by Sukey HowardJuly, 2001
This seems to be the season for reliving war stories, especially those of WWII. There's been a barrage of books, from histories and memoirs to stunning stories of courage and survival. Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission, written by Hampton Sides and read by James Naughton, is one of the most stunning and moving of all. In January 1945, as General Douglas MacArthur's Sixth Army was driving hard to retake Manila, they discovered that a "fragile obstacle" stood in the way. The obstacle was a sordid prison camp that housed an "elite of the damned," the remaining American soldiers who had survived the Bataan Death March only to spend the next three years starving, slaving and living in unbelievable squalor. There was no true military reason to attempt a rescue, but emotion ruled over reason. A highly risky enterprise was planned and carried out by an untested unit known as the Sixth Ranger Battalion. Sides skillfully weaves together stories of these desperate prisoners, their bold saviors and the background history as he details this amazing raid.
In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors, read by Boyd Gaines, is Doug Stanton's charged, crackling chronicle of the worst disaster at sea in U.S. naval history. On July 30, 1945, a Japanese submarine torpedoed the battle cruiser USS Indianapolis in the waters of the Pacific. Hundreds died immediately, and close to 900 men were cast into the sea to battle sharks, hypothermia, mental and physical exhaustion. Only 317 men survived the five-day struggle. Charles McVay, the ship's captain, was court-martialed for having failed to follow evasive maneuvers, and in 1968, he killed himself. In 2000, 55 years after his career had been destroyed, McVay was exonerated, something for which many of his crew had worked tirelessly. Much has been revealed in newly released government documents, but the in-depth details come from interviews with survivors who keep alive the commitment to honor, courage and dignity.
War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll, is exactly that, extraordinary in content and presented by an extraordinary, star-studded cast. The first of these previously unpublished letters reach back to the Civil War; the most recent missives are from the Balkans. In between come WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and Somalia. Together they form a kind of national autobiography, an unfiltered history of hellish times told in fragments of real life experience, recorded by first-hand witnesses. They are grim and they are brave; they reflect rage, despair, tedium, fear and the horror of seeing and being part of all that carnage. But then there is the pride, the passion, the patriotism, the timeless sense of honor and duty felt not only by the men and women who served but also by the parents who sent them off.