As Good As Dead: The Daring Escape of American POWs from a Japanese Death Camp
Stephen L. Moore. New York: Caliber, 2016. 358 pp. Plates. Maps. Appendices. Biblio. Endnotes. Index. $27.
Reviewed by Mark Felton
As Good As Dead sums up the predicament of American prisoners of the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II and takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster of a journey into the dark heart of a brutal conflict and the brutality of man against his fellow man.
Examining for the first time in detail the horrendous Palawan Island Massacre of December 1944, Stephen L. Moore’s book is much more than an escape drama—it is a narrative that pays tribute to the bravery and determination of the small number of survivors, as well as the unfortunate victims, of one of Japan’s worst war crimes. It also is the truly uplifting tale of deliverance from certain death that rarely occurred for prisoners of the Japanese, particularly to those who tried to escape their shackles.
Though the background to the story takes place inside a prison camp, this is no Great Escape or Wooden Horse, but rather a damning indictment of the cruelty and illegality underpinning Japan’s wartime treatment of its prisoners and an important addition to our knowledge of this dark period of history and its countless victims. It also compliments the other two great escape stories of the Philippines that have been told in print and on film: the escape from Davao and the raid on Cabanatuan. All three POW stories had origins in the Battle of Bataan and Japan’s imprisonment of thousands of young Americans in 1942.
The book’s 21 chapters are divided into three parts. Part 1 details the terrible Battle at Bataan and the capture of the characters in the book, characters who come across strongly in Moore’s well-written narrative. Part 2 details the prisoners’ experiences of captivity on Palawan, where they were forced to slave for the Emperor in appalling conditions, constructing an airbase. When the Japanese suspected the United States was about to invade the island, they decided to kill the remaining 150 POWs on 14 December 1944. Herding them into air-raid trenches, they doused the prisoners with gasoline and burned them alive. Incredibly, 30 men managed to escape the terrible conflagration, but machine-gun and rifle fire mowed down many as they fled. By incredible luck, 11 U.S. prisoners from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps managed to avoid the Japanese search parties and embarked on harrowing attempts to reach safety. This is brilliantly shown in the moving and eventually uplifting third part of the book. The author has thoroughly researched his material and draws extensively on recorded experiences of the victims as well as interviews with family members and often-forgotten archival evidence. The book also benefits from extensive appendices and excellent maps.
As Good As Dead, dealing with a dreadful war crime and its impact on a group of young U.S. servicemen, is a deeply personal read, in which the reader is drawn into the highs and lows of the action, the tragedy and the salvation, because Moore has so successfully drawn out the characters. The book is compelling reading and hard to put down, dealing with an emotional story in a balanced and interesting manner; it is an important addition to any bookshelf concerning the Pacific war, filling in an event in the Philippines that had largely escaped the attentions of historians. The final analysis is a splendid portrayal of the endurance of the human spirit, even when it appeared a foregone conclusion that hope had passed and agonizing death awaited. The 11 survivors personified the quiet courage and undiminished dignity of men who refused to submit to a cruel master and found within themselves hitherto untapped reservoirs of determination.
Dr. Felton is a British historian and writer. The author of 20 books, with Zero Night (Thomas Dunne, 2015) and Castle of the Eagles (St. Martin’s, 2017) both currently being adapted into Hollywood movies, he lived and worked in Shanghai for a decade, writing prolifically on Pacific war subjects.
Battleships Yamato and Musashi
Janusz Skulski and Stefan Drami?ski. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, 2017. 335 pp. Figs. Images. Drawings. $60.
Reviewed by Jonathan Parshall
Anybody with a serious interest in the Imperial Japanese Navy knows Janusz Skulski’s name, because his books are bywords for meticulous detail and accuracy. Likewise, anything having to do with the superbattleships Yamato and Musashi is bound to be of interest, as they remain the center of an almost mystical awe—the biggest, most heavily armored battleships ever launched. However, the thought did occur to me, “Well, what can Skulski possibly do with this volume that he didn’t with his original 1988 title, The Battleship Yamato?” That work was already something of a tour-de-force. I needn’t have worried. Do you remember that feeling you had as a kid when you were opening up a brand-new ship model or wargame and just couldn’t wait to see what was in the box? That’s exactly the feeling of wonder and delight I experienced thumbing through Battleships Yamato and Musashi for the first time.
This go-round, Skulski not only has delved more deeply into the Japanese source materials, but also he has enlisted the aid of Stefan Drami?ski, a skilled Polish 3D modeler. Drami?ski’s renderings of the Yamato and Musashi are seamlessly interlaced throughout the book, taking Skulski’s marvelous drawings, breathing life and perspective into them, and showing them from interesting angles to help the reader envision the ships as they were built. Drami?ski’s 3D models are masterful, tastefully employed to draw out interesting details, and never overwhelm Skulski’s 2D drawings. The result is a highly pleasing amalgam. Skulski also has upped his own game, adding carefully controlled coloration to his flawless drafting to help draw out key points. There also are numerous high-quality colorized versions of some of the classic photographs of these two behemoths, which lend additional depth to the material. Thus, one gets a much better feel for how these vessels actually looked, and not just how they were put together.
Skulski also reproduces original blueprints of the vessels that recently have been unearthed. For instance, he includes official Japanese Navy drawings of the rudders of the ships, which substantially altered my previous understanding of their shape from the drawings I had practically memorized from the 1988 volume. Skulski also has added significantly more detail on Yamato’s internals. The Japanese attempted to systematically burn the original plans of Yamato and Musashi immediately after the war to prevent their capture by the United States, and for decades it was assumed their deck layouts would remain a mystery. However, recent archival discoveries have fleshed out our understanding of the innards of these monsters, and they are presented by Skulski in much greater detail than previously.
Despite having 50 percent more pages, some things did not make it from the 1988 volume into the current work. For instance, if you are looking for details of the Yamato’s cordite stowage bins, or the exact schematic of the Type 13 Mark 5 short delay base fuse for the Yamato’s 46-cm shells (I kid you not), you will need to refer to the 1988 volume. On the other hand, Skulski has added a comparable amount of interesting, detailed new material to compensate for losses.
The bottom line is that this is Skulski’s most complete effort to date. It adds significant new scholarship to our knowledge of these two legendary warships. It is exacting, exquisitely produced, and visually pleasing. And it is also very reasonably priced for its very high quality. I heartily recommend it to any student of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Jonathan Parshall is coauthor, with Anthony Tully, of Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Potomac Books, 2005). He is widely published on the Pacific war and the Imperial Japanese Navy and was Naval History Magazine’s 2012 Coauthor of the Year (with Michael Wenger).
Wave-Off: A History of LSOs and Ship-Board Landings
Commander Robert R. “Boom” Powell, U.S. Navy (Retired). Forest Lake, MN: Specialty Press, 2017. 191 pp. Images. Index. $39.95.
Reviewed by Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn, U.S. Navy (Retired)
This is a great story, well told and well-referenced. It also is more than the history of landing signal officers (LSOs) and ship-board landings; it is the history of aircraft carrier development in Great Britain, the United States, Japan, and other countries. If the reader can get past the unfortunate title, he or she will have a hard time putting down the book. Others have written about the history of carriers, but none have woven in so much personal experience and such outstanding photography. The photos are enough to gain a feel for the subject, but reading it completes the story: the incredible journey of several nations and numerous people to arrive at arguably the most important and most effective weapon system in the world today.
The subject of Commander Robert R. “Boom” Powell’s book, Wave-Off: A History of LSOs and Ship-Board Landings, may be familiar to naval aviators and their advocates but new to many readers. For example, many Americans know that Eugene Ely made the first arrested landing on a battleship in San Francisco Bay, but will marvel that the first landing on board a ship was made by Squadron Leader E. H. Dunning, RN, on board HMS Furious in 1917, without a tailhook! Instead, the ship sped up and Dunning slowed down until the speed of the aircraft and that of the ship matched. At that instant, sailors from the Furious reached over and pulled the aircraft in. Unfortunately, that procedure didn’t work as well on the second try, and Dunning and his aircraft crashed into the sea. Both were lost.
The British followed the Furious efforts with arrested landings on board HMS Eagle and Hermes. Meanwhile, the Japanese started their carrier aviation with the IJN Hosho. Both countries were ahead of the United States at the beginning of the 1920s. It wasn’t until October 1922 that Lieutenant Commander Godfrey de Chevalier made the first landing (“trap”) on board the USS Langley (CV-1).
It also was on board the Langley that the first LSO made an appearance. Commander Kenneth Whiting gets credit for establishing that important function, today so critical to carrier aviation. How that came to be and the development of much of the equipment used to this day to ensure safe shipboard landings, albeit in somewhat different form, are an important part of chapter 1.
The ensuing nine chapters describe developments in sea-based air and concept and implementation differences among nations as carrier aircraft improved in reliability and performance. There was one constant, however: the person with the flags or, later, with the radio and the lens—the landing signal officer.
Commander Powell details various important equipment developments, including LSO flags and radios in the aircraft and on the LSO platform. Later came radar, carrier-controlled approaches, angled decks, angle-of-attack systems, automatic power compensators, optical landing systems (mirrors, then Fresnel lenses), automatic carrier landing systems, and more. In recent history, simulators faithfully duplicate the carrier landing experience and can be expected to contribute more and more to both safety and improved boarding rates
The one quibble I have with the book is its misleading title. The duty of every LSO is getting carrier aircraft back on board ship safely and efficiently, not waving them off as the title indicates. “OK 3,” “Signal Charlie,” or “Clear Deck” might have been more descriptive. May the lure of the author’s name, his reputation, his resume, and the subtitle makeup for that shortcoming, because this is a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone involved with or interested in carrier aviation.
Vice Admiral Dunn is a naval aviator who commanded a jet squadron in combat, the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-60), Carrier Group Eight, and Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet. He was the 2015 Naval History Author of the Year and is the author of Gear Up, Mishaps Down: The Evolution of Naval Aviation Safety (Naval Institute Press, 2017).