Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides

Title: Ghost Soldiers
Author: Hampton Sides
Publisher: Doubleday (2001)

Repeat readers of this book/movie post series might have noticed that Michael and I called an audible. Michael did some reconnaissance and it turns out Hampton Sides' Ghost Soldiers edged out Breuer's The Great Raid as a good read for this amazing WWII rescue mission. I'll probably eventually get to William B. Breuer's book, as well, as this is a bit of WWII history I didn't know anything about and I'd like to continue learning about it.

In an odd coincidence my book club read Unbroken this month and I watched Red Tails this weekend so I'm feeling steeped in WWII history. But let's get to the review so anyone who, like me, didn't previously know about this rescue mission can fix that. For anyone new to the series, this is where Michael and I choose a book/movie pairing and I say a few words on the book and Michael says a few words on the movie.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Great Raid

at It Rains... You Get Wet
From the publisher: "On January 28, 1945, 121 hand-selected troops from the elite U.S. Army 6th Ranger Battalion slipped behind enemy lines in the Philippines. Their mission: March thirty miles in an attempt to rescue 513 American and British POWs who had spent three years in a surreally hellish camp near the city of Cabanatuan. The prisoners included the last survivors of the Bataan Death March left in the camp, and their extraordinary will to live might soon count for nothing—elsewhere in the Philippines, the Japanese Army had already executed American prisoners as it retreated from the advancing U.S. Army. As the Rangers stealthily moved through enemy-occupied territory, they learned that Cabanatuan had become a major transshipment point for the Japanese retreat, and instead of facing the few dozen prison guards, they could possibly confront as many as 8,000 battle-hardened enemy troops.

Hampton Sides's vivid minute-by-minute narration of the raid and his chronicle of the prisoners' wrenching experiences are masterful. But Ghost Soldiers is far more than a thrilling battle saga. Hampton Sides explores the mystery of human behavior under extreme duress—the resilience of the prisoners, who defied the Japanese authorities even as they endured starvation, tropical diseases, and unspeakable tortures; the violent cultural clashes with Japanese guards and soldiers steeped in the warrior ethic of Bushido; the remarkable heroism of the Rangers and Filipino guerrillas; the complex motivations of the U.S. high command, some of whom could justly be charged with abandoning the men of Bataan in 1942; and the nearly suicidal bravado of several spies, including priests and a cabaret owner, who risked their lives to help the prisoners during their long ordeal."
Sides begins this book with the following quote from Dante's Inferno:
Let us not speak of them; but look, and pass on. 
It's apt for the book but also very much apt for the WWII history that I've been wading through lately. And, probably, apt for any exploration of war. Sadly, humans are all too prone to "look, and pass on" but nowhere does such a sad reality became more apparent than in war.
Sides allows readers to see this (from the Allied perspective) by intertwining the experiences of the POWs in the camp with the details of the days leading up to the raid. The plight of the POWs begins before the surrender on Bataan, is seen on the Death March to the prison camps and then, in brief but evocative glimpses, through the years in the prison camps. 
Sides also includes a small history of the birth of the Army Rangers. For the 6th Ranger Battalion, a mission of this caliber was what they had been created and trained to do but what they had not yet had the chance to do. Joining the Rangers was Filipino Captains Pajota and Joson with their guerrillas who were instrumental in supporting the attack on the camp and providing resources for the evacuation of the prisoners. 

Sides does an excellent job of painting a clear picture of the situation for both the POWs and Fil-American forces who eventually serve as their liberators. On the one hand this is something any reader would want, but on the other there is much that is hard to read here and that clear picture hides nothing. The abject despair of war, and its unbelievable absurdities, are brought to vivid life. The POWs initial response to the rescue efforts were particularly heartbreaking. Most of the prisoners were so ill and confused that they had to be convinced - sometimes physically - to evacuate. One POW was so distraught over documents he had to leave behind that he could not be convinced to leave.

Then the prisoner burst into tears and collapsed on the ground. Kinder tried not to consider for even a second the world of despair suggested by this man's predicament; there wasn't time for it now. Kinder lifted him in his arms. Through his sobs the POW said, "Thank you! Thank you! Thank God you've come!"

Reading this will be hard for almost anyone but worth it, as well. 
It doesn't change my recommendation of this title but I feel I ought to also mention that it could have been better written (having recently read Sides' Blood and Thunder which was much better craft-wise I was surprised at some of this book's issues). It's unnecessarily repetitive at times, employs overuse of phrases like "in truth," and the alternating of chapters from POW and rescuer points of view was a mistake, in my opinion. But, again, I think it's time very well spent to read this book so I recommend that you don't miss out.
We are all ghosts now
But once we were men.
                                --from an unsigned diary recovered from Cabanatuan camp

Don't forget to check out the film review.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series


  1. I'm very glad to hear you enjoyed it, Rachel. I worried about the last minute change. Like I said over at my post, there's nothing wrong with William Breuer's book. It a clear, concise, and straightforward history of these events. I'm not going to say it's dry, but Hampton Sides' version of the same was a lot more compelling. Granted, I read Sides' book first and that may be an influence.

    Still, this was the first book of his I ever read and was mesmerized by it. I've read a lot of military history through the years and authors like this really do stand out. Certainly enough that I went on to read his Kit Carson/Navajo account in 'Blood and Thunder', and plan on getting in 'Hellhound On His Trail' before the year is out.

    I think HS did a very good job with this, and kept a context of the specific raid, and overall conflict, in good perspective. It's too easy to distill it down good vs. evil, and I think he did a commendable job here. This was my second reading, this time in audiobook, and I can honestly say I was equally as absorbed with it, and maybe a little more moved by it.

    Wonderful review, as always, Rachel. Many thanks.

  2. "I think HS did a very good job with this, and kept a context of the specific raid, and overall conflict, in good perspective. It's too easy to distill it down good vs. evil, and I think he did a commendable job here."

    This is so very true, Michael, and certainly one of the books greatest strengths.