Sunday, May 11, 2014

Book review: "Tears in the Darkness" by Michael and Elizabeth Norman

Perhaps you've heard of World War II's Bataan Death March and have a vague idea of how bad it was. Still, the reality was far worse than you can imagine.

In the compelling "Tears in the Darkness,"  authors Michael and Elizabeth Norman detail the horrific events that occurred on the Philippines' Bataan Peninsula in the spring of 1942.

It was on Bataan, after 76,000 American and Filipino troops surrendered to the invading Japanese army, that the vilest elements of hate and inhumanity emerged.

Some prisoners were tied up, repeatedly bayoneted in the torso, their dying bodies kicked into a ravine.

Men denied food and water on the hot 80-mile march to a prison camp collapsed in agony. If they failed to get up quickly enough, guards shot or stabbed them.

Men were herded into fetid, overcrowded holding pens, often forced to sleep on ground covered with excrement, mucus, urine and blood. Sick and ailing soldiers were tossed into graves while still alive, their comrades ordered to toss dirt on them. In all, some 7,000 to 10,000 men died on the march.

This is, of course, not the first book about the events on Bataan, but the Normans' account shines because of their consistent attention to detail and because they manage to find small stories of human persistence amid the bleak circumstances. In particular, they follow the story of American Ben Steele, who manages to survive not only the Death March, but further atrocities in Japanese prison camps.

One of the strongest elements of the book, at least in the first half of the book, is the fact that the Normans tell the story from Japanese perspectives as well as the Americans'. The viewpoints of the Japanese soldiers may be most fascinating, perhaps because they're rarely told.  (Disappointingly, the Japanese perspective almost disappears in the second half of the book.)

With its tales of American soldiers being abused in Japanese prison camps, "Tears in the Darkness" will draw obvious comparisons to the 2010 bestseller "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand.  But while the subject matter is similar, the stories of each are unique. I liked both books and it would be hard for me to recommend one over the other.

There's more to this book than the Death March. The Normans at first describe the bitter fighting in the Philippines, and note the little-remembered fact that the American and Filipino forces whipped the Japanese in the early stages. In fact, the Normans note, the besieged Americans and Filipinos would have been able to hold out for much longer except they failed to bring tons of stockpiled food to their Bataan positions. As it turned out, hunger was a main reason for the surrender on April 9, 1942.

The food screwup was the fault of General Douglas McArthur, say the Normans, a leader for whom the authors have no kind words. They portray him as an officer only interested in promoting himself and one whose leadership featured mismanagment and indecision.

"Tears in the Darkness" is an outstanding book, but it's not perfect. While the Normans do well providing perspectives from Americans and Japanese, there is little from the third party in the room: The Filipinos.

I'm also not sure that a chapter at the end that covers the post-war trial of Japanese general Masaharu Homma fits with this book. The section is interesting but in a book that focuses mostly on the experiences of lower-level soldiers the introduction of a general as a major character late in the story seems out of place. This chapter really should be the seed for a separate book.

If you're interested in the World War II events in the Philippines you might also consider "Escape from Davao" by John D. Lukacs. This book doesn't have the depth of "Tears in the Darkness," but the story of some Americans' daring escape from a Japanese prison camp is dramatic.

See also:
"What caused the Bataan Death March?"
"Vocabulary guide to 'Tears in the Darkness'"

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