by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2001)
(This column was first published in the October 11, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
Hampton Sides begins Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission with one of those harrowing episodes that occasionally takes place in war. In a Philippine prisoner-of-war camp, American soldiers have been serving the Japanese as slave laborers on a jungle airfield. Now suddenly the camp commandant, known to them as the Buzzard, has them herded into their improvised air raid shelter.
"Reluctantly," Sides tells us, "the American prisoners did as they were told, all 150 of them, crawling single file into the dark, poorly ventilated pits...."
"They waited and waited but heard not a single American plane, let alone a hundred. They huddled in the stifling dankness of their collective body heat, sweat coursing down their bare chests. The air-raid bell continued to peal. A Navy signalman named C. C. Smith refused to go into his pit. Suddenly the Buzzard set upon him. He raised his saber high so that it gleamed in the midday sun, and with all his strength he brought it blade side down. Smith's head was cleaved in two, the sword finally stopping midway down the neck.
"Then, peeking out the ends of the trenches, the men saw several soldiers bursting into the compound. They were carrying five-gallon buckets filled with a liquid. The buckets sloshed messily as the soldiers walked. With a quick jerk of the hands, they flung the contents into the openings of the trenches. By the smell of it on their skin, the Americans instantly recognized what it was -- high-octane aviation fuel from the airstrip. Before they could apprehend the full significance of it, other soldiers tossed in lighted bamboo torches. Within seconds, the trenches exploded in flames. The men squirmed over each other and clawed at the dirt as they tried desperately to shrink from the intense heat. They choked back the smoke and the fumes, their nostrils assailed by the smell of singed hair and roasting flesh. They were trapped like termites in their own sealed nest."
It was to head off a repeat of that distressing episode that a Ranger team was dispatched by General Kruger's invading forces to liberate from behind Japanese lines the over 500 Allied soldiers held near the city of Cabanatuan. The small force, 121 Rangers together with about 80 Filipino guerillas, might have to face thousands of Japanese defenders.
"There was a naive optimism, and a certain improvisational boldness, in the way Ranger battalions operated, and Mucci's outfit was no exception. Although they borrowed the name and drew on the heritage of other so-called 'ranger' groups throughout American history -- spirited outfits such as Robert Rogers' rangers from the days of the French and Indian War and, of course, the Texas Rangers -- the Army Rangers were actually a brand-new concoction, having been created at the outset of the war as an American answer to the famed British Commandos. Billed as surgical-strike specialists who carried out their missions with a certain brash independence, the U.S. Rangers quickly garnered much favorable press for their reputedly superhuman talents behind enemy lines. But in truth the concept of elite infantry units, or 'special forces,' was still novel, and the Army high command remained uncertain just how to train and use them -- or even whether they were a good idea. In Europe, Ranger units had often ended up functioning essentially as front-line infantry troops, sometimes with disastrous results. Almost exactly one year before Mucci's mission, on January 30, 1944, the 1st and 3rd Ranger battalions had made an overly bold and poorly scouted infiltration attempt at a place called Cisterna, near Anzio, Italy, only to be surrounded by German forces. Cisterna proved a terrible debacle, culminating in a mass surrender with hundreds of American casualties. Only eight men made it back to friendly lines. A year later, the Ranger ranks were still reeling from the catastrophe.
"Mucci's 6th was the only Ranger battalion operating in the Pacific theater; it was, in effect, the untested Asian branch of a potentially impressive new franchise whose true business plan had yet to gel. With the raid on Cabanatuan, Mucci's outfit at least had an assignment that rang truer to the Rangers' original intended purpose. Yet, in a sense, his men were all neophytes. 'Spec ops' was in its infancy, a romanticized kind of soldiering, the skills and techniques still crude. Their training, while extremely challenging, did not particularly qualify them to storm prison camps, let alone serve as personal saviors. They were simply winging it.
"Surprise. That was the thing they had in their favor, the thing they must keep at all costs: the element of surprise, invisibility right up until the last moment. They had to cling to it, every second, every step. And yet, precious as it was, surprise was a funny sort of advantage -- fragile, future-tense, perpetually subject to doubt. And so easy to lose. All it would take was a single Japanese scout with a good set of binocs looking in just the right place. Or one Filipino quisling. Then in a flash it would be over and the mission would go down as one of the war's great fiascoes, a first-rate slaughter on the order of Cisterna."
What made the adventure even more daunting was the fact that: "Theirs was a secret assignment, but it was secret in both directions. Except for General Krueger himself and his G-2 people, hardly anyone in the Sixth Army knew the Rangers were out here. Perhaps most troubling, no one had breathed a word about the Cabanatuan raid to the air force. Which meant that there were American fighter pilots flying around above them -- restless and trigger-happy pilots -- who hadn't the vaguest idea what the Rangers were up to. As Mucci and his men pressed farther into enemy territory, they began to realize, with an excitement cut with deepening dread, that they'd never been more vulnerable."
By telling the story from both sides, that of the captives, a remnant of the thousands who began the Bataan Death March, and the relief force, Sides gives us real insights into the minds of men at war.
Here is just one of the moving episodes he tells: "A Ranger named Marvin Kinder led a prisoner by the arm and hustled him outside. Suddenly the man resisted, as though he'd forgotten something. 'I have to go back in and get some documents I hid,' he said anxiously.
"'No, sir,' Kinder insisted, 'we have to keep moving.'
"'But I need my documents! When I get back to the States, I'm going to court-martial a man who ate my cat. A beautiful cat, it was! The man ate my cat, I'm telling you!'
"Then the prisoner burst into tears and collapsed on the ground. Kinder tried not to consider for even a second the world of despair suggested by this man's predicament; there wasn't time for it now. Kinder lifted him in his arms. Through his sobs the POW said, 'Thank you! Thank you! Thank God you've come!'"
This is a story of brave soldiers coming to grips in different ways with near impossible conditions. For uplifting reading at a difficult time in our history, I can think of few more appropriate books.