I just finished reading a book so lovely in its lyrical prose, and so terrible in its content, that it is worth recommending to you. The authors seamlessly weave together 10 years of research, the story of a single solder who lived the events that are described, and the history of the Bataan Death March into a literary marvel. That single man is Ben Steele, now a 90-year-old retired art teacher, who was a young Montana cowboy before he enlisted in the armed forces in 1940. The book is Tears in the Darkness: the Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath by Michael and Elizabeth Norman.
A short history of the war in the Philippines: the United States was not yet in the World War that started in 1939, but was planning for it. The politics of the time did not permit an all-out preparation because of strong isolationist sentiment in this country. For many people, Europe and the Far East were very far away indeed and, even if they sympathized with the plight of the war’s victims, it did not seem to those US citizens that our country had any direct obligation or national interest in becoming involved. When war did come via the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, the USA was ill-prepared, and with the damage done to the Air Force in Hawaii, incapable of much effective action in the Pacific. Thus, the American troops stationed in the Philippines, as well as the native soldiers there to defend their homeland, were on their own when Japanese planes began the assault a few hours after the Pearl harbor bombing.
The Japanese infantry had been trained in a merciless and humiliating fashion. Their attitude toward the 76,000 U.S. and Philippine soldiers who surrendered in early 1942 was fueled by racism (which was present on both sides of the conflict), “trickle down” of the way they had been treated by their own superiors, and their belief that their opponents had dishonored themselves by giving up, something that the Japanese soldier saw as an outcome worse than death. Their treatment of the enemy was criminal (and later subject to war crimes trials). When coupled with a starvation diet and lack of adequate medical supplies or attention, the death rate of the surrendering army was staggering, never more than during the 66 mile “death march” demanded of the already depleted army after their surrender.
The authors’ focus on one man in particular gives all this pain a very human and sympathetic face. As Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” The individual stories of Steele and others makes this book much more than a dry history lesson. Ben Steele’s drawings provide another way to get to know him and a further witness to the tragedy of these ordinary men caught up in something beyond imagination.
The narrative is remarkably even handed in its treatment of the soldiers on both sides. No excuses are made for inexcusable behavior, but one cannot help but acknowledge that the post-war “war crimes” trials were tilted heavily against the enemy. The person of General Douglas MacArthur does not fair well. He is portrayed as a self-serving and mean-spirited man, more concerned with polishing his legend than providing encouragement to his troops. And his military decision making, especially his failure to safeguard the planes under his command despite being aware for approximately 10 hours that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, is called into serious question. Similarly, his failure to take tons of provisions, including food and medical supplies, that could have been available to his forces when they staged their strategic retreat south down the Peninsula of Bataan, despite the urging of members of his staff. One can only recall MacArthur’s famous farewell speech ending with the words, “old soldiers never die…they just fade away.” The irony of those words is apparent when one thinks of the soldiers in the Philippines under his command, many of whom died before becoming “old soldiers,” and all of whom suffered.
In the end, this treasure of a book is terribly moving in its cumulative impact. You will have read about hundreds of men by name, as well as so many others unnamed but whose lives were no less valuable. They once had all lived as we do when in peace time, in the quiet security and beauty and commonplace of everyday life, with all the usual frustrations, routines, requirements, laughter, joy, and unremarkable disappointments and losses. Nothing could have prepared them for what the Philippines would bring in 1942 until the war’s end in 1945. Their names are important. We do them and ourselves an honor by reading them, knowing what they endured and in many cases failed to survive in the name of the United States of America and a government that saw them as expendable.
By the time you reach the book’s end, you will, at least temporarily, find it hard to view the normal events of the day in quite the same way because you will know what horrible things happened and, but for the grace of God, timing, or circumstance, could have happened to you or someone you love. And you might just kneel down and kiss the earth in gratitude for your relative good luck.