Today’s the Marine Corps Birthday and as a Marine Veteran myself, I thought I post this review of a book I really enjoyed recently!
Hampton Sides. Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission. New York, NY: Anchor Books, May 7th, 2002. 344 pp.
5 out of 5
I am finally glad I got to finish reading this book after first seeing this book fourteen years ago as a young Marine on the eve of the Iraq war. Back then I saw another Marine have a copy of this book, I got to thumb through it briefly and found the stories very fascinating but somehow I never got around to reading this again until recently. This was an epic book and I’m truly humbled reading about the heroes in this book just as I was fourteen years ago.
The book is about the incredible military operation conducted by 6th Ranger Battalion to rescue American Prisoner of Wars who were the survivors of the Bataan Death March. It was a daring raid since it took place deep within enemy lines at the Cabanatuan POW camp. As the book pointed out the raid was also all the more daring given that military special operation at that time was still in its infancy.
The book tells the story from the perspective of the prisoners and rescuers. It goes as far back as the start of the Japanese attack on the US Army in Bataan, which was an area in the Philippines. I have always heard of the infamous Bataan death march but did not know much about it until this book. The author did his research really well, explaining what was going on with the Japanese that led to the cruelty of that march after US forces surrendered to the Japanese. The book explains the Japanese cultural understanding that shapes their abuses towards prisoners but also how the Japanese underestimated how many prisoners they had on their hands and the Imperial Army’s attempt to move in as fast as possible to take their positions in Bataan as they were ready to continue with the larger campaign of destroying American forces in other nearby areas. Of course to move into position as quickly as possible means getting as fast as possible the surrendered American service members to evacuate as soon as possible. The speed of the forced march with the logistical nightmare didn’t help the situation for those who were the survivors. While America didn’t know the details of what happened to these soldiers nevertheless America knew the risk of what would happen to these survivors if nothing was done soon to rescue them as the war later started to go in favor with the Allies. Hence the importance of the raid was needed.
The book informed readers that the unit that the outfit behind the rescue operation, the 6th Ranger Battalion, were not even originally meant to have been a Ranger unit but were originally a unit that was meant to direct donkeys to carry ammunition and supplies. The men selected were really tall and strong in order to control the animals. However as it later turned out, the US Army felt this kind of unit was not needed so the men were re-designated as Ranger outfits. They were the only Ranger outfits of its kind in the Pacific theatre. The book tells us of the leaders and men and their motivation in not backing down from this dangerous mission.
I loved how the book went back and forth from the perspective of both the rescuers and the survivors. At first I thought this was kind of choppy but then it made me think about how difficult it must have been for the survivors to endure so long, so to see the book breaking away from the traditional linear flow of most narratives was a way of reminding me how long the duration of the prisoners endured was longer than the time spent reading the book from beginning to end. The book also had a lot of background information. I also appreciated the author’s discussion of the people outside the camp who were secretly helping smuggling much needed goods such as money, food and medicine for the sake of prisoners’’ survival. Most moving is the story of an undercover female American spy working in Manila. Readers will have to read it for themselves without any more being given away! Then there’s the Pilipino rebels who helped tremendously for the raid ranging from guiding the Rangers, reconnaissance, causing a decoy in order to allow the raiding force to escape from larger Japanese forces, etc. Amazing!
It was very emotional to read this. I teared up several times reading this book and no doubt this might be hard to have a dry eye too for most readers. I couldn’t believe how strong the spirit the survivors had. It was also sad to see accounts of men dying in the POW camp. Then at times there was so much tension as readers wait in suspense with all the difficulties of the journey along the way. I was moved to read of how much Chaplains matter for the POWs and how they ministered selflessly and sacrificially to their fellow POWs. I wonder how many military chaplains would live up to some of the chaplains mentioned in the book.
Overall I recommend it. I write this review the day before Veteran’s day and I recommend the general public to read this amazing historical event. I think it is also worth reading to appreciate the greatest daring raid behind enemy lines in World War Two in which 121 Rangers rescued 500 prisoners of war. Readers will appreciate a little more of America’s greatest generation who fought in World War two after reading it.