Thursday, March 10, 2011

From the shelves of the Paco library

In point of fact, today’s book is not from my library, but is, instead, a loaner from friend and commenter Nashville Beat. I’ve been wanting to read it ever since it was published, and now, having completed it, I can only shake my head at having deprived myself of the pleasure all these years.

Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides, is the thrilling story of one of the most daring raids of WWII. The mission, however, was not to blow up a crucial ammo dump or storm a fortified town, but to rescue over 500 POWs held in a Japanese prison camp near the city of Cabanatuan in the Philippines (among the prisoners were the last remaining survivors of the Bataan Death March). As U.S. forces advanced in their retaking of the Philippines, the timing of the raid was crucial: the Japanese high command had issued a “kill all” order in the summer of 1944, which mandated the massacre of prisoners in camps located in areas from which the Japanese were compelled to withdraw.

At least one such massacre had already occurred, at the Puerto Princesa camp near Palawan, in December of 1944. The author skillfully unfolds the tale through the testimony of one of the very few men who managed to escape, U.S. Army PFC Eugene Nielson, who was picked up by Filipino guerillas and escorted to the American lines. The mass murder was an almost diabolical affair, with prisoners being herded into covered ditches under the pretense of an air raid. The Japanese guards poured gasoline into the trenches and set them alight. When they became aware of what was happening, as many POWs as could manage it broke for open ground, where they were machine-gunned or bayonetted. Some made it to a cliff where they scrambled down to the beach; however, Japanese guards were waiting for them there, too.

After Nielson briefed Army intelligence, the decision was made to launch a rescue attempt at the camp near Cabanatuan, where guerillas had informed the army that hundreds of prisoners were being held. A colorful and inspirational lieutenant colonel named Henry Mucci was put in charge of leading the raid. He was the commanding officer of the 6th Ranger Battalion, which had a very curious background: most of the men were former mule skinners who had been part of the 98th Field Artillery Battalion, Pack:
…the higher planners had decided that mules were an obsolete way of doing business for a modern, mechanized army. As was sometimes said of the sterile beasts of burden they led, the 98th had “no pride of ancestry, no hope of posterity.” The mules were sent to Burma, and the men, who in truth had grown tired of getting kicked and bitten and stepped on by their stubborn animals, happily awaited a new assignment. With a few clicks of a field typewriter inside a tent somewhere in New Guinea, the 98th was disbanded and the mule skinners became the 6th Ranger Battalion under the command of a perfect stranger named Henry Mucci, who aspired to mold them in less than a year into a sterling fighting force of jungle commandos.
And a fine job he made of it. The rescue, carried out on January 28, 1945 by a hundred Rangers and a like number of Filipino guerillas, was a spectacular success. The Japanese were caught completely off guard, and casualties among the Rangers and the Filipinos were few. All of the POWs were safely removed, save for an elderly and very deaf British civilian who, afflicted with chronic diarrhea, had settled down in an outhouse and didn’t hear a thing (he was picked up later by Filipinos).

Sides weaves the story of the raid, its planning and execution, together with the history of the American debacle in Bataan and Corregidor, the Death March, and the horrible conditions that the prisoners suffered during their internment, to present a comprehensive picture of the war in the Philippines. Along the way, we are introduced to numerous fascinating characters, not the least interesting of whom are some of the prisoners themselves. There is even a dance-hall owner, Claire Phillips, who charmed Japanese officers while spying for the Americans (Sides’ description of her activities reads very like noir fiction).

Anyone interested in the history of WWII, or in great escapes or in just plain good old-fashioned story-telling will enjoy this book.

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