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Tears in the Darkness

A balanced, beautifully written book about the horrors of the Bataan Death March.

By Terry Hartle / July 8, 2009



Hours after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they attacked the Philippine Islands. The American and Filipino defenders were not well trained or equipped, and they were quickly pushed into the mountainous Bataan peninsula

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They fought bravely and tenaciously, but on April 9, 1942, outnumbered, low on ammunition, and worn down by hunger and disease, 76,000 troops surrendered. It was the largest army under American command ever to have been captured.

The prisoners were marched 66 miles under a blazing sun without adequate food, water, or medical assistance. They were subjected to brutal treatment by the Japanese guards. Those who could not keep up were simply killed – shot or decapitated – by death squads. Thousands – nobody knows how many for sure – died. The episode quickly became known as the Bataan Death March.

Those who survived were thrown into prisoner-of-war camps. The Japanese had little respect for soldiers who surrendered and, because Japan had not signed the Geneva Conventions on the fair treatment of prisoners of war, they did not worry much about those in their care. Food and clean water were scarce; toilets and beds were nonexistent; medical care was primitive; and discipline was swift, brutal, and capricious.

Eventually, those who remained alive were packed into overcrowded freighters called “hellships” and shipped to the Japanese mainland. Once again, food, water, medical care, and sanitation were inadequate and untold thousands died en route. In some cases, the prisoners were packed so tightly into dark cargo holds that they suffocated.

Finally, those who survived all this found themselves working 14-hour shifts in slave labor camps until the war ended.
Tears in the Darkness, written by Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman, is the definitive account of this exceptionally grim chapter of human history. Many books have examined World War II in the Philippines – the invasion, the death march, the prison camps, the hellships – but none of them pack the punch of or are as beautifully written as this compelling volume. This is “can’t-put-it-down” history.

The book is organized around the experiences of Ben Steele, a young cowboy from Montana who joined the Army Air Corps in 1940 at his mother’s suggestion. Assigned to Manila after basic training, he soon sent his mother a letter that concluded, “I have never felt better in my life and am having a swell time.... This will be one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

His assumption was misguided, but correct.

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