Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner: Review of Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman's Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009)

Dec 20, 2009 6:25 pm

Murray Polner: Review of Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman's Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009)

For Americans old enough to remember 1941-2 when the Japanese took control of the Philippine Islands—that economic and strategic prize seized by the United States in an imperial war of conquest---the depressing events of those years are hard to forget. Despite the many thousands killed and maimed, Japanese war crimes, the eventual U.S. reconquest of the islands and the vengeful, perhaps even legally questionable, execution of the two top Japanese commanders, the brutal era is captured in this engrossing history of the Bataan Death March, grounded in large part on the experience of Ben Steele, a death march survivor and Montana artist, whose impressive sketches of his years as a prisoner are scattered throughout the book.

Michael Norman, a Marine combat Vietnam veteran, previously wrote the impressive and moving These Good Men: Friendships Forged from War. Elizabeth, his wife, is the author of two striking accounts of military nurses, We Band of Angels, about the women captured on Bataan, and Vietnam’s nurses in Women at War. Both now teach at New York University.

Before the Japanese attacked, thousands of Americans, civilian and military, lived lives of colonial tropical ease. At the summit sat the imperious, egomaniacal, proconsul General Douglas MacArthur, for whom the authors reveal a deep distaste for his military blunders long hidden from worshipful wartime Americans desperate for heroes.

The loss of the Philippines was one of the largest single defeats in American military history. The U.S. Army Force was shattered on the opening day of the war. In furious battles, American and Filipino troops were forced to retreat into the Bataan Peninsula and the neighboring fortified isle of Corregidor in Manila Bay, with its big guns pointed out to sea. MacArthur, write the critical Normans, mistakenly “left most of his rations behind,” thereby ensuring that the troops would soon have little or no food. MacArthur “spent just one day on Bataan, reluctant to leave his command post on Corregidor. (“he had refused to lead from the field”), which is what he would do during the Korean War when, as David Halberstam revealed in The Coldest War, the General “did not spend a night in Korea; in fact he did not spend the night there during the entire time he commanded,” preferring instead his imposing office in Tokyo while his politicized sycophants churned out press releases extolling their leader.

As thousands of troops on Bataan were hopelessly surrounded, starving, sick, and facing possible annihilation (by February Japanese troops were also suffering badly and would soon have to be reinforced), MacArthur confidently told his collapsing armies that, “Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes” were on their way, which the Normans brand as “a lie, a Judas kiss.” Still, the blame was not entirely MacArthur’s. A Navy Department dispatch of December 28, 1941 mentioned “positive assistance” lay ahead and thus given him reason to believe help was coming. One week later General Marshall wrote him of Washington’s hope that U.S. planes would soon “permit an attack on the southern Philippines, as Ronald Spector noted in his Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan.

But it quickly became evident to Washington, if it wasn’t always evident, that the Philippines could not be relieved for a variety of reasons such as lack of troops and equipment but also because no-one was able smash through the Japanese air and naval blockade Even more galling was Washington’s judgment that the tens of thousands stranded in the Philippines were expendable, so that the blame for the loss of the Philippines should also be shared with the War Department and the Roosevelt administration.

On May 6, 1942, General Ned King surrendered his entire Bataan force of 76,000 Americans and Filipinos, 22,000 ill or wounded, and the remnant famished, fever-ridden, and hiding in holes to escape the never-ending bombardment. Driven with guilt for the rest of his life, King never forgave himself, though in no way was he to blame for the disaster. Nor was General Jonathan Wainwright, who succeeded MacArthur after he departed on orders from Washington for Australia, accompanied by his retainers. Orders were orders in the military, one supposes, but in this instance the Normans disagree. “A soldier never leaves another soldier behind.” When news spread of MacArthur’s leaving many abandoned troops sneeringly sang the 4-line ditty “Dugout Doug” ending with “Four- star generals are as rare as good food on Bataan; And his troops go starving on.”

Dwight Eisenhower, who knew MacArthur well and had once served under him, made a diary entry while the Bataan blockade was still underway, warning that he should not be evacuated."If brought out, public opinion will force him into a position where his love of the limelight may ruin him." An even more devastating judgment was rendered by General William E. Brougher,commander of the 11th Division on Bataan:"A foul trick of deception has been played on a large group of Americans by a commander in chief and small staff who are now eating steak and eggs in Australia. God damn them!" (The remark from D. Clayton James' The Years of MacArthur, 1941-45 and also cited by Spector)
Wainwright, left to cope with a hopeless situation, surrendered Corregidor and then spent the remainder of the war in Formosan and Manchurian prison camps.

Meanwhile, as all this was happening, MacArthur, now safe, was celebrated throughout the U.S. as the “hero” of Bataan. Books were written extolling his virtues, babies given his name and in March 1942 he received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

But in Bataan, the “death march” had begun, personal accounts of which was “suppressed for months” according to British military historian Max Hasting’s Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45. Here, though, the Normans describe it in painstaking and painful detail, depicting undeniable Japanese savagery and the experiences of a broken army of Americans and Filipinos. Based on Steele’s recollections and their ten-year long research (some 400 interviews, including Japanese, and thousands of other sources) it tells a story long forgotten in contemporary America. Sixty-two days after boarding a “hellship,”as Steele and other GIs called it. and reminiscent of European slave ships, they arrived in Japan to become slave laborers. Many were seriously ill. Between January 1942 and July 1945, the Normans calculate that 156 boatloads of Allied POWs, in all some 126,000 prisoners from battlefields throughout the Pacific, were crammed into similar ships, starved and maltreated, and shipped to Japan. More than “21,000 died en route” or drowned en route following attacks by American ships, planes and submarines.

After liberation, Ben Steele began prolonged medical treatment for his many problems. He had suffered from beriberi and malaria in a prison camp and was given final rites on three separate occasions. Back home, his hospital chart at one time noted he was being treated for, among other ailments, “extreme nervousness” and an inability to sleep, prompting [my assumption] combat vet Michael Norman to comment, “There was no therapy for war, no drugs or talking cure to blunt what war leaves behind in the minds of men [and now women] coming home from the battlefields and prison camps….” And more, in an “Author’s Note, the Normans add: “It is true that some men—men of greed, ambition or raw animus—love war, but most, the overwhelming number who are forced to bear arms, come home from the killing fields and prison camps with annui, “tears in the darkness.” In the end, Ben Steele did return home to Billings, Montana, taught art in a local college, divorced, remarried, and is still alive.

The Normans then take a postwar detour. Two Japanese generals, Masaharu Homma and Tomayuki Yamashita, were tried and executed for war crimes in the Philippines despite the fact that the trials appeared to resemble “kangaroo courts” where no evidence had to be “verified or supported by direct testimony.” One of Homma’s American. military defense lawyers claimed he was pressured not to put up a serious defense. Were the guilty verdicts justified? Should more Japanese have been tried for war crimes? And were there no American war criminals as well? Before he was executed, Homma, a complex man who seemed to have little responsibility for the death march, told the officer in charge of his firing squad, “I’m being shot tonight because we lost the war.”

An excellent history of an appalling time.

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