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Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath (Hardcover)

by Michael Norman (Author), Elizabeth M. Norman (Author)


"Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pages, $30), by Michael Norman and Elizabeth Norman: A new account of the Bataan Death March, in which more than 70,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war were victims of appalling barbarism a particularly grim episode of World War II following Japan's invasion of the Philippines. Driven from Manila into the hills of the Bataan peninsula, the combined Allied forces fought without hope of rein-forcement or escape until they had no choice but to capitulate. The largest surrender in U.S. military annals was fol-lowed by a forced 60-mile march along Luzon's main highway during which more than 10,000 of the POWs were sum-marily murdered or died from torture, wounds and disease. For Americans the Death March was a first encounter with the brutality that would define Japan's military behavior, and the fact that the story has been told many times before does not dissuade Michael and Elizabeth Norman, both pro-fessors at New York University, from another effort. The result is an extremely detailed and thoroughly chilling treatment that, given the passage of time and thinning of ranks, could serve as popular history's final say on the subject. The Normans spent a decade in research and writing, interviewing more than 100 surviving American veterans and relatives of scores of others, and traveling to Japan to track down the most elusive and difficult sources some 20 former soldiers who were involved in the march and a guard from one of the miserable camps where more captives died from sickness, torture or starvation. The authors also find an ideal protagonist in Ben Steele, a former Montana cowboy who in 1940, at 22, joined the Army Air Corps and was sent to the Philippines. Steele survived the Death March and prison camp, and his personal story is the thread by which the authors spin their harrowing narrative, also using Steele's sketches to illustrate it. They find some sympathy for Gen. Masaharu Homma, the Japanese commander in the Philippines. His 1946 trial and execution as a war criminal showed how the Imperial Army was driven to excesses by right-wing racist fanatics who intimidated its senior officers, Homma among them. But as with other latter-day critics, they have little admiration for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. commander in the Philippines who was being glorified at home in 1942 as the greatest American military hero since Ulysses S. Grant. On Jan. 15, the authors report, McArthur sent his beleaguered troops on Bataan a would-be morale booster, promis-ing them that reinforcements in the form of troops and planes were on the way from the United States. "It was a lie, a Judas kiss," they write. "The Philippines was cut off. Washington knew it and so did MacArthur." --Associated Press, June 15, 2009

Reviewed by Ferenc Szasz: "Remember Pearl Harbor" remains the best-known slogan of World War II. But for many, especially after the Dyess Report of 1944 (the joint Army and Navy testimony of officers who survived capture and imprisonment on Bataan and Corregidor) the phrase evolved into "Remember Pearl Harbor and Bataan." Yet the Bataan story does not resonate with most American as do the major battles of the European theater. Thus, Tears in the Darkness is a valuable addition to the literature on the war. It is the best single volume on Bataan now available.

Through a hard-driving narrative interspersed with numerous flashbacks, the Normans retell the painful saga of the battle to control the Philippines, which occurred in late 1941 and early 1942; the 66-mile Death March that followed the surrender; the atrocities that took place in the Japanese POW camps; and the Japanese "Hell Ships" that transported thousands of POWs to the home islands for slave labor. Although the authors weave the stories of many people in and out of the narrative, they focus largely on Ben Steele, a young Montana cowboy who endured 41 months of agonizing captivity. During this ordeal Steele discovered his artistic talents-he would later become an art professor-and quietly began to sketch his surroundings. Since we have minimal visual documentation of Philippine POW camp life, Steele's many pen-and-ink drawings, recreated from now-lost originals, are especially welcome.

The strength of this volume lies less with a radical reinterpretation than with a masterful compilation of new and fascinating individual stories. The Normans present the dramas of battle and captivity from a variety of perspectives, including the views of the average Japanese soldier. Their discussion of the impact of the Japanese code of honor on the various levels of the Japanese military is very well drawn. The authors are especially critical of General Douglas MacArthur, noting his lack of foresight, his failure to ensure adequate provisions, his decision in the Masaharu Homma war crimes trial, and his overall pomposity. "Dugout Doug," as the enlisted men scornfully referred to him, departed for Australia under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's orders, which left Generals Jonathan Wainwright and Ned King to oversee the surrender of 76,000 American and Filipino troops on 9 April 1942-still the worst defeat in American military history.

Tears in the Darkness revolves around three themes: brutality, suffering, and the power of human endurance. The unspeakable cruelty that infused the Death March, the POW camps, and the Hell Ships seems to have stemmed from Japan's refusal to sign the 1929 Geneva Convention, the harsh discipline accorded the average Japanese soldier, which he was eager to pass along to the disgraced "non-persons" who had surrendered; and the fact that Japanese command expected to deal with about 40,000 POWs hut faced almost twice that number. The anonymous, kind-hearted Filipinos who handed out food and water to the endless stream of marchers emerge as unsung heroes.

How Ben Steele survived his excruciating ordeal is almost beyond comprehension. That he and others did make it back can be credited to chance encounters with physicians or medicine (especially quinine, so crucial to combating the ever-present malaria), the concern of fellow prisoners, and just plain luck. Perhaps as many as 9,000 Americans and about 45,000 Filipinos were not so fortunate. In addition, although this is only hinted at here, many of those who did return were so weakened that they did not long survive.

Based on ten years of research and 400 interviews, including several with former Japanese soldiers, the Normans conclude that in warfare, "nothing runs true to plan." Still, amid the atrocities, one can catch glimpses of basic human decency: the Soldier who secretly slipped quinine pills into the slop he fed his comrade; the physician who ran out of paregoric to treat dysentery and created homemade remedies (clay and water and powdered charcoal); and Father Bill Cummings on a Hell Ship who said that he hoped to work with street children in Tokyo after the war. "The bastards are hopeless," one Soldier protested. "Son,' Cummings replied, "no one is hopeless." Unfortunately, Father Bill did not make it back.

If one plans to read but one volume on the Bataan story, it should be Tears in the Darkness."

----Dr. Szasz is Regents' Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. -- Proceedings of the Naval Institute Press, June 2009

Exploration of the human spirit, June 9, 2009
By D. Abrahamson (Evanston, IL USA)

In their book, "Tears in the Darkness," Michael and Elizabeth Norman, have taken a historical event, the American defeat and its horrific aftermath in the Philippines at the start of Word War II in 1942 and turned it into a spell-binding exploration of the human spirit. At the center of the tale, of course, is the Bataan Death March. But after ten years of incredibly detailed research on both sides of the Pacific, the authors are able to render its full reality from a variety of individual perspectives: American, Japanese and Filipino. The result is a revelation -- not merely a narrative of courage, sacrifice, cruelty and suffering, but also, ultimately, of the redemptive power of reflection and forgiveness. It may also be the most moving book ever written about those dark April days almost seven decades ago and men who experienced them.