During a time where death was welcomed and at times begged for, there were still soldiers holding on to life by the skin of their teeth. These soldiers were the forgotten soldiers in Hampton Sides Ghost Soldiers. When I grabbed Ghost Soldiers off of a shelf at a local Goodwill, I had no idea what it was about but was intrigued by the interesting title. Two dollars lighter and one book heavier, I was the new owner of a beat up copy of a story about a mission during War World II. Quite honestly, I didn’t have any intention of actually reading it, but that changed the moment I read the first page.
I wasn’t expecting Hampton Sides gift for detail, which had me cringing yet wanting to know more. Sides offers a thorough account of the American soldiers surrender to the Japanese while at the Battle of Bataan, and the march they had to take to their own prisoner of war camp. This walk was later dubbed the Bataan Death March due to how great the death toll was for the captured soldiers during this march. Sides also gives a detailed record of the quality of life within the prisoner of war camp while maintaining the attention of the reader by bringing to light a plan of rescue for the imprisoned soldiers.
The story begins by diving right into the middle of the action with the American soldiers still fighting in the Battle of Bataan against the Japanese army, their life hanging by a thread as many troops were riddled with disease and supplies were few—if any. As the men lay in their foxholes they took to singing a chant, originally written by an American newsman, “We’re the battling bastards of Bataan, no mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam. No aunts, no uncles, no nephews, no nieces—no pills, no planes, no artillery pieces…and nobody gives a damn.” In just a few short lines it shows the hopeless attitude the troops had adopted. Though this battle took place during World War II and was quite a few years before my time, Sides not only captured the forlorn thoughts of these soldiers, he brought it to life as if this travesty happened only yesterday.
The American soldiers fought for their country, their fellow comrades, and their life only a short three months in Bataan before American General Edward P. Kings gave the orders to the 75,000 American troops in Bataan to surrender themselves to the Japanese. These orders were against American General MacArthur’s, who was a fellow commander. This in turn forced MacArthur’s hand and he himself had to withdraw from his position by orders of President Roosevelt. Stricken with guilt, MacArthur swore he’d come back for his troops. At first glance, instinct makes MacArthur look like a pushover, but as the story progresses Sides shows the loyalty of MacArthur by proving his promise was not vain.
When the U.S. General met with the Japanese General to make the surrender of the American troops known, the Japanese began planning for the prisoner intake that would occur. They had to make provisions and figure out the way in which they would get so many soldiers to the actual prison camp, which was near the city Cabanatuan. What the Japanese didn’t realize until it was too late was that there were a lot more American soldiers that had surrendered than they had counted on. The march was sixty miles long and through torturous heat. Many soldiers, already extremely ill, did not make it far. Even so, the ones that could walk were rarely given food or water. The Japanese, easily angered, would kill any soldier that walked too slow or fell. If they stopped by a source of water, death was the result if any prisoner attempted to drink. With so many factors working against the American soldiers it is easy to see why it is named the Bataan Death March.
Once the prisoners reached the camp, Hampton Sides did a remarkable job describing what life was like behind enemy fences for the American soldiers that were imprisoned there. The prisoners worked hard, laborious tasks on an incredibly small amount of food and water. These already diseased men fell into even more sickness. Death was rampant, claiming men daily. Their pain was described in great detail and not easy to read about, but it illustrated the amount of hardship these men had to go through and only few survived. The men were forced to live with lice, malaria, and beriberi with limited medication. They worked daily, whether it was building landing strips or digging trenches; they were always wearing their already worn bodies out.
Escaping the camp was at the forefront of each man’s mind; at least until they realized getting too close to the fences would bring deadly consequences. If one soldier ever attempted an escape the entire camp would be punished. Though the men in this camp experienced some of the most inhumane practices, Sides wrote about the hope these men clung to as if it was their ship home. Even though the soldiers had been disappointed by their own countries military and were put on the government’s last priority list they still stayed optimistic about being rescued. When one soldier would be on the brink of breaking physically and mentally a fellow soldier would convince him it was a time to keep living. The soldiers weren’t always in harmony; there were points when survival depended on how much they were willing to be selfish because food quantity eventually dropped even lower. It was the survival of the fittest—or rather the survival of the men who could still use their limbs.
Ghost Soldiers was told in shifting perspectives and also showed the reader what was going on with General MacArthur and his hard work and determination to free his soldiers. It was a nice touch to be able to read both sides of the story, which made reading about the more gruesome details more bearable because it gave you a sense of hope that these men might survive and make it back home to their loved ones. You aren’t only reading about horrifying details of the prisoners of war but also about the determination the men planning their rescue had.
Colonel Mucci was the chosen front man to lead the handpicked Rangers, who were soldiers that stood out and were specifically chosen to train for the mission of bringing the extremely decreased number of around 600 soldiers home. Three years passed with the soldiers in captivity and by that time it wasn’t just American soldiers they would bring back to safe ground, there were British as well. The Rangers themselves had to face many difficulties during their own march to the camp, like ducking and lying flat on the ground every time they heard a noise, thinking it could be enemy planes. When the Rangers were close enough to the camp they were afraid of getting caught, but they were fortunate enough to team up with local guerrillas.
The Rangers finally freed the weak, barely capable of walking prisoners from the camp. But making it to the camp and getting the soldiers out safely wasn’t the end. They still had to get out of enemy territory and most of the freed men were carried or put onto carts. The most powerful part of this story was the reaction the Rangers had towards the very men they rescued. They called the once prisoners “heroes” and refused the term for themselves. It was a moving moment of recognition and selflessness. The ghost soldiers may have felt forgotten and in many minds they were, but to MacArthur, Mucci, and the Rangers they were the true heroes of the war.
“The forgotten epic story of World War II’s most dramatic mission”, is what the book is described as. It can no longer claim to be forgotten, for it will always be remembered for those who read this chilling story. There were times where tears were on the brink of overflowing and I had to put the book down. Hampton Sides knows how to tell a true story that isn’t all about facts and numbers. It was about the American soldiers and who they were and what they went through. Sides lets the reader experience the story as if their grandpa was sitting them down and telling them about his time in the war.
He didn’t just tell the story of prisoners of war and their rescue, he took each soldiers story and cared about them and every single soldier that was introduced had a conclusion. Even if that conclusion was that they were never heard of again. Sides made sure everything coincided and that the entire story had an end.
“Today the site of Cabanatuan Camp is a modest park covered in tropical fruit trees. A memorial wall of white marble lists the names of 2,656 Americans who perished there.”
This book was published in 2002, I read it in 2012 and I wrote this in 2015. I decided to publish it here, because…why not?
It’s hands down one of my favorite books on a subject that I love learning about. Specifically, I like learning about the lesser known occurrences of WWII – so if you know any like books, recommend them!
I’ve posted reviews before and anyone who has read those and made it through this clunker will see the difference in style. My more recent reviews hit more on technique and what worked and what didn’t. This is more of a traditional review.
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