In the waning days of World War II, with the Japanese looking down the jaws of defeat,
the value of American and allied POW’s had greatly diminished. The Japanese had gone beyond their usual forte of atrocities inflicted upon allied POW’s, into the harsh reality of mass murder. Hampton Sides book, GHOST SOLDIERS, is a vivid narrative of the tortured POW’s held at Cabanatuan, and the Ranger Battalion whose daring mission it was, to free them.
This moment-by-moment account of the events as they unfolded is far more than just a thrilling war saga. Sides explores the resilience of the prisoners, who defied the Japanese authorities even as they endured starvation, tropical diseases, and unspeakable tortures; the violent cultural clashes with Japanese guards and soldiers steeped in the warrior ethic of Bushido; the remarkable heroism of the Rangers and Filipino guerrillas; the complex motivations of the U.S. high command, some of whom could justly be charged with abandoning the men of Bataan in 1942; and the nearly suicidal bravado of several spies, including priests and a cabaret owner, who risked their lives to help the prisoners during their long ordeal.
The story begins when an Army Private and escaped POW named Eugene Nielsen arrived on the island of Morotai and relays the story of how, with the advance of American forces, the Japanese had begun slaughtering Allied POWs, many of them survivors of the Bataan Death March. A Filipino guerilla group, operating behind Japanese lines, confirmed Nielsen’s claim. The leader of that group, Major Robert Lapham, believed the Japanese would soon massacre another 500 Allied POWs at the camp at Cabanatuan.
The account unfolds as some 200 Army Rangers stage and carry out perhaps the most daring rescue in history, liberating over 500 POW’s and with the aid of the Filipinos, moving the near decimated and unable to walk POW’s over some 30 miles of enemy held ground.
Sides may be outside his normal realm as a writer with this book. He has included no footnotes of his research, and for me, that diminishes the credibility, however all indications and my own personal research on the subject show Sides work to be impeccably accurate, and he has certainly succeeded in what I believe to be a most accurate account of the events.
This is a “must read” for groups ranging from history buffs to lovers of American patriotism, but particularly so for anyone who has criticized that treatment of Iraqi POW’s at Abu Ghraib. If you are dismayed at the cruelty of making a prisoner don a pair of skivvies on their head, read this book and find out the realities of cruelty. You just might come away knowing that Americans are pretty damned good people in how we treat our POW’s as opposed to what countless thousands of our own soldiers have endured at the hands of our enemies.