Escape from Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War.
NO ONE WILL EVER SET a sitcom like Hogan's Heroes in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Films as diverse as The Bridge over the River Kwai, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and Empire of the Sun have invariably driven home a world of harsh privations and the whimsical, self-righteous brutality of Japanese captors. Few managed to escape from these camps, and few of those who did have had their stories told. This double tragedy lies at the heart of Escape from Davao, John Lukacs's exceptional account of 12 men (10 Americans and 2 Filipinos) and a successful escape from the Davao Penal Colony in Mindanao, the easternmost island of the Philippines, in April 1943.
Any reader of this magazine would enjoy much of the book's narrative. The accounts of the early war in the Philippines, as the Japanese invaded and rolled up Allied forces, have a sense of tragic inevitability. Efforts to strike back, such as those by Captain Ed Dyess and other pilots launching attacks in nearly obsolete planes, are vivid and well-told. Lukacs confines his account of the Bataan Death March to the perspective of his subjects and includes every atrocity history associates with it: capricious slaughter, willful hardship, maimed prisoners, unnecessary deprivation, and summary beheadings. It confirms every wartime stereotype of Japanese barbarism.
The disturbing account of life at Camp O'Donnell, where the march ended, holds many lessons for later generations and deserves a history all its own (Richard Gordon's Horyo is a great starting point). Designed for a relatively small population, the camp was overwhelmed by the influx of defeated American and Filipino forces. Command and control broke down, and a black market flourished. It's no wonder that many of the prisoners who would eventually escape from Davao took any road out they could find.
When an agricultural penal colony in Mindanao sought workers, many O'Donnell prisoners volunteered, in hopes of more and better food, better conditions, and likely proximity to what should be the first Allied landing sites. There, along with less immediate privation, they found a prison camp with no walls, the task of containment having been trusted to the surrounding swamps, pests, and crocodiles. Soon, however, the men found themselves wasting away amid 90,000 acres of agricultural fields and paddies, and Dyess, McCoy, and others schemed to escape rather than die from starvation. Their effort eventually succeeded, and they hooked up with Filipino guerillas who took them to American officers. Most eventually traveled back to the United States by submarine.
One particular aspect of this great escape disturbs us decades later: Franklin Roosevelt himself ordered the men silent on their return. His motivations were to avoid inciting reprisals against remaining POWs and internees, to control public perception of the war effort, and to maintain support for the Europe-first war strategy. The result for the escapees was stern warnings and stonewalls from the Pentagon. Used to struggling with the enemy, they were not prepared to struggle with their own government; they experienced stress and, in at least one case, nervous breakdown.
The unpredictable aspects of Lukacs's book are the most memorable. When a civilian Japanese interpreter struck a prisoner in Davao, he was immediately struck by the camp commander, Major Kazuo Maeda, who maintained a monopoly on physical abuse. Dyess returned to flying only to die in his first test-flight of a P-38 Thunderbolt fighter. Of course, the most unpredictable element of the story is that after having endured so much peril and hardship, the escapees discovered their story was too dangerous to be publicized. And their disappointment did not end there. Rescuers sent to Davao in June 1944 to free the remaining prisoners found the camp depopulated. The prisoners had been distributed to other camps. Hundreds of them died in unwitting US attacks on unmarked prisoner transport ships.
In this book of individual triumph and collective failure, Lukacs's supple style must be noted. He writes vibrant prose and creates powerful action scenes. His subjects are memorable, from the aggressive warrior Ed Dyess and his impromptu air raid on Japanese shipping to Charles Parsons, the navy man who avoided Japanese capture by posing as a Panamanian diplomat. Despite the gloomy outcome of the story, Lukacs's skill as a storyteller makes this book very rewarding.
Flemington, New Jersey