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Ghost Soldiers: the Forgotten Epic Story of World War II’s Most Dramatic Mission

1 August 2022

Ghost Soldiers: the Forgotten Epic Story of World War II’s Most Dramatic Mission, Hampton Sides, 2001, ISBN 0-385-49564-1342 pp.

Active rescues can be hard. In fact, usually hard since they involve wind, water and terrain as well as the treatment of the injured parties. Then there are prisoner of war (POW) rescues—which is rescuing on an otherworldly dimension. 

Otherworldly since POWs are most often deeply within enemy territory, most often near an enemy base of operations, where it is hard to get in and a long way to get out. Then there are the POWs who will be weak from starvation, malnourished as well as dehydrated. And, for that extra touch, there are the numbers of POWs which might be rescued for a given raid where those individuals can range from a dozen to hundreds. Is it any wonder that so few POW rescue raids are attempted much less successful? But a POW rescue raid is a higher calling and there are those who will answer—those who are willing to brave all the odds, the unknown factors, to use their professional skills right to the edge of their capabilities.

Such a raid by such people occurred during World War II (WW II) to liberate hundreds of Bataan Death March survivors held in a prison camp near Cabanatuan on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. The 6th Ranger Battalion of the U.S. Army was tasked to infiltrate 30 miles of Japanese held territory, scout, rescue over 500 U.S. and British POWs—then get them safely across Allied lines. Oh yes, and in a hurry before the Japanese Army executed the POWs as they were forced to retreat during the Allied invasion of the Philippines.

Hampton Sides tells the story of these POWs and the Rangers in Ghost Soldiers vividly and with compassionate understanding. Readers will be enthralled by the story as it unfolds with all of its uncertainty from one moment to the next. The POWs were not without help in their captivity since local heroes take part in this real life thriller—heroes who were not people who have that “hero” look, just ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Readers will ask themselves, “Could I have been that person?”  Sides also exhibits cultural awareness of both sides by describing how the POWs originally were abandoned by their commanders as well as the military mind of the Japanese who treated those POWs so inhumanly though Japan was a signatory to the Geneva Convention. 

The Rangers had to overcome the tropical climate as well as having to do what the Army always does—adapt and overcome. The Rangers soon learned the original situation had changed when the town near the camp had become a transit point for the retreating Japanese Army so as many as 8000 enemy soldiers would now be within reaction distance to the raid. A few hundred Rangers against 8000 professional soldiers—quite the problem, and then add the onus of 500+ weak prisoners most of which would not be ambulatory and all would be slow.

How? How was rescue thought to be possible? 

As always, “Rangers Lead the Way!” Ghost Soldiers is faithful to this history, this almost rare history and for some inexplicable reason not a well celebrated history. Hampton Sides is accurate in his research and exciting in his presentation making Ghost Soldiers a superb book to read for its uplifting nature as well as a model of planning and execution performed by the 6th Ranger Battalion. 

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