Escaping difficult family circumstances, Joseph Quitman Johnson enlisted in the US army at the age of fourteen and was stationed with the 31st Infantry in the Philippines in April 1941. After Pearl Harbor, his coming-of-age adventure turned into a nightmare of combat and suffering. Johnson survived shelling and hand-to-hand combat, escaped from the famous Bataan Death March, and ended up a Japanese prisoner of war for nearly four years. Through illness, injuries, the deaths of his buddies and the sometimes extreme cruelty of his captors and conditions, the underage Johnson lived to tell the tale through a combination of quick wits, constitutional toughness, heroism and sheer luck.
In Baby of Bataan, Johnson’s account of his childhood and of his time stationed in the Philippines before the US entered the war is as interesting as the later war stories. Scrounging to help his mother put food on the table, traveling the country, working the stables with his father and encountering the era’s greatest celebrity, Seabiscuit—these tales are sketched just enough to give a clue as to where the strength of character came from that enabled Johnson to survive his later ordeals. The characters he meets on the streets of Manila during leaves, the trouble he gets into, and the pleasures and pitfalls of life on the base all come vividly to life on the page. Having fallen for a young pregnant Filipino prostitute, Johnson saves her from a terrible fate, then—when the war is about to come to the city—personally engineers the rescue of all the girls in the church-run refuge for unwed mothers where he’d found her a home.
Johnson’s time in combat is full of the confusion, terror and unexpected heroism that seem always to characterize the battlefield, no matter what the century or who the combatants are. After his capture, he is starved, beaten, worked to the bone, imprisoned in the Japanese equivalent of the Hanoi Hilton, flung into the holds of hell ships, and forced to witness friends’ executions, but through it all he retains the core of his humanity and never loses sight of his captors’. He remembers the small mercies along with the terrible cruelties, and he makes no excuses for seizing every possible advantage in order to survive.
It’s a privilege to read this first-person account from the Greatest Generation. Johnson’s excellent memory for both circumstantial and emotional detail make it a captivating and moving memoir. Do not approach this book expecting a literary masterpiece. Johnson’s workmanlike prose is not aided by the editing, which seems cursory at best (grammatical imprecision and missing punctuation abound). But it’s far better to have this story in slightly rough form than not to have it at all. There have been many World War Two memoirs, but this may well be one of the last to be published.
The reason it is remarkable, however, is the reason every such story is remarkable. Each is both unique and universal, and we cannot have too many of them. They remind us how terrible it is when armies of human beings go into battle, and how decisions to send them there must be taken for only the very best of reasons.