World War II’s massive and destructive Pacific War needs no introduction; millions of families lost their beloved soldiers on those distant shores and in those stifling jungles. The Pacific theater covered thousands of miles, encompassing islands large and small, famous and forgotten, from Midway to Iwo Jima and Wake Island, and mainland battlefields such as China, and Burma.
With such an involving and long-winded battle, a devastatingly large number of prisoners of war suffered across the entire Pacific region. In one corner of the war’s deadly chess board, deep in the jungles of the Philippines, hundreds of Allied soldiers languished in terrible prison camps, believing they had been forgotten by their commanders and units back home. For the men of Camp O’Donnell, though, that could not have been further from the truth, as author Hampton Sides reveals in his very engrossing book, “Ghost Soldiers; The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission.”
The soldiers in Camp O’Donnell had suffered more than most, many of them survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March, which was the attempt by the Japanese to quickly relocate thousands of Allied prisoners from a recently captured Filipino city. The Japanese underestimated the numbers of prisoners they would have under their care, resulting in terrible conditions and inadequate food and water for the men who had to march for 75 miles in punishing heat. Many of the men were ill, malnourished, and wounded at the commencement of the march, which meant countless graves were dug along the route.
For those who survived the march, conditions at the prison camp continued to be atrocious and the men were quickly suffering from starvation and a myriad of illnesses and untended injuries. Morale was low and there was a sense that they had been left behind to die. What the men in the camp did not know is that an American guerrilla leader had informed the military authorities of the camp’s existence and the extreme suffering the men inside were experiencing. In spite of the existence of Japanese prison camps all across the Pacific theater, Camp O’Donnell became a high priority, and a daring, impossible, and top secret rescue mission was launched.
Sides’ book is the extremely in depth and riveting account of that very intricately planned and ultimately successful raid. The strategy needed careful planning, as so much could go wrong with the mission, since the majority of the approach had to take place in very exposed enemy territory. The author pulls together details of the hours leading up to the raid from accounts from both inside and outside the camp, making for a gripping read.
The newly formed elite Army Rangers were a carefully selected and trained team, all of whom were honored to be a part of the purely humanitarian rescue mission, a mission that did not have a strategic point, but it fulfilled a motivating fellowship goal. To this end, the Rangers and their Filipino supporters knew that their chances of success were slim, and the risk to their own lives was significant. This select group of fighters needed to maintain the element of surprise until the latest possible moment and detailed reconnaissance from their Filipino guerrilla comrades was a vital component for success.
In thrilling detail, Sides tells of the multiple needles the Rangers had to thread to sneak—often crawling on their bellies—to the perimeter of Camp O’Donnell and to strategic points along the roads where they anticipated a Japanese response once the raid commenced. Vastly outnumbered, the team knew they were facing a potential Thermopylae-style encounter with the enemy. But, motivation was high, and the men were willing to risk their lives to save their comrades, who the Allies feared were facing a quickly approaching potential date of execution by the Japanese, the kill order being a tactic in other regions in the Pacific theater as troops retreated from a battlefield.
Written with respect and heart, “Ghost Soldiers” is a remarkable tribute to the men who saved the lives of those soldiers who had felt their sacrifices in the war had gone unnoticed. Hampton Sides’s book reminds the reader that in a war filled with countless battles but few happy endings, there were times when the focus shifted from the big picture to the more intimate, personal stories. The miraculous raid on Camp O’Donnell was just such a moment.