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The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission

Written by Hampton SidesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Hampton Sides



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On Sale: September 17, 2002
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

On January 28, 1945, 121 hand-selected U.S. troops slipped behind enemy lines in the Philippines. Their mission: March thirty rugged miles to rescue 513 POWs languishing in a hellish camp, among them the last survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March. A recent prison massacre by Japanese soldiers elsewhere in the Philippines made the stakes impossibly high and left little time to plan the complex operation.

In Ghost Soldiers Hampton Sides vividly re-creates this daring raid, offering a minute-by-minute narration that unfolds alongside intimate portraits of the prisoners and their lives in the camp. Sides shows how the POWs banded together to survive, defying the Japanese authorities even as they endured starvation, tropical diseases, and torture. Harrowing, poignant, and inspiring, Ghost Soldiers is the mesmerizing story of a remarkable mission. It is also a testament to the human spirit, an account of enormous bravery and self-sacrifice amid the most trying conditions.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Dr. Ralph Emerson Hibbs lay delirious in a ditch at the tattered edge of the jungle, his teeth clicking with chills. The malarial attack came over him suddenly, as they always did, the strength dropping from his legs like an untethered weight. In their thousands the parasites were reproducing inside him, Plasmodium vivax bursting from his liver and into his bloodstream. The doctor had nothing with which to treat himself. He couldn't work, he couldn't think. He had to ride out the fever as everyone else did, helplessly, shivering in a ditch by the side of a battle-pocked road. An Army captain and a graduate of the University of Iowa Medical School, Dr. Hibbs was the surgeon of the 2nd Battalion of the 31st Infantry Regiment, a man responsible for the health of some 700 soldiers in the field, but he had no quinine. On the anopheles-infested peninsula of Bataan at the end of the first week of April 1942, there was virtually no quinine to be had.

Along with thousands of other malarial men, Dr. Hibbs had been walking out of the mountains down the zigzag road toward Mariveles. In great haste and confusion, the men were stumbling south to escape the turmoil and the butchery of the front lines, where for the past week the Japanese onslaught had been merciless. One participant later described the exodus: "Thousands poured out of the jungle like small spring freshets pouring into creeks which in turn poured into a river." As they walked, the soldiers picked their way around bomb craters and bits of embedded shrapnel. The jungle smoked all about them. Overturned wrecks of jeeps and half-tracks lay smoldering in the creeper ferns. The rattan vines were singed, the tree leaves wormed with bullet holes, the canopy torn open by artillery shells, letting the late-afternoon sun seep through.

The word had come from somewhere or other that General King would offer his surrender in the morning. Hibbs reacted to this news with as much relief as sadness. Everyone knew the situation was hopeless. "We were participants in a lousy game," Hibbs later wrote. "We couldn't live much longer, let alone fight." The men were gaunt, shell-shocked, addled with nerve fatigue. They were so exhausted, as one soldier put it, "that even our hair was tired." They were fighting with improvised weapons, living on improvised food. Day by day the regular had devolved into the irregular. Sailors were serving as infantryman, firing machine guns fashioned from parts cannibalized from crashed airplanes. Corned beef had segued to hardtack, and hardtack to iguana, and iguana to grubs and silkworms. Army veterinarians who under ordinary circumstances were supposed to care for the health of the pack mules and horses had instead been overseeing their slaughter for "cavalry steak." The lines had broken so many times it was absurd to persist in calling them lines anymore. The men of Bataan had fallen back to the place where there was no more back to fall back to. Densely packed with hospital patients, ammunition dumps, military hardware, and the scattered remnants of the troops, the southern tip of Bataan had become so crowded, recalled one American officer, that "bombers could drop their payloads at almost any point or place and hit something of military value." Whether one wanted to call it a retrograde maneuver, or a strategic withdrawal, or some other euphemism for retreat, they simply had nowhere to go. At their front was the Fourteenth Imperial Army, at their rear was the South China Sea.

And above them, Zeros. For weeks and months, the skies had droned with Mitsubishi engines. The bombing and strafing runs had been relentless, chewing up the little nipa huts in the Filipino barrios, leaving the brown grass fields and canebrakes, especially combustible in the dry season, consumed by enormous fires. Photo Joe, as the Americans called the enemy surveillance planes, had circled overhead with impunity, radioing the exact disposition of the Fil-American forces so the Japanese artillerymen on the ground could rain shells upon them with deadlier precision. There was even a doddering surveillance blimp which for some reason the Americans couldn't seem to bring out of the sky.

The planes not only dropped bombs, they dropped words. As the battle dragged on, propaganda sheets had fluttered down from the skies. One leaflet depicted a voluptuous woman beckoning soldiers to bed down with her. "Before the terror comes, let me walk beside you . . . deep in petaled sleep. Let me, while there is still a time and place. Feel soft against me and . . . rest your warm hand on my breast." More recently the propaganda had turned from a tone of clumsy prurience to one of dark ultimatum.

Bataan is about to be swept away. Hopes for the arrival of reinforcements are quite in vain. If you continue to resist, the Japanese forces will by every possible means destroy and annihilate your forces relentlessly to the last man. Further resistance is completely useless. You, dear soldiers, give up your arms and stop resistance at once.

Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Japanese Forces

Yet for the men of Bataan, disease was the real enemy, killing them and sapping their morale with even greater efficacy than the Fourteenth Army. Old diseases that modern medicine had long since learned how to treat. Diseases of vitamin dearth, diseases of bad hygiene, diseases of jungle rot, diseases of sexual promiscuity, and, of course, the vector-borne diseases of the Asian tropics. Their bodies coursed with every worm and pathogen a hot jungle can visit upon a starved and weakened constitution-dengue fever, amebic dysentery, bacillary dysentery, tertian malaria, cerebral malaria, typhus, typhoid. The field hospitals were rife with gas gangrene, spreading from wound to wound to wound. The men's joints ached with the various odd swellings of incipient beriberi, an illness of vitamin B deficiency which, as one soldier described the condition, left the legs feeling "watery and pump[ing] with pains" and made the racing heart "thump like a tractor engine bogged in a swamp."

Working at the front lines with the 31st Infantry, Dr. Hibbs had seen all of these conditions, and many others of even greater exoticism, but increasingly he'd found it impossible to treat the sufferers. It was a medical defeat. The hospitals overflowed to the point that the nurses were setting up outdoor wards among the gnarled folds and aerial roots of ancient banyan trees.

Of all the various units and outfits spread over Bataan, the 31st had seen a disproportionate share of sickness and death, especially in the last few weeks of the siege. Not only were its men in the thick of battle, but they generally ate less well than supply units situated closer to the quartermaster. It is an old hard fact of war that rations mysteriously shrink as they make their way to the front. And so the proud 31st, which before the war had been known as the Thirsty-first for its reputed drinking prowess, then came to be known as the Hungry-first, the most starved of all the American units on Bataan.

During the last few weeks of the fighting, the bloodshed had been horrific. Dr. Hibbs's memory of the last battles was a blur of despair and carnage. One morning Hibbs had found himself holding a leg whose owner could not be located. On another day, he had treated a kid with a ghastly shrapnel wound to the head, a wound large enough so that gray matter was protruding from his skull. Hibbs had declared the young soldier a goner, but then he had miraculously rallied, only to lapse into a coma. The battle raged so intensely that the whole unit was forced to pull back, but the medics had no litters or ambulances with which to transport casualties. Hibbs never forgot the sight of the blood-smeared boy dangling over the shoulders of the medics like a sodden rag doll as they retreated into the jungle. They would set the kid down on the ground and resume the fight, then pick him up and withdraw again, then set him down and fight some more. This went on all day, with the boy becoming like a terrible mascot of the retreat. It hardly seemed worth the effort; the boy's brains were pushing out of his head, the color had washed from his face, his pulse was barely there-yet he kept on breathing. For Hibbs, the scene was a metaphor for what the fighting on Bataan had become, a heroic struggle to prolong a hopeless cause.

At night, when the fighting subsided, a lieutenant named Henry Lee would dash off lines of poetry from his foxhole. Universally beloved by members of the Philippine Division Headquarters Company, Lee was from Pasadena, California, and had been educated at Pomona College, where he first cultivated his literary aspirations. On Bataan he fought with the elite Filipino soldiers known as the Philippine Scouts. Whenever he wasn't holding a gun, he could usually be found with a pen in his hand. There was one snippet of Lee's verse that especially caught the spirit of the last weeks. Entitled "Prayer Before Battle," it was written as an homage to Mars.

Drained of faith

I kneel and hail thee as my Lord

I ask not life

Thou need not swerve the bullet

I ask but strength to ride the wave

and one thing more-

teach me to hate.

Defeat had come slowly, steadily, over a period of four months. As in all great sieges, the fall of Bataan was not so much an emphatic decision of arms as it was an epic drawdown marked by increments of physical, spiritual, and material depletion. As John Hersey wrote at the time, the truth had come to the men of Bataan "in mean little doses." Hibbs had begun his tour of Philippine duty with a sunny nonchalance, even as the threat of war loomed. Manila was considered the easiest post in the Army, the "Pearl of the Orient," where officers lazed away the heat of the day and danced away the nights dressed in natty sharkskin suits, drinking gin and tonics and San Miguel beer at the Jai Alai Club. Hibbs had had a love affair with a Manila society girl named Pilar Campos, a beautiful young mestiza who was the daughter of the president of the Bank of the Philippine Islands. "Neither of us," Hibbs wrote, "sought help in finding the moral path." In late November, less than two weeks before the first Zeros came to attack Luzon, Hibbs had written a chipper note to his parents back in Oskaloosa, Iowa. "Things are peaceful here," he wrote.

Life in the Orient is easygoing with emphasis on the mañana and siesta ethic. With the tremendous military buildup here, a Jap attack seems unlikely. If I had it to do over again, I would have gone to England. There's nothing going to happen here.

Love, Ralph

By January, Hibbs recognized how misplaced his insouciance was, but he tried to put the best face on the situation. An optimist by nature, he endeavored to look for hope in the shadows, to ascribe the non-arrival of promised arms and medicines to honest mistakes that could be easily redeemed. A slender, bespectacled man with some of the bearing and affable features of the young Jimmy Stewart, Hibbs kept his sense of humor no matter how grim things got, his eyes always lit with a suggestion of mischief. In February, Hibbs sent another letter to his folks, which proved to be his last communication from Bataan-a letter notable for its facade of good cheer where plainly none existed.

Life is not too bad. I have a bamboo bed, a blanket, plenty of water, a few too many mosquitoes. The food is fair-carabao, monkey, and occasionally mule. Everyone is content and in fairly good health. No need to worry.

We have plenty of room in which to maneuver and fight and we have plenty of it left in us. Turn the calf out to pasture. I'll be delayed a while.

Ralph

The letter ran prominently, and without a hint of irony, in the Des Moines Register under the headline "Things Are Not Too Bad."

In truth, Hibbs had found monkey to be considerably less than fair. The meat was unappetizing in hue and appearance, and if one had to clean and prepare the animal, consuming it made one feel rather like a cannibal. Hibbs later wrote, "After chewing on a piece it seemed to increase in size, requiring resting of the masseter muscle. Most monkey meat got placed back in our mess kits pretty much undisturbed." As trying as monkey was, the menu on Bataan grew progressively stranger. Meals consisted of cats, slugs, rats, various dried insects, and the meat and eggs of python. Some Filipinos were known to eat dogs; the bow-hunting Igorot tribesmen who'd been brought in to teach the soldiers jungle survival skills were especially fond of a dish that might be described as hound haggis. "It was a custom to eat the stomach of a dog that had been gorged with rice before sacrificing it," Hibbs remembered. "The warm rice mixed with the mucus of the stomach was supposedly a delicacy."On the evening of April 8, 1942, "things" were most assuredly bad for Dr. Hibbs. As he sat shivering in the ditch, half lost in the throes of his fever, the vast volcanic jungle clinked and snapped and exploded with the sounds of an army deliberately destroying itself. With surrender imminent, the men had been given the order to ruin their weapons and sabotage any hardware that might prove valuable to the enemy. Men were firing their last rounds of ammunition into the air, detonating their grenades, covering their gun emplacements with brush, dismantling their rifles and mortars and artillery pieces part by part and scattering the miscellaneous components into the jungle. Troops were pouring sand into the gas tanks of jeeps and armored vehicles, or pulling the drain plugs from the oil pans while the engines were left running. On the labyrinthine network of tiny trails that spread like capillaries over the southern tip of Bataan, the soldiers were not so much casting down their weapons as they were obliterating them, in preparation for General King's expected announcement of capitulation.Suddenly the night erupted in a series of explosions that Hibbs described as "apocalyptic." He was hearing, and feeling, the dying gasp of the U.S. Army Forces of the Far East: The demolition squads were blowing up the last of the big American ammunition dumps to keep them from falling into Japanese hands. For a time that evening, the southern tip of Bataan took on the sheen of day, and one could limn the complex outline of the peninsula, with its deep ravines and extinct volcanoes, its innumerable points and promontories fingering out into the sea. The mighty island fortress of Corregidor could be seen shimmering in Manila Bay. Cringing in his ditch, Dr. Hibbs tried to shield himself from the rain of dirt and rocks and shell fragments that fell out from the explosions. The dumps contained several million dollars' worth of explosives-hundreds of thousands of rounds of small-arms ammunition and artillery shells. The detonations of TNT were unimaginably powerful, and they more than aroused Hibbs from his febrile stupor. "It was the biggest fireworks display I'd ever seen, even bigger than the Iowa State Fair," Hibbs said. "With each blast, my body would bounce clear into the air."
Hampton Sides|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Hampton Sides

Hampton Sides - Ghost Soldiers

Photo © Gary Oakley

Hampton Sides is an award-winning editor of Outside and the author of the bestselling histories Hellhound on his Trial, Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers. He lives in New Mexico with his wife, Anne, and their three sons.

Author Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for writing GHOST SOLDIERS?

A: Journalists say that the most interesting stories start locally and that was certainly true in this case. When I moved to New Mexico in the mid 1990s, I kept encountering the word “Bataan.” Everywhere you go in this state you see it: Bataan Memorial Museum, Bataan Avenue, libraries, monuments. There’s even a Bataan Memorial Death March. I wondered what the connection was. More than that, to be perfectly honest, I wondered what Bataan was. I knew it had to do with World War II, but my level of ignorance was appalling. Here was the largest surrender in American history and it was only the vaguest of references for me. Then I learned the New Mexico connection: More people died on the Death March from New Mexico, a tiny place in terms of population, than from any other state. This was because the New Mexico National Guard was federalized shortly before the war, turned into an artillery unit, and sent over to the Philippines. You had thousands of Pueblo Indians, Spanish Americans, and rancher kids—teenagers, really—caught in this epic conflict for which they were woefully unprepared. When I immersed myself in this project, I began with the New Mexicans and gradually worked my way outward.

Q: Had you always been interested in World War II?

A: Not especially. And in truth, even from the beginning, I never approached this book as a war story. I’m not a war buff, particularly. I’ve always been a great admirer of authors who can write about war in such a way that it rises above the confines of the genre. Great storytellers, in other words, who just happen to write about military situations. I love Shelby Foote, whom I knew as a kid growing up in Memphis. I was greatly influenced by the war correspondent John Hersey, author of Hiroshima, who was a teacher of mine at Yale. I like to think of Ghost Soldiers as primarily an adventure narrative set against the backdrop of war. On another level, it’s a human endurance story. When I began working on this project, I was an editor at Outside magazine. We were publishing great writers like Jon Krakauer and Sebastian Junger, publishing lots of stories about people trapped in these horrific situations in which they were pitted against the elements. We were also covering a good bit of what seemed to me esoteric feats from the outdoor sporting world—you know, people crossing oceans and deserts at great risk to their health and sanity, people pursuing dubious goals and suffering enormous hardships just so they could be “first.” People appeared to be increasingly drawn to a kind of synthetic suffering. With the story of the Bataan Death March, I realized I had what was perhaps the ultimate human endurance story, the ultimate survival tale. And there was nothing synthetic about it.

Q: Why do you think this story has been largely forgotten?

A: The raid on Cabanatuan grabbed lots of headlines right after it happened, but those headlines were quickly supplanted by other headlines from the war. Iwo Jima. Okinawa. Hiroshima. There was a famous photographer from Life, Carl Mydans, who predicted that the raid on Cabanatuan would become part of the national shorthand of heroic deeds, like the charge of the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill. He said with great confidence that “every child in America would learn of the rescue.” But for some reason, Cabanatuan was one of those stories that fell between the cracks. It was unbelievable to me that this event—probably the greatest rescue attempt in American history—was merely an obscure footnote. Here you have the largest American prisoner-of-war camp on foreign soil, composed of survivors of the largest surrender in the annals of our military. By every definition, it seemed like a monumentally huge story. Yet I’d never heard of it. And I think it can be safely said that most Americans have never heard of it.

Q: How is that a story of such magnitude can remain so obscure in popular culture?

A: Well, in general I think it’s true that events in the Pacific have gotten short shrift in our national literature, relative to the European theater. More specifically, one of the reasons, I think, is that in order to tell the stirring story of the liberation attempt you also have to tell the story of these prisoners, who they were and where they came from. They weren’t just any Americans; they were a subset of a subset of misfortune, “an elite of the damned,” as I call them in the book. This “back-story” is uncomfortable to tell, not only because of its undeniably gruesome aspects, but also because it implies, in a sense, a national betrayal. We let these men down. We put them in a place where they couldn't defend themselves. We promised them ammunition and medicine and supplies which never arrived. We left them stranded on this little finger of jungle 7,000 miles from home, their backs against the sea. And that was only the beginning. In the prison camps, these men suffered enough for a hundred lifetimes. They endured three years of gratuitous and often surreal mistreatment which, as they’ve come to the end of their lives, they still can’t fully understand. They saw friends beheaded, they slaved and starved, they buried legions of their comrades because their guards denied them even the most basic of medicines. They’re old men now, but sometimes they still wake up in the night, sweaty and scared, tormented by visions. In the end, one of the main reasons this story has been inadequately told is that for decades the men themselves didn’t talk. Many of them never told their stories when they returned home, not even to their own families. For many of the POWs, it has taken fifty years to sift through their experiences and begin to make sense of them. Some felt as though they were branded by a certain shame when they returned to American shores. Shame for having surrendered in the first place, even though they were ordered to do so. Shame for having survived when so many of their friends hadn't. Shame for having to be walking exhibits of American defeat. So they resumed their lives, burying the past to the extent possible, suffering quietly.

Q: Did you see many parallels with the Vietnam generation?

A: Absolutely. It’s been said that Bataan was a dress rehearsal for Vietnam. As in Vietnam, the Bataan men found themselves fighting against an extremely foreign enemy in unfamiliar jungles of tropical Asia, waging a battle that was doomed to fail. Many of the syndromes and illnesses that have come to be associated with Vietnam veterans were suffered 25 years earlier by the American captives of the Japanese. Many of the Bataan veterans have been unable to shake their belief that Washington abandoned them. They’re still proud to recite their company slogan: “No Mama, no Papa, no Uncle Sam . . . and nobody gives a damn.” To this day, many Bataan veterans continue to feel a sense of bitterness, and that bitterness has been hard to crack.

Q: How did you go about researching the story?

A: Fortunately, over time I was able to find a few veterans who would talk to me. Ghost Soldiers turned out to be a collaboration between myself and a good number of these guys. I based the narrative on thousands of pages of archival documents and a good bit of travel in the Philippines and Japan, but mainly this is the veterans’ story. Without their forbearance and cooperation, this book wouldn’t have been possible. They gave freely of their time even though talking with me often necessitated opening old wounds. I relied on their correspondence, their war diaries and personal scrapbooks, their published memoirs or unpublished manuscripts. Throughout the process, I was continually amazed by their honesty and poise under the merciless burden of memory. Spending time with them was, for me, a tremendous honor. So many of them are dying off that once I began my research, I felt a certain sense of urgency to find them and document their stories before time ran out. Not to sound grandiose about it, but my project was informed by some of the same emotions that characterized the Ranger mission fifty-five years earlier—to rescue these men’s stories before it was too late.

Q: What were you able to learn about why some survived and others didn’t?

A: The most surprising thing to me was that of all the attributes necessary for survival in this situation—courage, tenacity, faith—the most consistently important one was . . . a sense of humor. Really and truly, I think that was the most significant. Some of these guys in my book have a wicked sense of humor. They’re pranksters and clowns. In camp they were always trying to find subversive ways to strike back at their captors, little gags and practical jokes. To be sure, some of it was gallows humor, but it was humor nonetheless. In the book, I do try to focus on these little sparks of spirit. As grim as it was, they found a way to laugh at their situation. And in surprising ways, that’s what got them through this.

Q: What is the significance of the title GHOST SOLDIERS?

A: Around the Cabanatuan prison camp, the men were always calling themselves “ghosts.” You see it in the songs and poems, in the camp doggerel. It was just an expression—“the ghosts of Bataan”—but it resonated. Not only did these guys look like ghosts after three years of captivity, but they felt as though they’d been forgotten by the land of the living. And by their own country. One can easily make the case that in terms of scope and duration, the ordeal of these men exceeded anything suffered by our armed forces in any other conflict throughout our history. The travails visited upon them were nothing less than Dantean. It was our national nightmare—in other words, our national ghost story. But as with Dante, it’s a ghost story that ends with a glimpse of redemption.

Author Q&A

Not long ago, author Hampton Sides accompanied Bataan survivors and their families on a tour back to the Philippines. They visited the battlegrounds and landmarks of their three years of captivity under the Japanese. Here you can listen to audio clips of Hampton Sides and the POWs and their families on their emotional journey.

Praise

Praise

“[Sides] liberates his story from documentary and turns it into epic. . . . More than any monument, Ghost Soldiers is the memorial both prisoners and liberators deserve.” —The Seattle Times

“The greatest World War II story never told.” —Esquire

“[A] beautiful account of heroism . . . Sure to be a classic.” —Men’s Journal

“Riveting and patriotically stirring without ever slipping into mawkishness or sentimentality.” —The New York Times

“Thoroughly researched and artfully told. . . . A compelling story filled with colorful characters.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

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