This will be the second of my occasional book reviews. This time I was inspired to write by this fascinating story from the Philippines. There have certainly been a number of excellent books and movies based on the POW experience and escape. Most recent would be the book and movie Unbroken, which also deals with an unwilling guest of the Japanese. But this story probably has even more in common with The Great Raid, which is about a late war mission to rescue POWs held in the Phillipines. At least one of those men rescued appears in this earlier story, and that rescue mission came about in part due to information from the escapees detailed here.
My enthusiasm for this book is unreserved, this is a great read. The first few chapters deal with the unsuccessful defense of the Philippines, and the largest ever surrender of US Military personel with the fall of Bataan (the only larger American surrender would be Robert E Lee at Appomatix Court House). This is a fairly brief treatment of the campaign which serves mainly to introduce us to the cast of characters.
After surrender, the second act proceeds with the Bataan Death March and details of POW life. This is an unpleasent litany of beatings, executions, starvation and illness. But that is the point. These attrocities and misery inspired twelve men; ten Americans and two Philippinos to escape from the Davao Penal Colony. Their goal was to get word of the treatment and conditions to the outside world. This was a risky operation for many reasons beyond just the obvious. The Japanese often made use of “kill squads”, where every prisoner was in an assigned group of ten, and any escape attempt would lead to the execution of the entire squad. One interesting passage in the book involves the discussion among the would be escapees as to if the kill squads are still in effect since they’ve transfered between three camps and the current commandant hasn’t mentioned it. Interesting dilemma.
Their camp is also deep in the heart of a malarial swamp, inhabited by crocodiles, pythons and cannibals. And the Japanese control everything else from the Philippines to Australia. So escape plans must include protective clothing, bolos, quinine tablets and someone with sailing and navagation experience. It is quite the production!
The third section of the book is called “Freedom”, but it really needs to be broken into two sections.
First is the trek across the island of Mindinao. The swamp truly is formadable and nearly does the escapees in. After a number of harrowing adventures they connect with a group of local guerrillas. This changes the tone of the story significantly. Although the Philippine natives are portrayed as helpful, hospitable and heroic; this also embroils them in some frustrating politics. Especially with those groups directly under the command of MacArthur’s Australian based GHQ. Students of this theater will no doubt be familiar with Colonel Wendell Fertig. He was nominally the head of all guerrilla forces on Mindinao. Suffice to say he is not the hero of this story. He seems obtuse and preoccupied with protecting his own power and authority. Most maddening is his refusal to arrange submarine transport for all the escapees (eight of them eventually leave during the war in three different groups). We do catch some glimpses of what Col. Fertig’s other concerns may be, especially when the Japanese make use of radio direction finding equipment to track down his headquarters., but this is somewhat incidental to the main story.
Eventually they do start returning home, and that constitutes the final act of the story. The original agenda of this escape was to get the word back home of what they had experienced. But the public release of that tale is delayed six months after the first returns. I think the author falls a little short in exploring the reasons. The main reason given at the time was fear that it would cause the Japanese to treat their captives worse. There was specific concern about a Red Cross relief ship that was delivering supplies to the Philippines. But I honestly think the main reason, the biggest reason had to do with American grand strategy. It had long ago been decided that Germany was the bigger threat, and would be the first priority in winning the war. One issue with Pearl Harbor and early war Japanese success was it forced more resources into the Pacific than some top leaders wanted. Public opinion was strong against Japan, more tepid against Germany. So I’m sure it was feared such a story of atrocities would make it harder to ignore the Pacific. The author does touch on this, but I think its a far bigger issue than the book suggests.
The timing of when the story broke is interesting. Six months after the return home, The Chicago Tribune broke this story to coincide with the start of the War’s Fourth WarBond Drive. Funny that. It was January of 1944, and the War Department was ready to start considering more resources for the Pacific War too. Suddenly the escapees were being interviewed by every news outlet, and were making speaches all over the country at fund raising drives.
I really don’t mean to be overly cynical. Such things are the reality of how wars are run and information is managed. And even in this last part the author does an admirable job of following the human side of the story and the lives of the main characters.
These are all American heroes it is great to see their actions remembered in a thorough and well written book. It is a shame this story isn’t better known.