Little, Brown & Company, £12.99 stg
The US army lost the Philippines in April 1942. Cut off from any escape route, and without a navy for support, the American soldiers left behind became prisoners of war. They were forced to march 75 miles through thick jungle terrain without water, medical attention or any trace of humanity from their captors. The average mortality rate during the march was 500 a day. Those who survived were sent to various prison camps, the largest and worst of all being Cabanatuan.
In 1945 when the US were retaking the Philippines the able bodied prisoners of the camps were shipped to Japan to work in the mines, leaving the sick and disabled behind. Those remaining in Cabanatuan numbered a little over 500 men. The 6th Ranger Battalion, under Lt. Colonel Mucci, were ordered to trek 30 miles behind enemy lines and rescue the prisoners before the Japanese executed them all. This historical story deals with the awful suffering of the American prisoners of war over their three-year captivity and of the near mythical task of saving the survivors from the brink of death.
In this, Hampton Sides' first book, he demonstrates thorough research and attention to detail. He alternates between portraying the terrible experiences of the POWs and the action packed rush to save them. The chapters dealing with the Rangers rescue mission are fascinating and filled with heroism while the chapters dealing with the prisoners captivity over the three years are horrifying and as the books continues they become very wearing.
Sides inclusion of minutia throughout the book is a two edged sword. It expertly plunges you into the swampy, fearful world of the Philippines in wartime while at the same time weakening the story with the fatigue of absorbing it all. While understanding the diseases the prisoners were likely to contract helps you empathise with their plight, reading about every symptom each time a new character is introduced seems unnecessary.
Overall it is a fascinating, if difficult, read and for those with an interest in history or warfare it is probably worth having on your shelf. For those of you without such an interest you might find it too much by the end of the book.