Ghost Soldiers

The Bataan Death March.

Most of those interested in World War II know about the 75 mile forced march along the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines in 1942. It wasn’t meant to be nearly as brutal and deadly as it happened, but a confluence of factors contributed to the unfortunate circumstances–largely the unpreparedness of the Japanese when faced with the sheer number of prisoners and their weakened condition.

In his book, Hampton Sides explains the background, the events that led to America’s surrender on the battlefield, the fate of the thousands of Americans and thousands upon thousands of Philippine Army soldiers who found themselves on the march and later in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.  His focus, however, is on the lesser known rescue of 500 prisoners from “Camp O’Donnell,” the camp near Cabanatuan.

The book is an eminently readable nonfiction account of the daring rescue that could just as well have been a best selling, made for tv thriller. There are heroes that have yet to become household names, Henry Mucci and Robert Prince and the army’s new Sixth Ranger Battalion, a ticking time clock (the fear that the Japanese were about to execute the prisoners), and the ghost soldiers themselves, brave and determined despite all they had been through.

(The term ghost soldier is the name the American prisoners had given themselves–nearly skeletons from starvation and disease and close to believing they had been forgotten by their country.)

For the story, Hampton Sides had the great good fortune to interview survivors of the camp as well as members of the rescue party; and he visited what remains of the camp site in the Philippines. Those first hand accounts and Sides’ splendid writing bring the events in all their horror and ultimate glory to life for readers.

On a personal note: the story holds particular interest for me as one of the veterans portrayed in my upcoming work (Untold, Unsung) was an American battalion surgeon who lost his life in Camp O’Donnell.  If only the rescue had occurred earlier. (Read more about Untold, Unsung on my website: Rona Simmons: Untold, Unsung)


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