Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"Rescue at Los Banos" by Bruce Henderson (2015)

The next time you feel any guilt at all about the internment of Japanese-Americans civilians in America during the Second World War, read this book. Or just look up the history about Los Banos, and then see if you feel the same.

While the American run camps for the Japanese-Americans resembled small towns; complete with high schools, ball teams, elected representatives and even ice cream along with 3 full meals a day; the American civilians in the Philippines were faring far worse; denied access to even the wild fruits and vegetables which grew just outside the fence while the Americans starved, looking at the very food which could have saved their lives.

Fans of prolific non-fiction author Bruce Henderson (count me among them) will dive headfirst into his newest book, which was released this past spring. His style of writing, simple and to the point; coupled with his knack for ferreting out all the smallest minutiae of the topic on which he is writing; serve well to keep the reader riveted.

In this history of the rescue of the American, British and Dutch civilian prisoners (there were actually 7 other nationalities represented in the camps population) he uses both of these skills to tell not only the story of the prisoners and how they got there, but also the story of the formation of the American Paratroopers who rescued them in the end.

In the midst of all the suffering and misery there were stories that need to be remembered; if only to underscore the tenacity of the human spirit. Just as in everyday life, when all is normal, there were individuals who stood out among the rest. Jerry Sams was one of those. He had a knack for mechanics and radios. As a result he lived in comparative “luxury” in the camp. He had a hot plate, a refrigerator and his carpentry skills made it possible for him to transform his small cubicle into a more habitable place.

His saga is also the story of Margaret Sherk, an American woman with a son, whose husband was imprisoned separately from her. She and Jerry Sams fell in love and had a daughter together in the camp. This is one of the most interesting parts of the book, as it sheds light on a subject not often addressed in war memoirs about POW’s. What happens to the relationships between husbands and wives separated for long periods of time; and how do they cope with the unexpected circumstances of that separation?

This is also the story of a group of Paratroopers from the 511th who fought from Thanksgiving to Christmas morning 1944 behind enemy lines. On the way back to camp, after having no regular meals for 31 days, and precious little sleep, they realize its Christmas. After 31 days of non-stop killing someone begins singing “Come All Ye Faithful” in a small voice. Within moments the entire platoon was singing as they trudged through the mud, carrying their wounded. Many of these men would suffer for the rest of their lives with flashbacks and nightmares; which we now call PTSD. One of these men found a unique way to cope with his demons. He wrote short stories. That man was Private Rodman Serling. He would go on to great fame as the creator of the television series “The Twilight Zone.”

And somehow, the author has even managed to recount the history of the advance mission conducted by Paratroopers in retaking the Philippines and fulfilling General MacArthur’s promise of “I shall return.” There are heroes of all shapes and sizes in this quickly read and highly informative book.

For the story of how well we treated our Civilian internees in America you can do no better than to read “Last Train to Crystal City” by Jan Jarboe Russel, but be prepared; the author likens us to the barbarians which the Japanese and Germans really were.

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