A soldier's true tale of amazing grace

The Hotel Tacloban, by Douglas Valentine. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill & Co. 175 pp. $12.95.

Early in 1945, the United States Army destroyed Douglas Valentine's papers and issued new ones. He was issued a new serial number, a new date of induction, and a new record of service. All traces of his service in New Guinea and the long months as a POW in the Philippines, including his medical record, disappeared. Then he was given an honorable discharge.

This book explains why.

Special circumstances surround its composition. Almost 50 years after the event, Valentine's physician urged him to tell the truth about his war experience. His physical condition, never sound since he contracted malaria in New Guinea, had been complicated by nightmares and delusions rooted in what happened to him there and in the Philippines.

About this time young Douglas Valentine Jr. returned from college, a ready writer. So the ''I'' of the book is Douglas Sr. speaking through Douglas Jr. The fusion is practically seamless.

Reduced from 22 tapes and 400 pages of typescript, the resulting book is what Douglas Jr. described to me recently as ''a POW of a book, lean, hungry.'' The author's deep admiration for his father (they had been estranged during the Vietnam war years) combines with his keen, inquisitive mind to produce an unforgettable reading experience.

This is an antiwar book that raises real questions about leadership. But it is more than that. It provides a powerful reminder of why the atomic bomb presented a feasible solution during the last terrible days of World War II.

There are further ironies. Valentine describes how he lost his faith when his best friend died in his arms in the waters off New Guinea. But then something happened in the camp that reveals the difficulty of stopping the action of faith.

The camp - called Hotel Tacloban - was run by a collaborating, sadistic British major hated by the Australians (who constituted the majority of prisoners - Valentine was the only American), and no doubt held in secret contempt by the other British prisoners. Valentine broke one of the major's trivial, infuriating rules. The major turned the boy over to the Japanese. He was ordered to stand in the hot sun, gagged, bound hand and foot, and stripped, and told that if he fell it would be the end of him.

He did fall. Guards kicked and clubbed him. His Australian pals, who had shouted encouragement as long as he was upright, now distracted the nervous Japs with their rendition of ''Amazing Grace.'' For his part, Valentine repeated the Lord's Prayer and the twenty-third Psalm, aware that he had become unaccustomed to doing so.

He describes how he was then ordered ''by a remote voice'' to rise: ''Hands felt gently beneath me, lifting me off the ground, and even though my hands and feet were bound - even though I had been beaten senseless - I found myself standing.'' Even the guards who had beaten him ''felt chastened and stood in awe.''

This is the turning point of the book. The Australians, emboldened by this and other examples of the major's treachery, plotted to kill him. Valentine was made lookout. The execution went off without a hitch. But Valentine had become accomplice to a crime, a breach of military law equivalent to mutiny on the high seas. It was not long after his rescue that merciless interrogations began. Even the doctors conspired. They kept from him a knowledge of the origin of his nightmares and delusions.

In a surprising, ironic reversal, however, Valentine was not executed, or even prosecuted. Instead his history was rewritten.

After the dust settles, ''The Hotel Tacloban'' will be there, bearing witness to man's inhumanity to man, to the impotence of pain, and to the durability of the love of father and son. It sheds light on these dark times. Read it.

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