sprung some 500 American and British prisoners from the Cabanatuan prison camp in 1945. I started leafing through Ghost Soldiers while I was wrapping it, and I was instantly hooked. Two days and as many sittings later, I can’t recommend it highly enough, and not the least to fans of Stephen Ambrose.

Sides, a contributing editor to Outside magazine, is a consummate storyteller. He establishes the urgency of the rescue mission in a prologue of such startling violence that you scarcely need to be reminded for the rest of the book. The tide has turned in the Philippines, the Americans are winning, and increasingly the Japanese are venting their desperation in mass killings of Allied prisoners. The December 1944 Puerto Princesa massacre—in which 150 prisoners working on an island airstrip were lured under the pretense of an air raid into shelters and were then doused with aviation fuel and set ablaze—sets the stage for atrocities still to be recounted, with grisly effect.

“A number of men dashed toward the fence and tried to press through it but were quickly riddled with lead,” Sides writes, “leaving a row of corpses hung from the barbed strands like drying cuttlefish. A few men managed to slip through the razor ribbon and leap from the high cliff, but more soldiers were waiting on the beach to finish them off. Recognizing the futility of escape but wanting to wreak a parting vengeance, one burning prisoner emerged from his trench, wrapped his arms tightly around the first soldier he saw, and didn’t let go—a death embrace that succeeded in setting the surprised executioner on fire.”

Having framed such a vivid picture of escalating Japanese violence toward POWs, Sides then casts back three years and takes a two-stranded approach to weaving the rest of the story. In the odd-numbered chapters, he recounts the fall of Bataan, the unspeakable treatment of the Allied combatants on their forced march into captivity, and the fetid squalor of Camp O’Donnell and Cabanatuan. In the even-numbered chapters, Sides traces the overland route of the rescue force of Army Rangers and Filipino guerillas on their own arduous march to pull off the nearly impossible.

As the strands come together, we’ve already gotten to know many of the men intimately. There’s the gentle giant from Grand Rapids, Mich. (almost everyone is introduced—as is the fashion in books built primarily on interview and oral history—by rank and home state) who builds a dream house in his mind to keep from succumbing to the corrosive boredom of camp life. And the tough lieutenant colonel whose men would “follow him to hell” if he asked them to, and the imprisoned doctor responsible for keeping men who are wracked by every tropical parasite imaginable fit enough to slave away in fields and airstrips, with nothing but leaves and bark to work with. Against the starving, disease-ridden inmates are pitted all the forces the Japanese can collect to exterminate them. Tropical death in all its ghoulish faces lurks in every shadow.

The Japanese Imperial Army, as authors of World War II books seldom fail to point out, was unswerving in its adherence to a military code of honor that demanded death before dishonor of every man under arms. The resultant conduct of the Japanese, from officers down to lowly privates, mars nearly every page of Ghost Soldiers with hellish violence. Where the European armies in the same war typically gave up four soldiers captured for every one killed, Sides writes, in the Japanese army the rate was one soldier captured for every 120 battlefield deaths. If the Japanese regarded their own prisoners with vicious contempt, what chance of survival could a starving pack of American, British and Filipino prisoners hope to entertain with almost no food, no fresh water and no medical supplies? And for three desperate years?

Somehow, in the face of such hopeless odds, many of the men in the Cabanatuan camp did make it back, to Grand Rapids, Mich. and Bridgeport, Conn. and the Bronx. Author Sides interviewed survivors and their descendents from both the Americans and the Japanese and matched their accounts to a ton of archival material and oral transcripts. The malarial journey of Ghost Soldiers is an intense retelling of their collective nightmare by a writer with a wonderful talent for sorting through all the bravado, the horror and madness to find and hang onto the thread of a truly spellbinding story. Heart-rending to read and impossible to put down, Ghost Soldiers hits its mark.

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