01. August 2005 · Comments Off on The Valley of the Shadow · Categories: General, History, Military

Last weekend at the radio station, the other announcer had the TV on in the production office, and we caught the leader for this film. I may very well go and pay money to see it in the theater, depending on the reviews. Benjamin Bratt heads the cast list, so I am not holding out that much hope for good reviews… but I’ve been known to be wrong. (My daughter dragged me kicking and screaming to see “George of the Jungle” because she had a mad pash for Brendan Fraser. I resigned myself to having my intelligence insulted for two hours, but surprise, surprise… a damn funny movie. William laughed his ass off when he saw it on video. He liked Rustlers’ Rhapsody, too. You never can tell…)
It may very well turn out to be an over-produced, over-rated, big steaming pile of a movie, (Hello, Pearl Harbor, part Deux!)… but if it is really based on this book it may turn out to be a ripping good story, about the rescue of military survivors of the Bataan Death March, from a POW camp at Cabanatuan, the Philippines in 1945. (Not this raid, which was just as daring, mounted to rescue American and European civilian internees at a camp at Los Banos, also in the Philippines in 1945).

The problem faced by movies dealing with WWII in the Pacific and in the Far East begins at a single starting point, which is that the conflict between the Allies and the Japanese was knock-down and drag out brutal, completely unscathed by any pretense of observing the so-called rules of war; that white flags would be honored, that prisoners and internees would be treated humanely, according to the Geneva Convention, the Red Cross would be respected… all these and a number of other chivalrous conventions were flung down and danced upon, beginning with on Day One— as far as Americans were concerned—- with a sneak attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor. Germany may very well have been run by a murderous Nazi gang headed by a demented paper-hanger and failed artist, Germans may have referred to disparagingly as Krauts, and lampooned in the movies and pop music by cut-ups like Charlie Chaplain and Spike Jones, but at least they made a good effort at honoring the rules of war in respect of all the allies but the Russians. In that, they had a certain amount of grudging respect; an enemy but a mostly honorable one. With the Japanese, there was no such mutual courtesy extended, no quarter offered and none given or expected. That, in concert with the poisonously racist attitudes and assumptions of fifty years ago openly demonstrated by all parties concerned, ensures that putting any of this on screen in a realistic fashion is fraught with peril for the movie-maker. (And please take note, the Japanese were more than equal in demonstrated bigotry. Often initially welcomed as liberators from the colonial powers all over south-east Asia, by 1945 they had made themselves so detested for their brutality, the returning Westerners had many local allies who hated the Japanese more than their one-time colonial masters.)

I had read that initially horrifying reports of the treatment of American and Filipino POWs on the Bataan Death March which leaked out through a handful of fortunate escapees were suppressed as a matter of national security, to avoid damaging morale on the home front. It was easier, in those days of written letters, telegrams and a few radio broadcasts, to keep a lid on everything but rumors. And of rumors there were plenty, across the United States, Australia and Great Britain. These countries and a handful of others had thousands, hundreds of thousands of civilian and military citizens— nurses, missionaries, soldiers, businessmen, colonial authorities, expatriates, and their wives and children—all simply vanish into the black hole of the Japan administered Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere upon the fall of Singapore and Malaya, Borneo and the Philippines, Hong Kong and the European enclaves in China. No letters, no contact, no reassurance from the Red Cross that their people were alive, safe and well for more than three and a half years…. Because they were neither alive, and if so, not safe and increasingly as the war ground on to a bitter end, not well, either.

In a museum in Britain sometime in our wandering summer of 1976— was it Carlisle? Salisbury? York, maybe? One of those little local museums, with a case of artifacts given over to the relics of the local regiment, with dusty embroidered colors, and little Victoria sweet-tins, and souvenir hardtack crackers adorned with poems in careful copperplate handwriting. This museum had a long picture of an entire company of men— one of those formal things with four rows of men and officers standing on risers. Everyone who has ever served has been in at least one picture of that sort, but this one had a sad distinction; the entire company, fifty or so, were captured in the fall of Singapore… and none survived to the war’s end. They were sent to work on the Burma-Siam Railway, and among the museum’s relics was a metal measure about the size of a 12-ounce can. It was used, so said the card underneath, to measure out the daily ration of water and rice for the slave labor set by the Japanese to work on the railway. And that was what they got, day in, day out, doing hard physical labor in the tropics… just that little rice and water. The saying about the Burma-Siam railway after the war was there was a man dead for every sleeper laid, the whole length of it: POW, internee, or native civilians pressed-ganged into the service of the Japanese.

POWs and internees were routinely starved, forced into hard labor, denied any kind of effective medical treatment save what internee doctors and nurses could provide, spitefully prevented from communicating with the outside world, or keeping any kind of diary or record at all, subject to the most vicious punishments—up to and including murder in a revoltingly gruesome variety of ways— for the most trivial offenses or often none at all. Transported to Japan itself, to labor in mines and factories, POWs were loaded like cattle, into the holds of transport ships; men went insane, and tragically, died when the ships were bombed and torpedoed by the Allies. There are also stomach-churning accounts of POWs used as guinea-pigs in Japanese medical experiments, and vivisected while still alive, and un-anesthetized. The estimate is that 27% of the Allied POWs held by the Japanese perished in captivity, as opposed to 2-3% held by the Germans. Civilian internees fared hardly better; this account of women and children interned in Sumatra— most of them shipwrecked in the Java Sea while escaping Singapore by sea in the last days before the surrender— estimates about half perished in captivity. American internees in the Philippines fared a little better, although most survivors of Santo Tomas and Los Banos estimate they were about two weeks from dying of starvation when they were liberated. “Thou shalt not kill, “ runs the bitter couplet, “But need not strive, officiously, to keep alive.” Most survivor accounts estimate about the same… that is, if the Japanese didn’t massacre them all first, as they did at Palawan. At best, writer-historian Gavin Daws estimates that life-expectancy of the survivors was reduced by ten or fifteen years, so severe were the health problems resulting from near-starvation, exposure to every tropical and deficiency disease known to medical science, and the psychotic brutality of the Japanese camp guards.

During the war, this was not something much talked about, except in the vaguest sort of way— no spreading despair on the home front. Immediately afterwards, the most popular accounts of captivity, such as Agnes Newton Keith’s “Three Came Home” (1947) give the impression that it all was quite dreadful, but skimmed over the specifics. Many survivors wanted more than anything to just forget, to put it out of mind, and have a normal life again, and many more just could not talk about it at all, save to those few comrades who had been there with them. It is only in the last few years that I have really noticed the horrific accounts being published, historical memory uneasily jousting with political correctness. But what kind of movie this can make… as the major media reporters say, standing in front of a government building… all remains to be seen.

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