Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 3 Nov 2010
Full Title: Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission
In the first chapter of the Pacific War, about 30,000 American and Filipino troops were tasked with the daunting task of fighting a delay action war at Luzon in the Philippine Islands, slowly withdrawing down the Bataan Peninsula while waiting for the reinforcement promised by Franklin Roosevelt which would never come. Many who survived the eventual defeat would become captured, and some would remain in the Philippine Islands in various prison camps, including one at Cabanatuan. Fast forward to 1945, a small group of United States Army Rangers was tasked with the daring mission of penetrating behind Japanese lines to rescue American prisoners of war from Cabanatuan.
Hampton Sides' Ghost Soldiers told the story of these two groups of men in a parallel fashion, generally alternating each chapter telling the two stories until the two came together in the final few chapters of the book when the raid took place. While on the topic of the captives, the story of starvation, disease, and plain abuse by the guards was harrowing, yet through his writing, it was often a story of the triumph of the human spirit and ingenuity shown by the survivors who had to live on so little and against all odds. On the other side of the token, he also discussed the consequence of losing the will to live and how the body would soon follow (which I found to be a topic often repeated in accounts of captivity across the world, whether a Japanese POW camp or a German concentration camp for Jews). Descriptions of various small details of various prisoners brought the ordeals suffered by the prisoners closer to the hearts of the readers, so that the collective story of the POWs was made personal, rather than just statistics of how many lived and how many perished.
While on the topic of the commando raid, the pace of the story picked up pace, switching gear to become a history of a military operation, complete with the telling of intelligence gathering, logistics planning, and of course the execution of the actual mission. These chapters were fast paced and action packed. Intertwined with the suffering of the prisoners, these chapters made the readers quietly urging the Rangers on, wishing that they would be able to successfully end the three-year-long nightmare for their fellow soldiers. Sides' was a good storyteller but he was not trained in military history, so the readers would have to excuse some of his at time erroneous attempts at explaining various military terms, but these mistakes should not take away from his primary goal in these chapters, which was to chronicle the daring special operation behind enemy lines.
I had reviewed Ghost Soldiers in its audio book format. I would have to admit that I chose this book initially because of the narrator, Michael Prichard, whose voice I had come to know and gotten accustomed to. His good timing and clear voice had since become my favorite. One small disappointment with his reading with this title was with the pronunciation of some of the Japanese words. In the previous audio books that he had read, his pronunciation of German terms, for example, leaned on the proper German pronunciation (as far as I could tell, anyway, not being a German speaker) even if those particular words already had a popular but yet incorrect pronunciation in the United States. Some of the Japanese words, with sake coming to mind, were read in the commonly incorrect manner. I was somewhat disappointed in that, as it would continue to reinforce the linguistic error. Sake, by the way, should be read with the ending "ke" sounding like "keh" and not like "key", thus it should be read as "sah-keh" rather than the common but erroneous "sah-key". Otherwise, Prichard had done the great job that I had come to expect and enjoy. Poking around on the web, I noticed that there was another attempt at creating an audio edition of this title, this time read by a gentleman by the name of James Naughton. I had not had the chance to review any work read by Naughton; I might have to search out this edition perhaps in a couple of years when I need a refresher on the Cabanatuan raid, and see how the two narrators might differ in their approaches in reading this book.
Knowing that a failed mission, or even the delay of the mission, might lead to a mass execution of the prisoners, the US Army Rangers raced against time to conduct this risky mission. Sides' Ghost Soldiers told the story in an exciting manner with rich historical facts and in an entertaining fashion. This book had its obvious shortcomings, but it was still considered a worthwhile read.
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945