If another work of nonfiction manages to unseat this tour-de-force as my number one book of 2012, I will be thoroughly amazed. Laura Hillenbrand’s account of American Louis Zamperini’s time as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II, Unbroken, took my top nonfiction slot for 2011. Hampton Sides’ Ghost Soldiers would have stolen the prize had I read them in the same year. It is that good. If you are among the legion of fans who read and loved Hillenbrand’s book last year but you missed Sides’ book when it came out in 2001, you really need to find time to slot this one into your reading list.
Ghost Soldiers is also a story of Japanese atrocities during the Second World War, but this time the setting is the Philippines, specifically the Bataan Peninsula. Readers of Sides’ book will learn quite quickly that the famous Death March was only the beginning of the unspeakable horrors that the heroes of the Bataan endured. The long years that many spent in prison camps were often far worse than anything they endured on the road to get there, and countless prisoners perished or were shipped to mainland Japan as slave laborers. Every time I read one of these accounts of the unfathomable cruelty of the Japanese soldiers two thoughts course through me, one personal and one less so. The more personal one is my memories of the Japanese people from my childhood, a mere thirty years after the end of the war: gentle, welcoming, bowing, smiling, running their fingers through my blond hair, teaching me their language and to sing children’s songs. I try to fit that together with the same nation of people who could order such barbarous things done to American soldiers and I can not reconcile it. The second thought that I have is to wonder why we hear so little about American POWs in Japanese camps and what they endured. The cruelty defies words. I have read many, many accounts of the holocaust in Europe, and I do not mean in any way to lessen what the Jews and the other targeted races there endured, but some of the specific forms of torture used routinely against Allied soldiers by the Japanese redefines the term horrific. The holocaust will forever stand as a monument of man’s inhumanity to man, because it was genocide, an unforgivable attempt to eradicate an entire race/religion from the face of the earth; just as surely the Japanese treatment of American POWs stands as a monument of unadulterated base cruelty-the torture methods that the Japanese used on our soldiers were unmatched in their savagery. For me, the sheer atrociousness, often verging of depraved, of the Japanese bring their war crimes on a level with the acts of the Germans, despite the fact that the number of lives taken by the later group was so much greater.
From this jungle of misery Hampton Sides brings us in alternating chapters to the story of the fledgling Ranger unit tasked with the virtually impossible task of rescuing some of the last of the Bataan prisoners known to still be alive by the time the U.S. forces finally begin to win the war in the Philippines. This is the hope that drives his book. If the entire book had centered on the prisoners, I could not have stuck with it-it was too wrenching-but having the parallel story of the history of the Ranger unit and how they were given the assignment to liberate Cabanatuan prison camp was the perfect foil. As the book progresses the reader gets to know both sets of men-the Rangers and the prisoners of Cabanatuan, as well as many Japanese prison guards, Filipino guerillas, and other people who played a role in the events. Eventually, the two stories collide on the night of the attempted rescue, and the rest is in the history books.
Every so often I read a work in which the prose is so outstanding that I can not let my review go online without at least a couple of quotes from the book. Hampton Sides is such a writer. The man could make a Dora script compelling. The first quote is telling about a metal triangle that the Navy men had erected and used as a sort of time keeping device, and the second is taken from the Ranger’s thirty mile march to rescue the Cabanatuan prisoners:
”Every half hour the designated timekeeper would go out with a stovepipe in his hand and give the contraption a set number of dings in accordance with an old Navy custom called ‘sounding the watch.’ The system was a little intricate until one got used to it. Far from dulcet, the tone of the ring was hard and sharp, a metallic sound punctuating the day with seriousness. The Cabanatuan prisoners came to like it, though, for segmenting the blur of chronology, for the sense of orderliness it brought. To some, it sounded like the proud, clear voice of duty...The bell was their day’s metronome, the sonic measure of their confinement.” (pg.137)
”The sun grew fat and luxuriant as it lowered itself beside Mount Arayat, the vast dormant volcano to the southwest. In the sanguinary light, the jagged ridgelines of the Sierra Madre to the east broke through in sharper, richer blues, and the haze of the fields seemed to lift. Prostrate before enemy sentinels, enveloped by open earth and open sky, strung out over nearly a hundred yards, the men felt utterly exposed, as though the Shinto gods might be following their progress and waiting for the right moment to impale them.” (pg. 226)
Those of you who have read and loved Hillenbrand’s Unbroken are probably curious as to why I feel that this book is better. For starters, I think that Hampton Sides found the more compelling of the two stories. He is able to take two groups of men, the prisoners and the Rangers, and tell their stories in parallel, building tension toward a somewhat crazy heroic rescue attempt. It is truly the stuff of legend and Hollywood movies, but it really happened. Second, Sides is definitely the better of the two writers. His narrative nonfiction is consistently gorgeous throughout; the story needs a writer who can move you emotionally, and Sides certainly has that ability. From a research and organization standpoint I would also give Sides the edge-there is more depth to his work and better flow to his narrative, despite working with a much larger cast of characters.
There is no doubt that this book is grueling at times, but author Eric Larson says it well on the back cover: “Ghost Soldiers took me on a queasy journey deep into the realm of pure evil-then rescued me in a blaze of heroics and righteous vengeance.” Without exposing yourself to suffering you can never comprehend strength, heroism, and selflessness. This book grew my soul and I am grateful I read it.