California Literary Review

Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman

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July 13th, 2009 at 10:06 am

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Ben Steele prison photograph

Ben Steele, official prison photograph:
Ominemachi coal mine prison work camp, fall 1944

[Courtesy of Ben Steele]

Tears In The Darkness by Michael Norman
Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath
by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Brutality, Heroism and Survival

In its more graphic passages, Tears In The Darkness (from the Japanese anrui, “tears in the darkness” or “hidden grief” ) holds the same power to fascinate and repulse as does the carnage of a plane crash. Yet this book provides much more than the stories of the torture, starvation, and the mayhem visited on American and Filipino prisoners of war by the Japanese. Michael and Elizabeth Norman repeatedly focus on the lives of individual participants, both American and Japanese, from junior enlisted men to commanding generals. This required an impressive feat of ressearch, both in the U.S., Japan, and the Philippines, research that took a full decade.

Ben Steele is featured as an example of the Americian enlisted servicemen. He grew up on a hardscrabble sheep ranch in Montana. He joined the Army Air Corps at age 23 in 1940. In 1941 he found himself at Clark Field northwest of Manila.

The Philippines is an archipelego of some 7,100 islands stretching on a roughly north-south axis between Formosa to the north and Indonesia to the South. It is a land of extensive beaches, mountains and plains, a scattering of active volcanoes, and densely knitted, near impassible rainforest over much of its surface. Luzon is the Philippines largest island. At slightly over 40,000 square miles, it approximates the size of Kentucky. Bataan is a 20 by 25 mile penninsula on Luzon’s western side.

The American forces in the Philippines, primarily the Army Air Corps at Clark Field and the coastal artillery units and U.S. Marines on Corregidor, plus fledgling Philippine units lived a bucolic life, more concerned about liberty call at noon and the time spent with their concubines and drinking beer in and around Manila than army life and military preparedness.

On the first fateful day of U.S. entry into WW II, word filtered across the Pacific to the Philippines that the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor had been attacked. This was ballyhooed as rumor, ”just another training exercise.” Six hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the sprawling American air base, Clark Field, was attacked by a swarm of Japanese fighters and bombers based in Formosa. When the sixty enemy bombers and forty five Zeros came winging in, Japanese pilots who had expected to be met in the air by defending aircraft looked down to see, to their amazement, neat rows of American aircraft parked on the aprons. With minor exceptions, the American aircraft were blown to bits.

Ben Steele Bataan illustration

[Illustration courtesy of Ben Steele]

As well as mounting an air attack on Clark Field, Japan’s 14th Imperial Army, landed infantry and tanks at the Lingayan Gulf in northernmost Luzon. In addition, a secondary force came ashore on the beach of nearby Lamon Bay. Those forces, battle hardened from the war in China, then proceeded to fight their way down the central plain of Luzon. The opposititon at first was primarily the Philippine Scouts, then part of the U.S. Army. There were also a few U.S. Army units proper. Astoundingly enough, the Philippine Scouts were mounted cavalry, and so poorly supplied that their helmets were made of coconut husks. They resisted manfully, but Japanese tanks were brought up and effortlessly blasted their way through. The remnants of the allied forces from northern Luzon and Clark Field retreated to Bataan, fighting off Japanese forays as they went.

This continued fighting retreat for allied forces persisted for the four bloody months from December 1941 to April of 1942. In an astounding oversight, General MacArthur, by then en route to Corregidor, disregarded the logistical requirements of his retreating army. He left behind, in one example, 450 million bushels of wheat in a single warehouse despite his junior offices protestations. His starving soldiers ended up eating carabou—until all carabou were gone—then snakes, lizards, crows, whatever. The allied forces, lacking resupply and experience, were pushed back repeatedly, finally making their last stand on the tip of Bataan at the town of Mariveles.

Ben Steele Bataan illustration

[Illustration courtesy of Ben Steele]

The first major land battle of World War II ended on 9 April, 1942. In excess of 15,000 American soldiers and 60,000 Filipino soldiers were then under the direct command of Major General Edward “Ned” P. King, Jr. He proffered his pistol to the conquerers, Generals Masaharu Homma and Masanobu Tsuji, because his sword was unavailable. This concluded the largest surrender of armed forces in the history of the United States.

General Tsuji was the one most directly involved in the decisions on how to move the prisoners and how to treat them. The Japanese were either incapable or unwilling to transport that number of prisoners humanely. The soldiers, sick, malnourished, and injured, were ordered to walk the 66 miles to Camp O’Donell. Already exhausted starved, and dehydrated, they made their way along. Philippine civilians along the way risked their lives to passs food and drink to the marchers.

The allied POWs destination, Camp O’Donnell, proved to be a toxic petri dish of disease and pestilence. Food, clothing, sanitation and shelter ranged from inadequate to non-existent. Diseases included Malaria, Dengue Fever, Beriberi, and varieties of intestinal parasites and maladies. Multiple diseases were the rule for the prisoners. Death was a frequent visitor. Men scrounged rats, earthworms and other vermin and weeds for food. The camp was so overcrowded and lacking in sanirtary facilities that the prisoners were forced to lie in their own waste.

Ben Steele Bataan illustration

[Illustration courtesy of Ben Steele]

This pest hole of a prison camp was followed for many, including Ben Steele, by eventual transfer in the unventilated cargo holds of “Hell Ships” for transport to the Japanese mainland. Those who survived the voyage became slaves in various defense industries such as coal mining.

To be sure, there were those furtive, small and rare acts of mercy toward the prisoners by their captors such as the occasional small ball of rice, or some quinine pills for one suffering severely from malaria. Such deeds, infrequent as they were, were all the more impressive because they could get the merciful Japanese soldier beaten or killed by his superiors.

The final section of Tears In The Darkness, relating events after the Japanese surrender and the liberation of the prisoners, proved to be equally compelling. Military tribunals determined the fate of selected Japanese war criminals. Some, including some U.S. Supreme Court judges, held these trials to be “nothing more than ‘pretense,’ no better than ‘blood purges.’” Such issues the reader is left to decide for him or herself. A great strength of this book is that it provides both context and understanding toward that end.

The war was over. Ben Steele, held captive for one thousand, two hundred and forty-four days, was finally home. But Ben had one last battle to fight. He entered into a brief, ill advised marriage and divorced. He finished art school, remarried, obtained a masters degree and finally garnered an assistant professorship in art at Eastern Montana College in Billings. He was popular with his students and enjoyed his work. When he entered his classroom on the first day of the second semester, the first Japanese he had seen since the war was sitting in his classroom as a student. As he looked at the boy, Harry Koyama, with his almond eyes and yellow complexion, all the stored up hatred, bitterness, and devastation he had seethed within. He found out that the young man and his family had just been released from an American internment camp and assumed the boy hated him too. But reason prevailed. He invited Koyama to his office for a heart-to-heart talk. This cleared the air, and Harry Koyama became one if the best students in the class. Ben Steele’s long war was finally over.

Tears In The Darkness is enhanced by Ben Steele’s prison camp sketches. There are also photos of the primary characters.

This book movingly recounts an epic page in the story of the United States as well as how our Philippino allies came to be an independent nation.

Michael and Elizabeth Norman have written a meticulously crafted, memorable and moving book, one that may prove to be the defining work on the Battle of Bataan and the Death March.

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