Ghost Soldiers tells the story of how American and Allied POWs were rescued by US Army Rangers from a prison camp in Cabanatuan, Philippines during World War 2.

In April 1942, American troops surrendered to the Japanese on Bataan, and were then subjected to the horrors of the Bataan Death March. These were the POWs who wasted away for 3 years in Cabanatuan.

I love reading about history, especially World War 2 history. But it’s hard to find good books about the war in the Pacific. There’s no shortage of material on the European Theater and pivotal events like D-Day and The Battle of the Bulge. Stephen Ambrose alone wrote several marvelous books on these subjects. But when it comes to the Pacific Theater, it’s been a struggle to find anything that doesn’t read like a boring textbook crammed full of dates and lists of places.

Ghost Soldiers is the exception. The Philippines suffered brutally during the Japanese occupation, and to find a book detailing events that actually took place in our country is amazing. Because it focuses on just one event and not the broad aspects of the war, I learned so much more about an important part of our history.

The Bataan Death March

The Death March is something that we studied every year in school. But I don’t think we ever discussed why it happened. I always thought that it was just a cruel torture thought up by the Japanese. But the book details the events that led up to this. When Bataan fell, the Japanese grossly underestimated the number of Americans who surrendered. They didn’t have enough transportation to move the Americans out of the peninsula. But they needed to do it fast, because General Homma was under immense pressure from his superiors to start the attack on the neighboring island of Corregidor. The best spot to stage his attack was Bataan itself, so there was an urgency to move the thousands of troops away so the Japanese army can get into position. Thus they thought they would just command the Americans and Allies to march to the designated prison camps.

They did not think of the prisoners’ food requirements because they themselves were running low on rations. They did not consider that majority of the prisoners would be wounded and thus would struggle to even walk upright. There were no clear orders on how to orchestrate this massive movement, so the foot soldiers took the opportunity to abuse the prisoners. They randomly killed any prisoner who slowed down, and even massacred the Filipinos who took pity on them and offered food and water. Sometimes, the Japanese stopped the march in front of a well just to torture the prisoners and keep them from drinking what was literally right in front of them.

By 1945, things were turning in the Allies’ favor, and MacArthur had fulfilled his promise to return to the Philippines. It was around this time that US Army intelligence also found out about a disturbing trend – when the Japanese found out that the US Army was about to advance in their territory, they would kill all the prisoners they could rather than release them. This was why the rescue of the Cabanatuan camp was planned. The Army did not want to risk losing the POWs to a mass killing. MacArthur was also personally invested in this prison break because it’s said he felt guilty for having to abandon the survivors of Bataan three years previously.

Local heroes

The local resistance was active in helping the prisoners of war, smuggling in the basic items they needed such as medicines and clothing. The chaplains even requested bibles for their services. Groups led by Margaret Utinsky and Claire Phillips bought up all the calamansi (a local citrus fruit) in the market to make Vitamin C concentrates that helped the prisoners fight off diseases like scurvy. Utinsky and Phillips were eventually caught by the Japanese and tortured. (Though thankfully, they were released alive.)

Guerilla leaders Juan Pajota and Eduardo Joson were also instrumental in the success of the raid itself. They engaged the Japanese troops around the camp, which allowed the Rangers the time they needed to get the prisoners out. Author Hampton Sides even points out how the Americans were amazed how Filipinos were willing to risk their lives for them. But based on what I did learn in school, coupled with the few stories my mom was willing to tell, it’s clear that to the Filipinos the Americans were true allies.

One of my favorite books

Building up the suspense

My favorite part of the book is probably its structure. Each chapter alternately tells the story of the POWs from their surrender on Bataan to their imprisonment, then the story of the Army Rangers from their training to the night of the rescue. This builds up the story until the climactic last few chapters when the stories of the two groups converge. When we get to the day of the raid, we know all the players very well so we are heavily invested in their fates. We now have a personal stake in the action.

Reading how it all went down will make you think that it’s pure fiction, that it’s too unbelievable, or that it’s too “Hollywood”. The amazing thing about it is that it really happened. All the odds were supposed to be against the Rangers – the camp itself was situated on a flat plain with no cover in the surrounding terrain; there was a major road used by Japanese troops right in front of the camp; there were not enough vehicles to transport the prisoners should they succeed. But somehow, through a combination of ingenuity and sheer luck, everything came together.

This is one of my favorite books and one I reread regularly and talk about all the time. And if you’re an avid student of history, I highly recommend that you add it to your bookshelf as well.