Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides

Untitled 3.jpg The Bataan Death March is one of the most shameful acts in human history. In 1942 General Edward P. King Jr., against orders from General MacArthur, surrendered 75,000 troops to the Japanese army infiltrating the Philippines. This act concluded the Battle of Bataan and forced MacArthur to withdraw his own troops, vowing to return and free, not only his soldiers, but the Philippines from Japanese control.

The result was the Bataan Death March. The Japanese marched the prisoners 60 miles through the Philippine jungle heat. In many cases they did not allow the prisoners food, or water. In one instance recorded, they stopped near a stream for several hours and beheaded any prisoner who tried to drink. Thousands died in the week long march. If a person stumbled, or fell or became ill they were shot or bayonetted and left on the side of the road. Prisoners were beaten to death, starved, exposed to disease, shot, stabbed and worse. The Japanese believed that surrender was the worst form of cowardice and they did not feel like these prisoners deserved to live.

After the march the prisoners were placed into camps where they were forced to work hard labor on farms, building airstrips, clearing jungle and digging ditches. They were fed only a handful of sticky rice every day and were not allowed any medicines or vitamin supplements. The lack of nutrition, combined with the jungle brought multiple diseases that rotted the flesh and brought debilitating effects. Thousands more died, sometimes at the rate of several per day.

Three years later, fulfilling his vow, General MacArthur returned to the Philippines and began the work of liberating the islands. The Japanese Commandant at the Puerto Princesa Prison Camp on Palawan panicked when he heard of the approaching American forces. He rounded up all of the prisoners in his camp, forced them into cramped dugouts, poured jet fuel down the opening and lit them on fire. Guards stood outside and shot anybody who tried to crawl out through the flames.

Nevertheless, one of the prisoners made it over the fence and escaped back to American lines, carrying his story. MacArthur, appalled at the actions of the Japanese army decided that he had to stage a rescue of the prisoners in the other camp near Cabanatuan. He feared that if he waited until the army reached that deeply into enemy territory it would be too late to save the rest of the prisoners from the same kind of massacre.

He picked Colonel Mucci to lead a group of Rangers deep into enemy territory, stage a rescue from a heavily guarded camp, in the middle of an empty field, and bring 600 prisoners – most of them too weak to walk on their own – back to friendly lines.

Thus began one of the greatest rescue missions in U. S. Military history.

Hampton Sides gives snippets of personal accounts from both the Rangers and the prisoners. He details the life that the prisoners lived inside the walls of Cabanatuan prison camp in vivid detail. He describes the diseases, the pain, the psychological games they played with themselves, and the sadistic humor of the Japanese officers that commanded the camp. He explains the feelings of the Rangers, slinking across twenty five miles of enemy territory to rescue prisoners so weak that they couldn’t walk back out.

This book is beautifully told. Hapton Sides is a great writer and makes the history of these soldiers and prisoners and Philippine guerillas and even civilians come to life. The story recorded in this book really happened and it became apparent several times that none of their plans would have succeeded without the aid of divine providence.

Anybody who can think of wars as glamorous or exciting needs to read this book. Anybody who has anything less than profound respect for our soldiers of past or current wars needs to read this book. It should be required reading in high school history classes – although the frankness of the descriptions of some of the violence might be a little too much for some people.

I don’t think that any other history book (I haven’t read that many) has affected me with such power. This was an experience that left me feeling saddened and triumphant at the same time. I only wish that I could meet some of these great men and women who suffered so greatly.



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