Of all the sad dates that cloud U.S. military history, April 9, 1942, must rank as one of the most devastating. In the Philippines, with his troops racked by disease, surrounded and facing annihilation, U.S. Army Major General Edward King surrendered his 78,000 American and Filipino soldiers and 20,000 Filipino civilians to an overwhelming Japanese force.
Then began the notorious Bataan Death March. Herded by their captors, the prisoners slogged, limped and dragged their comrades through the fierce jungle for 55 miles. Then they were jammed into railroad cars for some farther distance, and finally marched eight more miles to a prison camp.
By the time they were locked up, their number had dwindled to 54,000. Almost three years later, only 513 skeletal, tortured, disease-ridden soldiers remained. How they were rescued is recounted in Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides (Doubleday; 342 pages; $24.95). That they were rescued at all is near miraculous.
The saviors were a brave company of men from the 6th Ranger Battalion. With the help of Filipino guerrilla bands, the Rangers slipped into the Japanese-held jungle and threaded their way around Japanese encampments to the prison, shot their way through the gates and, after a bloody firefight, hustled all the prisoners onto waiting buffalo carts for the journey back to safety.
Sides tells his story dramatically, cinematically, in fact, switching scenes between prison life and the Rangers' activities, almost to the point of confusion. Nevertheless, it's a tale worth telling, which in this case was helped by several surviving, self-proclaimed Ghost Soldiers.
--By Jesse Birnbaum