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Sunday, October 2, 2011
Tears in the Darkness-The Bataan Death March and its Aftermath
I have just finished reading the above book. It is the story of the Bataan Death March and its aftermath. It was written by Michael and Elizabeth Norman in 2009. I recommend the book to all Filipino-Americans who are history nuts and to all who are history enthusiasts of the Japanese-American war in the Philippines (1941-1945). As a son of a former Filipino-American guerilla defender of the Philippines from the Japanese invaders, the book reminds me of my childhood fears as well as the valor and heroism of all the 76,000 Americans and Filipinos who died and survived from the first major land battle of World War II: the battle for the Philippine peninsula of Bataan. I have still nightmares remembering the sufferings of the Filipino and American prisoners from the hands of the Japanese two days after reading this book. But it was worth my time relieving history and the story of heroism and survival of one cowboy named, Ben Steele. The book describes in detail the 41 months of starvation, dehydration, hard labor, deadly diseases, tortures, murder and journey on "hell ships" of the Filipino and American prisoners of war to the enemy's homeland. Here's a short video of the book.
The following is one of the many reviews of this book when it was published in 2009. It was written by Dwight Garner of the New York Times on June 17, 2009. He titled it "Revisiting Wartime: 66 miles of Cruelty".
“Tears in the Darkness” is authoritative history. Ten years in the making, it is based on hundreds of interviews with American, Filipino and Japanese combatants. But it is also a narrative achievement. The book seamlessly blends a wide-angle view with the stories of many individual participants. And at this book’s beating emotional heart is the tale of just one American soldier, a young cowboy and aspiring artist out of Montana named Ben Steele.
This story begins in earnest on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Japan had planned to attack American military bases in the Philippines, where the peninsula of Bataan lies, at the same time, but its bombers and fighter planes were delayed by fog, eliminating the element of surprise, Japan thought. But when its planes flew over, eight hours after Pearl Harbor, the American planes sat on runways, inexplicably, like sitting ducks. It was carnage.
Two weeks later Japan invaded the Philippines. The poorly trained and untested American and Filipino forces were overmatched; they eventually retreated into the mountainous jungles of Bataan for a brutal last stand, one that the Normans, who are husband and wife, describe as “a modern Thermopylae.”
After four months of intense fighting, the Allied forces — their ranks decimated by hunger, dysentery and malaria, and with no relief or reinforcements in sight — surrendered. “No American general had ever surrendered such a force,” the Normans write, “76,000 men, an entire army.”
The authors are sympathetic toward Ned King, the surrendering American major general, who was beloved by his men. (General King made it clear to his soldiers that he had surrendered, not they.) Mr. and Ms. Norman reserve their scorn for the initial Allied general overseeing Bataan, Douglas MacArthur, whom they accuse of not leading from the field and later abandoning his men there.
What is now known as the Bataan Death March began on April 10, 1942. Some 76,000 soldiers, many already close to death, were forced to walk 66 miles during the hottest season of the year — there were almost no buildings along the way, no trees, no shade — with little food and almost no water.
It was called a death march for a simple reason: if you stopped marching, you were killed, by bayonet or rifle. There were many other ways to die during the Bataan Death March; it was a spree of arbitrary brutality. For sport, Japanese soldiers fractured skulls with their rifle butts. Japanese tanks ran over men who fell. Good Samaritans who tried to help fallen comrades were beaten or stabbed. Men were forced to bury others alive.
To be on this march, one soldier said, was what it must feel like to “come to the end of civilization.” Some 11,000 died along the way to the ultimate destination, a prison camp.
What’s remarkable about this story, for Ben Steele and many others, was that it was just the beginning of the horrors that awaited them as Japanese prisoners of war. There are accounts here of train journeys in deadly, overheated box cars; of foul prison camps and hospitals filled with dying men; of being placed into the holds of transport ships like “pickles jammed into a jar”; of work details that were their own kinds of death marches. Many men who didn’t die simply lost their minds.
There are many Japanese voices in “Tears in the Darkness.” Mr. and Ms. Norman don’t excuse Japan’s actions, but place them in careful context. Japanese soldiers, they write, were the products of “a closed world of violence where men were subjected to the most brutal system of army discipline in the world.” These soldiers “had been savaged to produce an army of savage intent.”
Mr. Norman is a Vietnam veteran and formerly a reporter for The New York Times; Ms. Norman’s books include “Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam.” In this book they step back, at regular intervals, to explain dispassionately what it was like to undergo the experiences these men went through.
What are the physics of suffocation? How does a bomb blast actually kill a person? What exactly does lack of water do to a human body? “Tears in the Darkness” is a grim and comprehensive catalog of man’s inhumanity to man.
In the end, though, “Tears in the Darkness” is a book about heroism and survival. All along you are glued, out of the corner of your eye, to one story, Ben Steele’s. If you aren’t weeping openly by the book’s final scenes, when he is at last able to call home and let his family know that he is still alive after more than three years “missing in action,” during which time this thin young man lost 50 pounds, then you have a hard crust of salt around your soul".
Note: I purchased this book last week, hard bound for $6.95 ( bargained price) from Barnes and Nobles. It is also available on line on Amazon new or used.