Tuesday, May 11, 2010

10 American POWs fled Japanese prison camp

A new book about a daring escape from a brutal Japanese prison camp in the Philippines during World War II features a Texas war hero on the cover and throughout the narrative.

Lt. Col. William Edwin Dyess, a native Texan for whom Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene is named, was one of the leaders of the group of 10 Americans and two Filipinos who escaped from the Davao prison camp (pronounced da-VOW). Three of them were Texans – Dyess, Jack Hawkins and Bob Spielman.

Escape from Davao by John Lukacs (Simon & Schuster, $27.99 hardcover) tells the story from the perspectives of all 10 Americans who were captured after the fall of Bataan and Corregidor in the early months of the war and then pulled off the only successful group escape from a Japanese POW camp.

Lukacs (LU-kiss) relates in gripping detail the three-week-long Bataan Death March, which he calls “the most infamous war crime in the annals of American military history.” Nearly 700 Americans and as many as 10,000 Filipinos were executed or died from starvation during the 85-mile walk.

Dyess, then a captain and squadron leader, would not know freedom for nearly a year, somehow surviving the harsh conditions, disease and near starvation of three prison camps and a prisoner transport ship.

When he and the other escapees managed to pull off their unbelievable prison break, their main objective was to get back to the U.S. and tell about the conditions under which the men still imprisoned were suffering.

However, that turned out to be harder than they could have expected. After Dyess and two other escapees told their story to General Douglas MacArthur, the Pacific commander said it needed to be told to the American people and singled out Dyess as the person to tell it.

“But I am afraid, captain,” he added, “that the people back home will find it hard to believe you.” Wartime censorship proved to be the biggest hurdle in getting the story out.

Indeed, the inhumanity is hard to believe, even now, more than 67 years later. The author drives it home in gruesome detail. I read the book in two days but had to put it down every so often and catch my breath, the descriptions were so powerful.

Dyess’s story eventually was told in a 24-installment series of articles in the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers in early 1944 and helped galvanize public opinion about the war in the Pacific.

Dyess, however, didn’t live to see it in print. He died in a plane crash before the series was published. It was later reprinted in a book, Bataan Death March: A Survivor’s Account, which is still in print (Bison Books, $16.95 paperback).

Lukacs concludes the book with an epilogue that tells what became of the escapees and also what happened to the Japanese officers who brutalized them.