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Wednesday, 20 January 2010 16:12

A tale of both despair and hope

Written by 

Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath by Elizabeth and Michael Norman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. 480 pages

In the summer of 1966 I worked one day a week as a volunteer in Winston-Salem’s Baptist Hospital. One of my jobs was to transport patients from their rooms to the X-ray department, and then back again.

On this particular day, the patient whom I was helping to transport by stretcher was an old man with white hair and very pale skin. He wiggled gingerly from his bed to the stretcher, where he lay on his back, his bony fingers clasped together on his chest, breathing the way older people do who have lost a part of their capacity for breath. His chart lay on the foot of the stretcher, and as we went down on the elevator I glanced at it and began reading from a long list of ailments: beriberi, rickets, malaria. The other orderly, a middle-aged man, nodded at the man when I looked up.

“Bataan,” he said.

It was all he needed to say. Although many young people today might find that orderly’s utterance nonsensical, back then everyone knew about the Death March of Bataan. Lying on this stretcher was a man who had walked through hell and lived to tell the tale.

In Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, $30, ISBN 978-0-374-27260-9), Elizabeth and Michael Norman take us back to the spring of 1942, when Japanese forces were chopping up the American military throughout most of the Pacific. They bring us to the Philippines and show us how the Japanese, with a smaller force, effected the surrender of 76,000 American and Filipino soldiers, the single largest defeat on a battlefield in American history. Using both Japanese and American eyewitness accounts, they then reveal with gruesome detail how the Bataan Death March left thousands of these prisoners of war dead within a week.

The eyewitness whose testimony is key to Tears in the Darkness is young Ben Steele, a Montana cowboy who joined the Army for some excitement and for money shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After basic training, Steele began studying for the Army Air Corps pilot examination, but was then ordered in October of 1941 to go with his unit to the Philippines. Less than six months later, he found himself fighting for his life, first against the Japanese as enemy warriors, then against them as brutal captors, and finally against a host of tropical diseases which brought him within an inch of death.

When the Japanese captured the tens of thousands of Americans and Filipinos, these men had already been living for months on reduced rations. Now, without water or rations, the Japanese forced their captives to march for nearly a week to holding areas in another part of Luzon. Prisoners who collapsed were bayoneted on the spot. Truckloads of Japanese passing the columns of staggering men amused themselves by swinging golf clubs and rifles at their heads. In some cases, hundreds of prisoners were simply marched into jungles, bayoneted or beheaded, and then rolled, some of them still living and begging for mercy, into mass graves.

Illness, the boiling sun, and flies attracted by the stink and decay of the death march also took their toll. The Normans write that:

“Thousands of men were suffering from dysentery, and the ground where the prisoners were forced to sit and sleep became coated with layers of excrement, mucus, urine, and blood .... Hundreds of men, meanwhile, never made it to the latrines; they stumbled into the compound too enervated, too far gone to take another step. Helpless against the exigencies of the disease — the wrenching cramps and resistless urge to evacuate — they soiled themselves where they stood right through their clothing, then lay down half conscious in a pool of their own filth.”

Many men died on the march; many more died in the camps in which they lived for the rest of the war. Bob Steele barely survived, fighting malaria, beriberi, and starvation. When he did recover, the young man from Montana took up drawing. He found an engineer among his fellow captives who taught him perspective and vanishing point, and put down in charcoal, pencil, and pen drawings of the sufferings and indignities of his fellow prisoners. The Normans have wisely incorporated these drawings, scattering them throughout this history to add to its immediacy.

Though the authors go to great lengths to explain Japanese savagery and their contempt for the lives of their prisoners — the Normans tell us how overwhelmed the Japanese were by the sheer number of prisoners they had captured, and they carefully explain how the Japanese view of warfare included despising anyone who surrendered — Tears in the Darkness still has the power to enrage its readers. All war involves savagery of some sort, but the Japanese, nearly en masse, seemed on this occasion to find savagery exhilarating (it is significant that the Normans quote many different Japanese soldiers in regard to the fighting on Luzon, but none in regard to the death march itself).

Tears in the Darkness, with its ghastly catalogue of murder and disease, may appear a dismal candidate for reading, but about halfway through the book, the astute reader will begin to note not only the inhumanity of man to man, but also the great resilience of man himself. We find ourselves shocked not only by the violence and cruelty, but also by the toughness of men, by their will for survival and even triumph.

Tears in the Darkness should also be read as a reminder to all Americans that though the cost of victory in war is high, the cost of defeat is higher still.

(Jeff Minick is a teacher and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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