There was a time when I seemed to be ahead of my reading (yeah, right), and so read stuff that wasn’t on my immediate World War II list. Then I realized I wasn’t ahead…but I had a few gems such as Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greater Rescue Mission by Hampton sides to fall back on. Conveniently, it also doubles as a book for my month of Japan.
After the Bataan Death March—an ill-planned, ill-fated transfer of prisoners by the Japanese—the surviving POWs, American, Filipino, and others, were in dire circumstances. The Japanese guards were on the whole brutal, the conditions unlivable, and food scarce. It’s not exaggeration to say that what these men suffered was worse than death.
General MacArthur and other military leadership couldn’t abide the idea of leaving soldiers in such sadistic hands to suffer and die. Hence a rescue mission was concocted, and the Ranger Battalion—once the U.S.’s elite calvary force evolved into an elite infantry fighting force—was tasked with the job.
The stealth with which these men moved, nosing right up to the walls of the prison camp Cabanatuan; the well-planned, well-executed rescue; the almost complete lack of casualties, made reading this book a pleasure. When so much went wrong during World War II (D-day’s Omaha Beach comes to mind), so many plans botched on both sides of the conflict, it was nice to read about something that actually went well. The men who underwent this mission were heroic; the men who survived Cabanatuan were heroic.
Other than reading something good for a change (although it was colored by so much cruelty), the story itself was written well. It went back and forth between those trying to survive at Cabanatuan and those training, preparing, and pulling off the rescue until the two finally merged. There was also some humor—some of it gallows, to be sure—that lightened the story and showed the human will to survive.
I loved reading about one of America’s elite fighting forces before all the technology and all the media recognition. Before we had books and movies about Rangers and SEALs and Green Berets, a group of brave men snuck far behind enemy lines to save the survivors of the Bataan Death March.