Generation Vets

The subtitle of Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II’s Most Dramatic Mission is a bit of a fib. Not, to be sure, the “most dramatic” part: Few stories are as gripping as the one that Hampton Sides tells here, about the daring, against-the-odds liberation of 500 American POWs from the hellish Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines during the closing months of the war in the Pacific. But “forgotten” is something of a stretch, given that the raid on Cabanatuan received a detailed, book-length treatment from the prolific historian William B. Breuer just seven years ago.

So why “forgotten”? It’s true that Breuer’s book, published by a relatively small press, didn’t have the benefit of huge publicity and is now out of print: Out of sight, out of mind. It’s also true that Sides’s publisher, Doubleday, may be suffering from a convenient memory lapse, since it has a vested interest in suggesting that its author “discovered” this “forgotten” incident. (“For fifty-five years the men of Cabanatuan – prisoners and raiders alike – have waited for their story to be told,” the book’s promotional material declares.)

And yet if what’s really been forgotten here isn’t Cabanatuan but Breuer’s book about it, it’s not hard to see why. Breuer’s The Great Raid on Cabanatuan came out in 1994, before Saving Private Ryan, before The Greatest Generation and Flags of Our Fathers, before the big, Tom Hanks-anointed push for a World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., before this weekend’s blockbuster Pearl Harbor hits theaters. Before, in other words, nostalgia for World War II became really big. Seven years ago, most of the men of Cabanatuan would have been in their mid-seventies; today, they’re looking at their mid-eighties – a big difference. Now that the generation of those who fought is dying, their stories seem more fragile, more worthy of preserving.

This seems especially true of the story Sides wants to tell. The fall of the Philippines in December 1941 stranded tens of thousands of American and British troops on the Bataan Peninsula; forced to endure horrific privations, the prisoners were marched on foot (the infamous Bataan Death March) to various prison camps in the area, where the “ghost soldiers,” as they ruefully called themselves, were subjected to treatment for which the word barbaric seems, even 60 years later, too polite an adjective. Then, in 1945, true to his famous promise, MacArthur returned to the Philippines for a final onslaught against the Japanese. As the U.S. Army advanced, however, it became clear that “a certain fragile obstacle” stood in the way: 500 POWs still languished in the worst of the camps, Cabanatuan. Fearful that the Japanese would slaughter these remaining prisoners in the face of an imminent U.S. victory (a description of one such POW massacre at another camp constitutes the book’s harrowing prologue), Army high command dispatched a group of 121 Rangers on a highly secret mission: to attack the camp and liberate the prisoners in the dark of night – with several hundred Japanese guards in the camp, and nearly 8,000 stationed just a few miles away.

Sides creates narrative tension and momentum by interspersing scenes from the narrative “present” – the meticulous preparations for the raid in January 1945 by the Rangers’ colorful commandant, Henry Mucci – with an account of the POWs’ lives between 1942 and their liberation. The latter is a saga that’s all the more harrowing for being so unsensationally told; Sides knows enough to let the details speak for themselves. In the camps, arbitrary executions (often by decapitation), torture, and appalling health conditions resulted in one of the war’s grimmest statistics: Whereas only 4 percent of Allied POWs in German camps perished, 27 percent of those in Japanese camps died. In particular, the horrifying effects of the malnutrition and all-too-easily preventable epidemics that Sides describes here – “antique diseases that had long since been conquered by modern medicine rose out of the latrines for an encore performance” – will haunt you long after you finish the book. The Cabanatuan POWs were so wasted that some Rangers slung two at a time over their backs during the rescue.

Though you’ll get absorbed in Sides’s dual plot line – I read the whole thing straight through in one day – there are some problems. Irritatingly, the author offers no notes and only in his acknowledgements does he point out which survivors he interviewed and what books he drew his narrative from. (Donald Knox’s 1983 oral history Death March: The Survivors of Bataan, a book he cites, is worth singling out.) For a book that claims to be restoring a lost episode to the official record, less casual documentation would have been nice.

Still, the real draw of this book is in the power of its irresistible tale. Sides expertly creates texture by weaving into his double narrative some more personal, more emotional vignettes that add color and pathos. There are thumbnail sketches of various Rangers, especially the endearingly grandiose Mucci, nicknamed “Little MacArthur”; of prisoners such as Tommie Thomas, a young Midwesterner who worked on an imaginary house in his mind’s eye to keep from going crazy; of other characters whose stories became linked, however bizarrely, with that of Cabanatuan. Of these, none is more colorful than that of “America’s Mata Hari,” a female spy named Claire Phillips and known to the camp’s inmates only as “High Pockets.” Posing as an Italian national and using the alias Clara Fuentes, Phillips gathered intelligence from drunken Japanese officers at the nightclub she ran – while managing to send care packages to the POWs at Cabanatuan.

All this is so mesmerizing that when the raid itself comes, it feels almost like an anticlimax. And how could it not? The entire raid lasted only 28 minutes, with a scant four Allied casualties (two Rangers, two POWs) to nearly 1,000 Japanese dead. (The “element of surprise,” which obsessed Mucci and his lieutenant, Robert Prince, clearly paid off.) But the odd lack of a big-bang climax here allows you to focus all the more on the real themes of this story: pointless suffering and cruelty, grueling hard work, and the apparently inexhaustible capacity to hope. If Pearl Harbor ends up being as big a blockbuster as everyone predicts, it won’t necessarily be because of Ben Affleck’s cheekbones, Kate Beckinsale’s lissome figure, and Faith Hill’s theme song, already thumping away on Top 40 stations across the country. Once, the books and oral histories about World War II complemented the living presence of those whose stories they told. The recent explosion of interest in the war marks the moment at which ownership of World War II, and of its meanings and narratives, is being passed to a generation that did not know it. Ghost Soldiers, well-crafted and feelingly told, is an earnest response to the most crucial duty imposed on us by war, which is never to forget.

Ghost Soldiers
By Hampton Sides.
Doubleday. 342 pages. $24.95.

Generation Vets