I keep telling you I am going to stop reading books about World War II, and I keep reading books about World War II. I am in that vicious Can’t Stop/Won’t Stop cycle. Apologies again and always, but I love me some World War II books, and spoiler alert, I’ve started reading spy books about that era so you are going to be in for it for a long time.
While my particular WWII reading tastes tend to the the European continent, I branch out every now and again. Hampton Sides (despite the fact that his name is silly to me) is a non-fiction writer I can trust to deliver on research, story, and subject matter. I have yet to read a book written by him that I didn’t like. I am actually reading another of his titles as we speak so I hope I don’t jinx myself! Ghost Soldiers is the story of the soldier’s left in Bataan and the surrounding areas when it fell to the Japanese offensive in 1942 after months of siege. US and Allied Troops either fought alongside the gorillas in the countryside or were taken prisoner. They then were herded to prison camps. Now, we’ve ALL read about (or seen in movie form) Japanese prison camps, and while I try not let the hatred and revulsion overwhelm me, I’ve not forgotten how the Japanese Emperor got off free and easy, erected monuments to war criminals, and never ever has admitted or issued apology to the thousands of women who were forced into sexual slavery as ‘comfort women’. Again, I am going off topic, the trip to the prison camps was as awful as those trips are. Based on poor planning and caprice, thousands died or were murdered along the way. Those who managed to get to the camps had the daily struggles of disease, torture, mental anguish, and starvation. When the war turned back in favor of the allies and the Japanese knew they were losing, there were mass execution of prisoners and a few escaped to share the stories of what was happening and what would happen to their comrades. Sides begins his book telling the story of Eugene Nielson (from Utah, woot woot… don’t mind me, that is just the old home state pride) who escaped a mass murder at Puerto Princesa, Bay. His story is compelling, so compelling that officers in the US Army began to worry about the fate of other remaining prisoners of war. At that time the Army Rangers were a new invention, but a group of them was assigned to rescue the prisoners held in Cabantuan (Camp O’ Donnell).
Sides’ research is thorough, and he manages to sweep the reader into events of the past as though they are happening today. He uses first person sources and engages the reader in these lives. Will they survive? Will the ugliness of war corrupt them entirely? Will anyone ever be the same? Sides speaks about the civilians and spies that helped those in the camp acquire medicine and other necessary goods. He speaks about individual prisoners and their ordeal as it culminated. He uses the poetry from one of the soldiers (Lt. Lee) frequently and the title is take from words scrawled in an unsigned diary that was recovered from the camp. The words are haunting “We are all ghosts now But once we were men.” Profound thoughts in a book that forces the reader to confront their own knowledge of the brutality of war. It is a story of individuals and how they confront evil.
Though this was a very good book I did have some challenges. The book jumps back and forth and occasionally the transitions are not easy. There are also portions, that while interesting, seem like they should be their own book and do not need to be added in this particular book.