I count myself fortunate to be the author of these newsletters for many reasons: it is a subject I am passionate about, but more than that, I get to read and discover books as a resource and continue to grow in my knowledge and expertise. Because of that, I have shelves, table tops, and corners covered in volumes about World War II history and the heroes that fought and suffered for our freedom and that of the world. In this issue, I would like to impart upon you various books that I have discovered or rediscovered. I hope you find something here that will inspire you.
As many of you know that have read these newsletters from the beginning, my favorite book is “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. This book changed my life. I do not use that phrase flippantly. This book altered the course of my life and changed my outlook on life. I highly recommend reading “Unbroken.” It is the unbelievable true story of Louis Zamperini.
In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war came, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown. Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will. In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.
A delinquent youth who became an Olympic star, a war hero, and a survivor…in every sense of the word. I won’t give away too much here. All I will say is read it. Hillenbrand is a brilliant author who flawlessly sews together history and keeps you on the edge of your seat in expectation. “Unbroken” reads like fiction, but opens your eyes to the past in a way no other writer can. Her thorough research and hours of interviews with Louie and many other are evident. Many people avoid reading biographies because they are typically slow and underwhelming, but the combination of this author and this man, his story is written in a way that keeps you running through the pages. If you enjoy this book, I recommend reading Louie Zamperini’s own books: “Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In” and “Devil at my Heels.”
After having my life changed by this book, I sought out other such unheard stories, particularly of POWs and the Pacific Theatre, two incredibly under read subjects. The amount of people who don’t know about the POW plight or the atrocities committed by the Japanese empire are astonishing. There is a book called “First Heroes” by Craig Nelson focused on the heroics of a group of 80 men: The Doolittle Raiders. If you are unsure what the Doolittle Raid is, issue 11 of these newsletters is dedicated to that topic. It is a good way to dip your feet in the water, but if you want to dive headfirst, read “First Heroes.” It is a thoroughly researched and beautifully told story of this historic and war changing event. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before. This book does a wonderful job showing the different struggles each plane and each crew faced during the Raid and throughout the war. Meticulously researched and based on interviews with twenty of the surviving Tokyo Raiders, this is a true account that almost defies belief, a tremendous human drama of great personal courage, and a powerful reminder that ordinary people, when faced with extraordinary circumstances, can rise to the challenge of history.
An excellent book to introduce you to the British military and their place in the war is “To End All Wars” by Ernest Gordon. He was in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. At the age of 24, Ernest Gordon was captured by the Japanese while escaping from Sumatra during World War II. Along with other British prisoners he was marched into the jungle to build the notorious “Railroad of Death” and the bridge over the river Kwai. Gordon vividly describes the appalling conditions of the prisoners’ camp and the inhumane treatment they received from the guards. The miracle is that in these horrific circumstances, seeds of faith among the men sow forgiveness, unselfishness, miraculous healing, and love. This is the gripping story of triumph and heroism.
Another wonderful book on the same subject is “The Forgotten Highlander” by Alistair Urquhart. Most books dealing with the Burma-Siam Railway or the Death Railway are by British POWs as they were the bulk of the Western Force building it alongside hundreds of thousands of Asiatic labourers. Alistair Urquhart was among the Gordon Highlanders captured by the Japanese in Singapore during World War II. He not only survived 750 days in the jungle working as a slave on the notorious “death railway” and the bridge on the River Kwai, but he was subsequently taken prisoner on one of the Japanese “hell ships” which was later torpedoed, killing nearly everyone on board—but not Urquhart. He spent five days adrift on a raft in the South China Sea before being rescued by a Japanese whaling ship. He was then taken to Japan and forced to work in a mine near Nagasaki. Two months later he was struck by the blast from the atomic bomb—dropped just ten miles away. In late August 1945, now a barely-living skeleton, he was freed by the American Navy and was able to bathe for the first time in three and a half years. This is the extraordinary story of a young man, conscripted at nineteen, who survived, not just one, but three separate encounters with death—encounters which killed nearly all his comrades. Silent for over fifty years, this is Alistair Urquhart’s extraordinary, moving, and inspirational tale of survival against the odds.
The Bataan Death March, on the other hand, was mostly American forces alongside Filipino soldiers. An excellent book dealing with this subject is “Tears in the Darkness” by Michael and Elizabeth Norman. For the first four months of 1942, U.S., Filipino, and Japanese soldiers fought what was America’s first major land battle of World War II, the battle for the tiny Philippine peninsula of Bataan. It ended with the surrender of 76,000 Filipinos and Americans, the single largest defeat in American military history. The defeat, though, was only the beginning, as Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman make dramatically clear in this powerfully original book. From then until the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the prisoners of war suffered an ordeal of unparalleled cruelty and savagery: forty-one months of captivity, starvation rations, dehydration, hard labor, deadly disease, and torture―far from the machinations of General Douglas MacArthur.
“Bataan Death March: A Survivor’s Account” by William Edwin Dyess and “Escape from Davao” by John D. Lukacs also deal with this difficult subject. Dyess’ name is relatively well known. He is a hero, particularly in Texas: the Dyess Air Force Base is named after him. The hopeless yet determined resistance of American and Filipino forces against the Japanese invasion has made Bataan and Corregidor symbols of pride, but Bataan has a notorious darker side. After the U.S.-Filipino remnants surrendered to a far stronger force, they unwittingly placed themselves at the mercy of a foe who considered itself unimpaired by the Geneva Convention. The already ill and hungry survivors, including many wounded, were forced to march at gunpoint many miles to a harsh and oppressive POW camp; many were murdered or died on the way in a nightmare of wanton cruelty that has made the term “Death March” synonymous with the Bataan peninsula. Among the prisoners was army pilot William E. Dyess. With a few others, Dyess escaped from his POW camp and was among the very first to bring reports of the horrors back to a shocked United States. His story galvanized the nation and remains one of the most powerful personal narratives of American fighting men. Shortly after his escape and return to the United States, Colonel Dyess was killed while testing a new airplane. He did not survive long enough to learn that he had been awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor.
An incredible book I am currently reading is “As Good As Dead” by Stephen L. Moore. In almost every book I have read about WWII up to this date has mentioned a tragic massacre on Palawan Island in the Philippines. This is that story. In late 1944, the Allies invaded the Japanese-held Philippines, and soon the end of the Pacific War was within reach. But for the last 150 American prisoners of war still held on the island of Palawan, there would be no salvation. After years of slave labor, starvation, disease, and torture, their worst fears were about to be realized. On December 14, with machine guns trained on them, they were herded underground into shallow air raid shelters—death pits dug with their own hands. Japanese soldiers doused the shelters with gasoline and set them on fire. Some thirty prisoners managed to bolt from the fiery carnage, running into a lethal gauntlet of machine gun fire and bayonets to jump from the cliffs to the rocky Palawan coast. By the next morning, only eleven men were left alive—but their desperate journey to freedom had just begun. “As Good as Dead” is one of the greatest escape stories of World War II, and one that few Americans know. The eleven survivors of the Palawan Massacre—some badly wounded and burned—spent weeks evading Japanese patrols. They scrounged for food and water, swam shark-infested bays, and wandered through treacherous jungle terrain, hoping to find friendly Filipino guerrillas. Their endurance, determination, and courage in the face of death make this a gripping and inspiring saga of survival. I highly recommend this read.
It is a truly wonderful thing to read biographies that read like fiction. More often than not, people associate biographies with being rather dry and dull, but when you have such heroic tales to tell, it’s hard to put these books down! You can find all of these on Amazon or Abebooks or even at your local library. I keep finding new, intriguing reads and topics. Check in on a later addition of this newsletter for further ideas of books to peruse or shows and movies to watch!