The fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942, remains the single largest surrender of United States military forces in history, with roughly seventy-six thousand soldiers (most of them Filipino allies) handed over to Japanese captors. Japan’s attack on America’s Clark Air Base in the Philippines destroyed an entire airfield of unprotected planes and unprepared men. While the Pearl Harbor attack of four months earlier is universally acknowledged as a watershed moment of US involvement in the Pacific theater, Bataan, with its less heroic mix of humiliation at the hands of the enemy and betrayal by those in command, has remained shrouded in shame.
The aftermath of Bataan’s fall brought an event arguably greater in magnitude and horror than the troops’ surrender: the so-called Bataan Death March, a sixty-six-mile trek to prison camps in Luzon forced on the prisoners of war amid excruciating heat and murderous violence. The captives’ ordeal lasted well beyond the march proper—survivors were dispatched to hellish prison camps in the Philippines, and from there into overstuffed, underventilated holds of creaky transport ships bound for detention facilities on the Japanese mainland, where men were treated as slave laborers. Throughout, many died for simple want of water. The misery would end only with Japan’s surrender three years later, after the firebombing of its major cities and the decimation wrought by two atomic bombs.
Tears in the Darkness is far more humane and capacious than its often-brutal source material would lead readers to expect. Authors Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman frame their story in multiple contexts. A Montana-born cowboy type named Ben Steele is their protagonist, but to the authors’ credit, they never exploit his story for pathos or easy answers. He is a true survivor, with all the ugly guilt and second-guessing that entails: “It’s survival of the fittest,” Steele realized early on in the march while hoarding a single canteen of water. Nor does his individual saga obscure the key questions at the heart of the book: Why and how could this happen?
The Normans spent the past ten years finding answers, conducting interviews in three countries. By talking to Americans, Japanese, and Filipinos involved in this epic story of human indignity, the Normans have created our most compellingly balanced narrative of atrocity on the Pacific front. As the grotesque, intimate details of the march accumulate, one can’t help feeling pity. How could the Japanese force men, many of whom had dysentery, malaria, and related ailments, to walk sixty-six miles in the brutality of tropical weather and jungle terrain—in many cases to their dooms?
In a word (or a couple): They didn’t—at least not as an official policy. What is made clear by the Normans’ multivoice account is that the Japanese military was utterly unprepared to process so many captives in anything like an orderly or humane fashion. Japanese leaders anticipated POW numbers of approximately forty thousand, not the seventy-six thousand that came out of Bataan and Corregidor, the other US installation in the Philippines. The Japanese were understaffed, and their detention facilities were woefully inadequate. Tens of thousands of prisoners died of disease because no conventional medical care was available.
More insidious was Japan’s insistent parochialism. The country’s population in the 1930s and ’40s was emerging from decades of Tokugawa-era isolationism. Propaganda going back to the late nineteenth century declared the exceptional holiness of the archipelago and the monolithic core of its citizenry. The key feature of this insular creed was called yamato damashii, the essential, incorruptible Japanese spirit, as defined by the largely mythic Bushido ethos: the way of the samurai.
This mentality extended to the battlefield, creating soldiers who would die for nation and emperor, and, more crucially, to the treatment of POWs. American and Filipino prisoners on the death march who showed signs of insubordination, or just weakness, were decapitated, disemboweled, or shot.
The American and Filipino soldiers in the Philippines in 1942 were not merely survivors, they were also abandoned—by Washington, and especially by General Douglas MacArthur. And the Japanese, so impressively systematic when engaged in battle, descended rapidly into inhumanity when their systems failed to suit the task at hand. MacArthur was, quite simply, a fraud, and Japan’s “way of the warrior” myth was a failure. These are lessons well worth revisiting amid the echoes of Gitmo and the waning years of the veterans of World War II. Tears in the Darkness is not only necessary—it’s urgent.
Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) and a professor at the University of Tokyo.