It's going to be a good spring," so says writer and native Memphian Hampton Sides, and for good reason. Make that two good reasons.
One: Next month his anthology Why Moths Hate Thomas Edison: And Other Urgent Inquiries Into the Odd Nature of Nature (Outside Books), based on a popular question-and-answer column he wrote or edited for Outside magazine, will hit bookstores. Two: This month a project perhaps nearer his heart and called Ghost Soldiers (Doubleday) lands in stores, lands its author on the Today show (May 25th), and lands the book a full-page ad (with kind words from the likes of David Halberstam and Jon Krakauer) in the May 18th New York Times.
These aren't Sides' first forays into publishing. His first job was at Memphis magazine as a college intern from Yale and his first book, Stomping Grounds: A Pilgrim's Progress Through Eight American Subcultures, he admits "didn't go anywhere" (except out of print). But with this spring's two titles Sides may be about to make it big-time and with built-in audiences.
That's especially true in the case of Ghost Soldiers, which tracks the lives of the men who, having survived the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines in 1942, went on to become POWs of the Japanese inside the largest continuously-running prisoner of war camp in Asia. That camp, outside the city of Cabanatuan, was also the largest American POW camp ever established on foreign soil, with an estimated 12,000 U.S. soldiers passing through its gates and a full quarter of them buried beyond its barbed wire. The daring rescue of the roughly 500 sick and starving men still inside the camp in January 1945 -- a surprise rescue engineered by the U.S. Army Sixth Ranger Battalion under the leadership of Colonel Henry A. Mucci, with equal help from a band of Filipino guerrillas -- makes it, as the book's subtitle declares, "The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission."
Dramatic? Without question, according to Sides' expert rendering of the challenges facing the rescuers at every stage of the operation. Forgotten? No, if we mean the men who survived Cabanatuan's horrendous conditions; yes, if we mean generations since the war who know the phrase "Bataan Death March" and not much more. Sides knows this because, before launching into this three-year project, he was among the latter.
"I knew that Bataan was somewhere over in Asia, and it was something horrible," Sides, 39, explained in an interview from his home in Santa Fe. "But I honestly didn't know if it involved Americans or Brits or Australians or what."
Having made the decision to write about Bataan, however, he quickly realized that the Death March alone would not make a whole book. "Where were the men marched to?" the author had to ask himself. "A lot of people have the idea, well, it was over, not realizing that the march was really just the beginning," Sides said. "The men had to get through three years of the camp, and the deaths just kept coming. If anything, the deaths got worse. But I couldn't figure out how to end the thing. How did these men get out? I couldn't just leave them in this dire situation. Then someone said, 'Well, there's the raid on Cabanatuan.' And I said, 'The what?' I could not believe this wasn't a famous piece of American history, like Teddy Roosevelt and Cuba, or the Alamo."
Sides doesn't describe himself as a war buff "at all," and in Ghost Soldiers he doesn't pretend to be one. A "general-interest person" is more his line but a person with a specific interest in the question of survival.
"Here I was at Outside magazine writing and editing stories about all sorts of bizarre adventures and esoteric human-endurance stories -- what I call 'synthetic suffering': people concocting bizarre ways to put themselves through trials and tribulations. Crossing deserts and oceans. Pogo-sticking up Mt. Everest without oxygen. But Ghost Soldiers is a human-endurance story that's authentic. Men thrown into a situation with a huge scope, on a huge scale. I came into this story interested in who survives, who doesn't, and why, more than I did with any great interest in military history." (Military histories being by and large, in Sides' words, "a genre full of hacks, bad storytellers, or really technical writing.")
But how to explain the disappearance of the Cabanatuan camp and the rescue of its prisoners from the minds of most Americans?
"When this raid happened, it got a lot of press for about two weeks," Sides said. "And then Iwo Jima happened, and then Okinawa, and then Hiroshima. It just got overshadowed by larger events in World War II."
Overshadowed at the time too by the very real fear that American forces imprisoned elsewhere in Asia could become targets of further mistreatment by the Japanese. Or is it more a matter of generations?
"People didn't like to talk about horrible things they went through in war situations. The men themselves didn't like to talk about it much," Sides said. "Not because it was horrible but because of a generational tendency toward reticence. I kept running into this with all these guys I interviewed. You go through the most amazing stories with them, and they say, 'You don't want to know about that.' And I'd say, 'No, I do! I really do!' Whereas maybe the Vietnam generation talked too much."
Hampton Sides, for his part, intends to talk, just as he listened to Cabanatuan survivors, their rescuers, and the Japanese themselves.
Among those rescuers was a Memphian, Robert Anderson ("an amazing guy," according to Sides), whose war record and remembrances form the cover story in this month's Memphis magazine. And among the Filipino rescuers there was critical help from guerrilla captains Juan Pajota and Edwardo Joson. I asked the author if he talked to them too.
"No, they're both dead," Sides said. "Pajota particularly bore the brunt of the fighting and was really kind of the unsung hero of this raid. There was a lot of publicity immediately after it -- in The New York Times and through the AP, The Times of London, and Time, Life, Newsweek. I went back and dug up all that stuff. The guerrillas aren't even mentioned. It was like rah-rah America, we kicked ass, but we couldn't have done it, on any level, without the help of the guerrillas, the civilians they mustered, and the water buffalo carts they were able to get and pieces of intelligence they provided. I don't know if you'd call it racist, but it was a sign of the times: The people who probably helped the most weren't even mentioned."
But mention Cabanatuan in today's Japan and what do you get? Sides, who won a fellowship to Japan in the course of his research, found the Japanese willing to talk but still somewhat perplexed by his emphasis on America's experience in the war.
"I'd been talking to a lot of American veterans, and they were almost uniformly skeptical of my trip: 'They won't even talk to you. No way! They don't even know [Cabanatuan] happened.' But, no, the Japanese talk about the war all the time. It's a little bit like the Civil War in the South.
"This is a war that took over 2 million Japanese lives. It rearranged the floor plans, the architecture of every major city. The war affected every Japanese person in a way the Second World War didn't come close to affecting us. So of course they talk about it. It just takes them a while to get started. It's an uncomfortable conversation, but it's lurking just underneath."
And the atrocities committed by the Japanese military during the war? "When the Japanese talk about war crimes they tend to focus most of their energy on China because even before we got into the war they'd been fighting in China for 10 years," Sides explained. "The scale and the enormity of the atrocities that were perpetrated in China dwarf anything that happened to Americans or Brits. So when you come as an American and talk to the Japanese about war crimes, they're a little bit confused. They almost forget Bataan, the prisoner-of-war camps. China doesn't let them forget. But for an American to say, Well, you know, there was this thing called the Death March in Bataan and what about the way you treated American POWs, it's just sort of barely on their radar screens. It's almost blind-siding them."
Ghost Soldiers could remedy that, even if, as its own author admits, his pages on life inside Cabanatuan can be "grotesque."
"But there's no other way to tell it," said Sides. "Some of what these people were going through is so bleak." Which led the author to alternate his chapters on camp conditions with hour-by-hour, then minute-by-minute preparations for the release of its prisoners, an action tale "to ventilate" the grim depiction of prison life. Otherwise, according to Sides, "it would be hard for readers to get through it. It would be hard for me to get through it if I were reading it cold."
"This isn't a chipper book by any means," he added, "but something I'm going to talk about on my book tour is something every one of these POWs told me: that what they think got them through is a sense of humor. Little pranks. Ways of striking back in amusing ways. Even as difficult as this book is to get through, the humor that these people were able to find, some of it gallows humor ... it was important. Maybe in some cases the most important factor in their survival." Sides may have felt he was "steering a 747" during the composition of Ghost Soldiers, the first of his books with a true narrative, a beginning, middle, and end, but it's one he found "ungainly," "complicated," "a little hard on the spirit."
That was then, however. This is now, meaning his upcoming book tour, but as Sides said, "This is going to be an easy book for me to promote, because I believe everybody should know what these guys went through and how they got out of it. It's an aspect of the war that was given short shrift.
"We Americans like to think of ourselves as invincible. We don't lose wars, we don't even lose battles. We don't give up. We don't surrender. Here's a case where we did surrender, and we went through horrors. ... When people think of World War II they tend to think of a few battles in Asia, but certainly the limelight has been trained on Europe. And for whatever reasons, this is a part of the story of the war that kind of got swept aside. It's the story within the story of the Philippines that got buried over the years. ... I say it's their, the men's story. I just threaded it together."
Something also says that Sides' former teacher and late mentor at Yale, John Hersey, author of the World War II classic Hiroshima and author of a book (Men On Bataan) unknown even to Sides when he embarked on Ghost Soldiers , the same Hersey who was in the Philippines right up to America's evacuation, would understand.