One-Minute Book Reviews

April 10, 2012

‘We Band of Angels’: The True Story of Nurses Who Became Prisoners of War

Filed under: History,Nonfiction,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:18 am
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A portrait of the first American military women taken captive and imprisoned as a group by an enemy

We Band of Angels: The True Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. By Elizabeth M. Norman. Atria Books, 327 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This book can only lift the heart of any woman who regrets seeing her sex represented in print by Lindsay Lohan’s bail hearings and Kim Kardashian’s prenuptial agreement. Few people may remember that American female prisoners of war existed before U.S. Special Operations Forces rescued Jessica Lynch from captivity in Iraq. But women have been falling into enemy hands at least since the Civil War. And the unlucky group includes 77 U.S. Army and Navy nurses who were stationed in the Philippines when Japanese bombs began to fall on American military bases there on Dec. 8, 1941.

Nurses on the Bataan peninsula worked in an open-air field hospital with thousands of beds laid out in rows under a jungle canopy intended to hide it from enemy planes. They sharpened needles on rocks and tried to ease their hunger by frying weeds in cold cream. After Bataan fell, the nurses were evacuated to Corregidor, where they worked in bomb-proof tunnels. When the Allies surrendered, they became prisoners of the Japanese, who held them in internment camps until the end of the war. It should surprise no one that after an initial flurry of attention, Americans lost interest in the group known as the “Angels of Bataan.”

Elizabeth Norman tries not to overplay the heroism of these nurses, but their extraordinary stories speak for themselves. On the evidence of We Band of Angels, these women were not raped or, in the sense in which the word is used today, tortured. But for more than three years they lead torturous lives, enduring with courage and professionalism their fate as “the first group of American military women taken captive and imprisoned by an enemy.” The nurses deserve a secure place beside the men who inspired They Were Expendable, perhaps the best-known story of the battle for Bataan, and other enduring World War II narratives. Their stories also suggest that we need history of all female prisoners of war. Some of the captives might have a tart response to a recent US Weekly cover story on Kim Kardashian entitled “My Divorce Hell.”

Best line: “By all available accounts the presence of women on the battlefield boosted the morale of men.” This fact and much else in We Band of Angels contradict the cliché that women in combat “distract” men.

Worst line: Only 48 of the 77 nurses captured in 1942 and freed in 1945 were alive when Norman began her research for We Band of Angels, and some turned down her requests for an interview. Such realities may help to explain the stilted characterizations of certain nurses, such as Helen Cassiani: “At twenty-four she was pretty and bright, with dark, curly hair down to her neck, a round face and an inviting smile.”

Recommendation? Highly recommended to book clubs, especially those looking for good nonfiction about women or a neglected aspect of military history.

About the author: Norman is a nurse and historian who teaches at New York UniversityWe Band of Angels won the Lavinia L. Dock Award from the American Association for the History for Nursing and other prizes.

Read more about this book or buy a copy from an independent bookstore in the author’s area.

Furthermore: William Lindsay White tells the story of the retreat from the Philippines from the perspective of a torpedo boat squadron in the book They Were Expendable, made into a movie that starred John Wayne.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this page.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 19, 2008

Max Hastings Reconsiders the Endgame of the War in the Pacific in ‘Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45′

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:31 pm
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Remembering the era when General Douglas MacArthur wouldn’t agree to a government request to change his famous remark on leaving the Philippines from “I shall return” to “We shall return”

Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45. By Max Hastings. Knopf, 615 pp., $35.

By Janice Harayda

One of the paradoxes of the wave of historical revisionism now sweeping the United States is that while many Americans vow “never to forget” the Holocaust, they turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the Japanese in World War II. The reasons for the selective memory are complex and range from the failings of schools to the possibility that – as some have psychologists have suggested – the human mind can only bear to think about so much evil.

But anyone who wants to understand the scope of savagery might start with Retribution, the British journalist Max Hastings’s latest work of military history. One virtue of this immensely readable book is that it blends with great skill the approaches that have been called “top-down” and “bottom-up” history. Retribution has memorable portraits of military leaders such as Chester Nimitz, Curtis LeMay and Douglas MacArthur (who objected when the Office of War Information wanted to change for public consumption his famous “I shall return” to “We shall return”). And Hastings’s analyses of the decisions of generals, admirals and statesmen lead to many persuasive conclusions – most notably, that dropping the atomic bombs resulted fewer deaths than would have occurred if the war had continued apace.

Amid such glimpses of those at the top, Retribution shows the shattering effects of the war on the men and women at the bottom, those who survived the firebombing of Tokyo or fought in Burma, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere. Stories of unimaginable suffering are leavened with lighter moments. Families could send parcels to Allied prisoners of war, but the Japanese seldom delivered them. So a U.S. artillery captain held captive on Luzon was thrilled to get a package from home “which he found wonderfully sensibly chosen: a carton of cigarettes, a sweater, a jar of candy and some vitamin pills.”

But for many Americans, the most startling parts of this book are likely to involve the accounts of Japanese brutality to the 100,000 Allied POWs and others. These atrocities go beyond what anyone might expect from such popular books as The Railway Man, Eric Lomax’s story of working in captivity on the Burma-Siam railroad – to say nothing of movies like The Sands of Iwo Jima or The Bridge on the River Kwai.

“There were so many cases of arbitrary beheadings, clubbings and bayonetings in different parts of the empire that it is impossible to dismiss these as unauthorized initiatives by individual officers and men,” Hastings writes. Some of the sadism recalls Josef Mengele’s experiments in Nazi death camps: Eight American airmen were killed by unanesthetized vivisecton carried out in front of medical students at a Japanese hospital. Hastings disagrees with Japanese and other observers who say that it is time to put aside old grievances about such atrocities:

“Germany has paid almost $6 billion to 1.5 million victims of the Hitler era. Austria has paid $400 million to 132,000 people. By contrast, modern Japan goes to extraordinary lengths to escape any admission of responsibility, far less of liability for compensation, towards its wartime victims.”

Hastings ascribes the Japanese position partly to a tendency to excuse — “even to ennoble” — the shameful actions of parents and grandparents. Whatever the reason for what he calls “denial,” it can hardly help Japan’s relations with the world. America found one kind of retribution on the deck of the battleship Missouri, but another kind has clearly eluded its former prisoners of war and others.

Best lines: On submarine crews: “Freshmen had to master the delicate art of using submarine toilets inside a pressure hull: ‘It was hard to flush below a hundred feet and keep a clean face,’ wrote one.” On Tom Brokaw–esque romanticizing: “The phrase ‘the greatest generation’ is sometimes used in the U.S. to describe those who lived through those times. This seems inapt. The people of World War II may have adopted different fashions and danced to different music from us, but human behavior, aspirations and fears do not alter much. It is more appropriate to call them, without jealousy, ‘the generation to which the greatest things happened.’”

Worst lines: “In the first campaigns, nations which are victims rather than initiators of aggression enjoy scanty choices.” Does anyone “enjoy” having few choices? And it’s painful to see a journalist as good as Hastings using “task” as a verb: “One of Vedder’s corpsman had been tasked to carry his instruments ashore …”

Sample chapter titles: “The British in Burma,” “America’s Return to the Philippines,” “MacArthur on Luzon,” “Blood Miniature: Iwo Jima,” “Australians: ‘Bludging’ and ‘Mopping Up,’ “Okinawa,” “Mao’s War,” “The Bombs.”

Editor: Robert Lacey (HarperCollins, UK), Ashbel Green (Knopf)

Published: March 2008 www.aaknopf.com. This book was called Nemesis in Britain.

Recommendation? Highly recommended to history book clubs and fans of military history. This book could also be a great Father’s Day gift for a father who likes history or military lore.

Read an excerpt: Go to www.aaknopf.com and search for “Retribution.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Retribution was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 19, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/19.

Furthermore: Hastings calls Retribution a counterpart to his earlier Armageddon, which describes the war against Germany in 1944–1945. He has been a foreign correspondent, the editor of The Daily Telegraph and Journalist of the Year in Britain.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights recovered.
www.janiceharayda.com

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