Book Review: Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission


Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission by Hampton Sides

Ghost Soldiers is the first book by historian and author Hampton Sides. Initially published by Doubleday, it’s been available in paperback since 2002. It tells the story of the rescue of American POWs from the Japanese prison camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines in January of 1945.

When the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1942 it was then an American Commonwealth on the path to independence. The invasion forced the largest surrender in American history. Once under Japanese occupation after the Battle of Bataan, between 60,000 and 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war were forcibly marched some 65 miles to Camp O’Donnell - the infamous Bataan Death March. During the march the Japanese engaged in severe physical torture and random killings of the prisoners. It’s estimated that between 5000 and 18000 Filipinos, and 500 to 650 American soldiers died. Hundreds of the Allied troops who survived the march were housed in the POW camp in Cabanatuan. 

Their treatment at the camp did not improve. Some prisoners were tortured, and others executed without cause. Food and clothing were meagerly provided, and sanitary conditions were poor. Disease became rampant and led to many hundreds of deaths. 

The war began to turn in October 1944, with the American forces under General MacArthur retaking the Philippine island of Leyte after the largest naval battle in history. This caused the Japanese to take as many able bodied POWs as possible from Cabanatuan, to be transported back to Japan where they were used as slave labor in factories producing war materiel.

The camp at Cabanatuan, which had at its peak held some 8000 prisoners, held only around 500 Allied POWs, mostly Americans, by January of 1945. They were the sickest and weakest of those who had survived the Bataan Death March and what came after. American forces were pushing ever closer to Cabanatuan. The American command was aware of the camp, and they feared that the retreating Japanese would murder all the remaining prisoners. Their fear was not unfounded, as they had learned that exactly that fate had already been meted out by the Japanese at another prison camp on the island of Palawan in December.

On January 30th a combined force of Filipino guerilla fighters, US Army Rangers and Alamo Scouts, under the command of Lt. Col. Henry Mucci staged a prison break. Operating behind enemy lines, they surprised and overwhelmed the Japanese and freed the POWs. The prisoners were successfully transported back to the US front lines, and many later safely returned to the US aboard a Navy transport ship, which was itself a target of the Japanese forces.

Sides’ account of all of this is thoroughly researched and reported. It’s a well done book that illuminates a part of the history of World War II that, until his book, had not received much attention since the war concluded. Sides contacted many of the POWs and worked with them to gather information and put the story together. There is an interesting Q&A with the author on the Powell’s Books site that tells how he became interested in telling the story. 

The book received the 2002 PEN USA non-fiction award, and led to more than one television documentary. It is the partial basis for the 2005 film The Great Raid (which unfortunately was a box office bomb). 

RATING: Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐ Recommended to anyone with interest in the history of World War II.

Personal Reading Note:

I have a paperback copy of this book on my TBR pile back home in Michigan, but since we are traveling in Australia now, and I couldn’t pack too many books, I decided to borrow an ebook copy from my local library back home to read on my Kindle here. I love the Libby app, which made this possible, and I love the fact that my small town library is able to leverage its library partnerships to offer a huge selection of books and magazines digitally. You are missing out if you are a book lover who isn’t using Libby. 

[Other than being a big fan of libraries, I have no partnership with my local library, it’s partnerships, nor with Libby, and no one is compensating me to tell you that I love the Libby app.] 

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Title: Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission
Author: Hampton Sides
Publisher: Anchor (KnopfDoubleday)
Publish Date: May 7, 2002
ISBN-13: 9780385495653
Publisher’s List Price: $17.00 (Trade Paperback as of 06/2022)