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On January 28, 1945, 121 hand-selected U.S. troops slipped behind enemy lines in the Philippines. Their mission: March thirty rugged miles to rescue 513 POWs languishing in a hellish camp, among them the last survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March. A recent prison massacre by Japanese soldiers elsewhere in the Philippines made the stakes impossibly high and left little time to plan the complex operation.
In Ghost Soldiers Hampton Sides vividly re-creates this daring raid, offering a minute-by-minute narration that unfolds alongside intimate portraits of the prisoners and their lives in the camp. Sides shows how the POWs banded together to survive, defying the Japanese authorities even as they endured starvation, tropical diseases, and torture. Harrowing, poignant, and inspiring, Ghost Soldiers is the mesmerizing story of a remarkable mission. It is also a testament to the human spirit, an account of enormous bravery and self-sacrifice amid the most trying conditions.
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Dr. Ralph Emerson Hibbs lay delirious in a ditch at the tattered edge of the jungle, his teeth clicking with chills. The malarial attack came over him suddenly, as they always did, the strength dropping from his legs like an untethered weight. In their thousands the parasites were reproducing inside him, Plasmodium vivax bursting from his liver and into his bloodstream. The doctor had nothing with which to treat himself. He couldn't work, he couldn't think. He had to ride out the fever as everyone else did, helplessly, shivering in a ditch by the side of a battle-pocked road. An Army captain and a graduate of the University of Iowa Medical School, Dr. Hibbs was the surgeon of the 2nd Battalion of the 31st Infantry Regiment, a man responsible for the health of some 700 soldiers in the field, but he had no quinine. On the anopheles-infested peninsula of Bataan at the end of the first week of April 1942, there was virtually no quinine to be had.
Along with thousands of other malarial men, Dr. Hibbs had been walking out of the mountains down the zigzag road toward Mariveles. In great haste and confusion, the men were stumbling south to escape the turmoil and the butchery of the front lines, where for the past week the Japanese onslaught had been merciless. One participant later described the exodus: "Thousands poured out of the jungle like small spring freshets pouring into creeks which in turn poured into a river." As they walked, the soldiers picked their way around bomb craters and bits of embedded shrapnel. The jungle smoked all about them. Overturned wrecks of jeeps and half-tracks lay smoldering in the creeper ferns. The rattan vines were singed, the tree leaves wormed with bullet holes, the canopy torn open by artillery shells, letting the late-afternoon sun seep through.
The word had come from somewhere or other that General King would offer his surrender in the morning. Hibbs reacted to this news with as much relief as sadness. Everyone knew the situation was hopeless. "We were participants in a lousy game," Hibbs later wrote. "We couldn't live much longer, let alone fight." The men were gaunt, shell-shocked, addled with nerve fatigue. They were so exhausted, as one soldier put it, "that even our hair was tired." They were fighting with improvised weapons, living on improvised food. Day by day the regular had devolved into the irregular. Sailors were serving as infantryman, firing machine guns fashioned from parts cannibalized from crashed airplanes. Corned beef had segued to hardtack, and hardtack to iguana, and iguana to grubs and silkworms. Army veterinarians who under ordinary circumstances were supposed to care for the health of the pack mules and horses had instead been overseeing their slaughter for "cavalry steak." The lines had broken so many times it was absurd to persist in calling them lines anymore. The men of Bataan had fallen back to the place where there was no more back to fall back to. Densely packed with hospital patients, ammunition dumps, military hardware, and the scattered remnants of the troops, the southern tip of Bataan had become so crowded, recalled one American officer, that "bombers could drop their payloads at almost any point or place and hit something of military value." Whether one wanted to call it a retrograde maneuver, or a strategic withdrawal, or some other euphemism for retreat, they simply had nowhere to go. At their front was the Fourteenth Imperial Army, at their rear was the South China Sea.
And above them, Zeros. For weeks and months, the skies had droned with Mitsubishi engines. The bombing and strafing runs had been relentless, chewing up the little nipa huts in the Filipino barrios, leaving the brown grass fields and canebrakes, especially combustible in the dry season, consumed by enormous fires. Photo Joe, as the Americans called the enemy surveillance planes, had circled overhead with impunity, radioing the exact disposition of the Fil-American forces so the Japanese artillerymen on the ground could rain shells upon them with deadlier precision. There was even a doddering surveillance blimp which for some reason the Americans couldn't seem to bring out of the sky.
The planes not only dropped bombs, they dropped words. As the battle dragged on, propaganda sheets had fluttered down from the skies. One leaflet depicted a voluptuous woman beckoning soldiers to bed down with her. "Before the terror comes, let me walk beside you . . . deep in petaled sleep. Let me, while there is still a time and place. Feel soft against me and . . . rest your warm hand on my breast." More recently the propaganda had turned from a tone of clumsy prurience to one of dark ultimatum.
Bataan is about to be swept away. Hopes for the arrival of reinforcements are quite in vain. If you continue to resist, the Japanese forces will by every possible means destroy and annihilate your forces relentlessly to the last man. Further resistance is completely useless. You, dear soldiers, give up your arms and stop resistance at once.
Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Japanese Forces
Yet for the men of Bataan, disease was the real enemy, killing them and sapping their morale with even greater efficacy than the Fourteenth Army. Old diseases that modern medicine had long since learned how to treat. Diseases of vitamin dearth, diseases of bad hygiene, diseases of jungle rot, diseases of sexual promiscuity, and, of course, the vector-borne diseases of the Asian tropics. Their bodies coursed with every worm and pathogen a hot jungle can visit upon a starved and weakened constitution-dengue fever, amebic dysentery, bacillary dysentery, tertian malaria, cerebral malaria, typhus, typhoid. The field hospitals were rife with gas gangrene, spreading from wound to wound to wound. The men's joints ached with the various odd swellings of incipient beriberi, an illness of vitamin B deficiency which, as one soldier described the condition, left the legs feeling "watery and pump[ing] with pains" and made the racing heart "thump like a tractor engine bogged in a swamp."
Working at the front lines with the 31st Infantry, Dr. Hibbs had seen all of these conditions, and many others of even greater exoticism, but increasingly he'd found it impossible to treat the sufferers. It was a medical defeat. The hospitals overflowed to the point that the nurses were setting up outdoor wards among the gnarled folds and aerial roots of ancient banyan trees.
Of all the various units and outfits spread over Bataan, the 31st had seen a disproportionate share of sickness and death, especially in the last few weeks of the siege. Not only were its men in the thick of battle, but they generally ate less well than supply units situated closer to the quartermaster. It is an old hard fact of war that rations mysteriously shrink as they make their way to the front. And so the proud 31st, which before the war had been known as the Thirsty-first for its reputed drinking prowess, then came to be known as the Hungry-first, the most starved of all the American units on Bataan.
During the last few weeks of the fighting, the bloodshed had been horrific. Dr. Hibbs's memory of the last battles was a blur of despair and carnage. One morning Hibbs had found himself holding a leg whose owner could not be located. On another day, he had treated a kid with a ghastly shrapnel wound to the head, a wound large enough so that gray matter was protruding from his skull. Hibbs had declared the young soldier a goner, but then he had miraculously rallied, only to lapse into a coma. The battle raged so intensely that the whole unit was forced to pull back, but the medics had no litters or ambulances with which to transport casualties. Hibbs never forgot the sight of the blood-smeared boy dangling over the shoulders of the medics like a sodden rag doll as they retreated into the jungle. They would set the kid down on the ground and resume the fight, then pick him up and withdraw again, then set him down and fight some more. This went on all day, with the boy becoming like a terrible mascot of the retreat. It hardly seemed worth the effort; the boy's brains were pushing out of his head, the color had washed from his face, his pulse was barely there-yet he kept on breathing. For Hibbs, the scene was a metaphor for what the fighting on Bataan had become, a heroic struggle to prolong a hopeless cause.
At night, when the fighting subsided, a lieutenant named Henry Lee would dash off lines of poetry from his foxhole. Universally beloved by members of the Philippine Division Headquarters Company, Lee was from Pasadena, California, and had been educated at Pomona College, where he first cultivated his literary aspirations. On Bataan he fought with the elite Filipino soldiers known as the Philippine Scouts. Whenever he wasn't holding a gun, he could usually be found with a pen in his hand. There was one snippet of Lee's verse that especially caught the spirit of the last weeks. Entitled "Prayer Before Battle," it was written as an homage to Mars.
Drained of faith
I kneel and hail thee as my Lord
I ask not life
Thou need not swerve the bullet
I ask but strength to ride the wave
and one thing more-
teach me to hate.
Defeat had come slowly, steadily, over a period of four months. As in all great sieges, the fall of Bataan was not so much an emphatic decision of arms as it was an epic drawdown marked by increments of physical, spiritual, and material depletion. As John Hersey wrote at the time, the truth had come to the men of Bataan "in mean little doses." Hibbs had begun his tour of Philippine duty with a sunny nonchalance, even as the threat of war loomed. Manila was considered the easiest post in the Army, the "Pearl of the Orient," where officers lazed away the heat of the day and danced away the nights dressed in natty sharkskin suits, drinking gin and tonics and San Miguel beer at the Jai Alai Club. Hibbs had had a love affair with a Manila society girl named Pilar Campos, a beautiful young mestiza who was the daughter of the president of the Bank of the Philippine Islands. "Neither of us," Hibbs wrote, "sought help in finding the moral path." In late November, less than two weeks before the first Zeros came to attack Luzon, Hibbs had written a chipper note to his parents back in Oskaloosa, Iowa. "Things are peaceful here," he wrote.
Life in the Orient is easygoing with emphasis on the maÃ±ana and siesta ethic. With the tremendous military buildup here, a Jap attack seems unlikely. If I had it to do over again, I would have gone to England. There's nothing going to happen here.
By January, Hibbs recognized how misplaced his insouciance was, but he tried to put the best face on the situation. An optimist by nature, he endeavored to look for hope in the shadows, to ascribe the non-arrival of promised arms and medicines to honest mistakes that could be easily redeemed. A slender, bespectacled man with some of the bearing and affable features of the young Jimmy Stewart, Hibbs kept his sense of humor no matter how grim things got, his eyes always lit with a suggestion of mischief. In February, Hibbs sent another letter to his folks, which proved to be his last communication from Bataan-a letter notable for its facade of good cheer where plainly none existed.
Life is not too bad. I have a bamboo bed, a blanket, plenty of water, a few too many mosquitoes. The food is fair-carabao, monkey, and occasionally mule. Everyone is content and in fairly good health. No need to worry.
We have plenty of room in which to maneuver and fight and we have plenty of it left in us. Turn the calf out to pasture. I'll be delayed a while.
The letter ran prominently, and without a hint of irony, in the Des Moines Register under the headline "Things Are Not Too Bad."
In truth, Hibbs had found monkey to be considerably less than fair. The meat was unappetizing in hue and appearance, and if one had to clean and prepare the animal, consuming it made one feel rather like a cannibal. Hibbs later wrote, "After chewing on a piece it seemed to increase in size, requiring resting of the masseter muscle. Most monkey meat got placed back in our mess kits pretty much undisturbed." As trying as monkey was, the menu on Bataan grew progressively stranger. Meals consisted of cats, slugs, rats, various dried insects, and the meat and eggs of python. Some Filipinos were known to eat dogs; the bow-hunting Igorot tribesmen who'd been brought in to teach the soldiers jungle survival skills were especially fond of a dish that might be described as hound haggis. "It was a custom to eat the stomach of a dog that had been gorged with rice before sacrificing it," Hibbs remembered. "The warm rice mixed with the mucus of the stomach was supposedly a delicacy."On the evening of April 8, 1942, "things" were most assuredly bad for Dr. Hibbs. As he sat shivering in the ditch, half lost in the throes of his fever, the vast volcanic jungle clinked and snapped and exploded with the sounds of an army deliberately destroying itself. With surrender imminent, the men had been given the order to ruin their weapons and sabotage any hardware that might prove valuable to the enemy. Men were firing their last rounds of ammunition into the air, detonating their grenades, covering their gun emplacements with brush, dismantling their rifles and mortars and artillery pieces part by part and scattering the miscellaneous components into the jungle. Troops were pouring sand into the gas tanks of jeeps and armored vehicles, or pulling the drain plugs from the oil pans while the engines were left running. On the labyrinthine network of tiny trails that spread like capillaries over the southern tip of Bataan, the soldiers were not so much casting down their weapons as they were obliterating them, in preparation for General King's expected announcement of capitulation.Suddenly the night erupted in a series of explosions that Hibbs described as "apocalyptic." He was hearing, and feeling, the dying gasp of the U.S. Army Forces of the Far East: The demolition squads were blowing up the last of the big American ammunition dumps to keep them from falling into Japanese hands. For a time that evening, the southern tip of Bataan took on the sheen of day, and one could limn the complex outline of the peninsula, with its deep ravines and extinct volcanoes, its innumerable points and promontories fingering out into the sea. The mighty island fortress of Corregidor could be seen shimmering in Manila Bay. Cringing in his ditch, Dr. Hibbs tried to shield himself from the rain of dirt and rocks and shell fragments that fell out from the explosions. The dumps contained several million dollars' worth of explosives-hundreds of thousands of rounds of small-arms ammunition and artillery shells. The detonations of TNT were unimaginably powerful, and they more than aroused Hibbs from his febrile stupor. "It was the biggest fireworks display I'd ever seen, even bigger than the Iowa State Fair," Hibbs said. "With each blast, my body would bounce clear into the air."