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Book Review: Escape from Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War by John D. Lukacs

During 1943 as World War II raged throughout Europe, top military brass and U.S. government officials set their priorities. First, the war in Europe must be won before America’s military power would be aimed at the Orient. As a result of this decision, the fate of thousands of American servicemen battling in the Philippines was sealed.

The men under Douglass McArthur, fighting on the large Pacific island of Luzon, were being overrun. In full retreat, they turned south through the Bataan Peninsula but evacuation could not happen fast enough. Surrendering, these surrounded men were corralled together along with those from the “stronghold” Corregidor and marched at a quick pace by the Japanese back inland as POWs, and north to Clark Field, Camp O’Donnell, Cabanatuan prison camp, and some eventually to Davao.

Escape from Davao tells of the thousands who died along this Bataan Death March. Japanese Bushido warriors, firmly believing that death was honorable, and surrender — disgraceful cowardice. They looked upon captives as spineless cowards and treated them as such — inferior and subhuman dogs deserving death they should have accepted with honor.

During this long Death March, all of the following were true. 

1.  Men were beheaded on the spot if found in possession of any Japanese objects.

2.  An American captive’s swollen finger was cut off to steal his West Point ring.

3.  Decaying bodies filled ditches on the march and in camps.

4.  Marchers were refused access to clean artesian well water.

5.  Prisoners had not eaten in two days and were given little, if any, water.

6.  Marchers were forced to drink water from ditches contaminated by human corpses and feces.

7.  A disoriented man was crushed alive into the earth beneath a cleated tank.

8.  Mutilated, decaying human heads were carried aloft on pikes.

9.  With z-shaped cuts, guards slashed stomachs of living prisoners tied to a fence.

10.  Entrails of the dead were left hanging out for all to view.

11.  Stragglers were considered physically inferior humans and were bayoneted.

12.  Muzzle blasts killed the sick, wounded, or the disoriented.

13.  Marchers were forced to defecate and urinate while walking.

14.  Packed so tightly into train boxcars, the weakened died standing upright.

15.  Horsewhipped men were left to die.

16.  Punished prisoners were tied to stakes and left to die in the scorching sun.

17.  For punishment and/or fun, water was forced into a victim’s mouth or rectum with a hose until his entrails ruptured.

18.  Weaker men were pushed into huge burial graves, some still alive.

19.  Amputees were prodded along by bayonets as their dressings unraveled.

One can only imagine the horrors awaiting survivors of this infamous death march. After reading the above, I will leave it to the reader of Escape from Daveo to imagine the fetid, merciless killing conditions in prison camps.

Ten men from prison camp Davao decided to risk all and escape through a deadly swamp that encircled their containment area on three sides. They had nothing to lose but everything to gain IF they could somehow tell their plight and arouse America and its government to take massive action against Japan.

Incredibly, Escape from Davao tells their tale of survival. It explains how the Filipino people and their underground resistance aided the escapees once they had crossed the impenetrable snake, insect, and alligator infested swamp from their prison camp. Secret messages were exchanged by short-wave so that at least three of these brave men could be plucked from Luzon by submarine rendezvous.

Once back in the states, Escape from Davao explains the enormity of getting the American government and its people enraged to a furor over deserting Americans in the Philippines in the first place. General MacArthur eventually received the troops and support he needed.

Believe me, Escape from Davao is not a book for the squeamish. It is a story unequaled among all the detailed books written about the war in the Pacific. Why? Because it tells of a different war: the war within — the battle within the psyche of courageous men to reside in hell while their country was kept busy in the European war theater.

This book is well documented with an overwhelming list of factual references. It surely describes the abominations the Japanese committed against humanity in their mistaken belief that their philosophy and way of life should be bayoneted upon all mankind.

About Regis Schilken