The Deserters: A Hidden History of WWII by Charles Glass


This is a terrific book on topic rarely covered in WW2 histories. It uses the stories of three men–two American and one British–as a lens to examine desertion and a host of related topics: battle fatigue, military justice, battlefield psychology, and leadership. It also highlights how truly terrible the American system was for combat infantrymen and their replacements. Basically, the Americans put the burden of the fighting on a relatively small number of divisions. Whereas other counties (and America in other wars) would rotate units off the front line to recuperate and incorporate replacements, the US army had a system that put replacement soldiers into a general pool and then assigned them to units on an ad hoc basis while the units were still in combat. Instead of going into battle with a group of men they knew and had trained with, the replacements were dumped into units where they knew no one. Many were killed within days of arriving, sometimes before their new officers even learned their names. It is no surprise that veterans reached a breaking point after too many consecutive days in combat, and that replacements deserted after being cast adrift with no support network. If you are interested in WW2 at all, I totally recommend The Deserters.

Forgotten Soldiers

The 26th Cavalry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts. They made the last mounted charge in the history of the US Army.

This past Saturday I went to the Museum of Flight for a special screening of a documentary called Forgotten Soldiers. It tells the story of the Philippine Scouts, US Army soldiers recruited from native Filipinos and led mostly by American officers. The Philippine Scouts were some of the first US soldiers to fight in World War II, since the Japanese began their invasion of the islands on Dec. 8, 1941 (the day after Pearl Harbor).

Forgotten Soldiers is competently made, akin to something you’d see on the History Channel. What makes it rise above such fare is the story itself and the number of surviving vets who tell their own stories. I’ll happily overlook rough transitions and overuse of reenactor footage if the story is compelling and it certainly is.

When the Japanese invaded, the Philippines was in the midst of an 11-year transitional period to full independence as a commonwealth (which was completed in 1946). The raising and training of the Filipino Army went slower than planned, so when the fighting started it was the Philippine Scouts who were the best trained and equipped troops available. They went into action quickly, blunting the Japanese attacks. They then fought a series of rearguard actions as General MacArthur ordered his forces to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula. The fighting was furious. The first 3 Medals of Honored FDR awarded during World War II were to men of the Philippine Scouts for actions in this campaign.

The Scouts then defended Bataan for four months with other American and Filipino troops. In this period, their 26th Cavalry Regiment made the last horse mounted charge in the history US Army, successfully recapturing a village from the Japanese. The food situation was so dire on the Bataan Peninsula though that the regiment was order to hand over its horses for slaughter shortly after their epic charge. This is one of the most poignant moments in the movie actually. Over 70 years later the vets are still broken up about the horses who had served them so well meeting such a fate.

The troops on Bataan waited for a relief convoy that was never dispatched. After the Japanese brought fresh troops and mauled their defenses, US Major General King surrendered 75,000 Filipino and American troops went into captivity, including the Scouts. Although exhausted and starving already, the troops were sent on the soon infamous Bataan Death March. Thousands died on the way to an overcrowded prison, where more died of disease and starvation.

About a year later the surviving Filipinos were released from prison, providing they signed a pledge not to attack the Japanese. At this I would have considered my duty done, but many of the Scouts joined guerrilla bands as soon as they regained their strength. They fought their occupiers until MacArthur came back and defeated the Japanese. Then many of the Scouts returned to formal duty and served on subsequent campaigns until the Japanese surrender in 1945. The Filipino veterans were offered American citizenship in recognition of their efforts and many came to the US and settled here.

So yes, great story and one worth telling. The early events of America’s war are often glossed over quickly because people don’t like to dwell on defeats. The bravery and endurance of the Philippine Scouts is worth recognition though, so I hope Forgotten Soldiers finds a wider audience.

I would have been happy enough to just see the movie, but there was a panel afterwards put together by The Philippine Scouts Heritage Society. The President of the group, Jose Calugas Jr., was there. His father (Jose Sr.) won the first Medal of Honor in WWII and passed away in 1999. The greater surprise was the presence of Dan Figuracion, one of the Philippine Scout profiled in the movie. He survived the war, stayed in the army, and then fought in Korea and Vietnam. He’s 93 and lives in the Seattle area.

A Q+A followed. I got to ask Dan something I’ve wondered about for a long time. Namely, how did the troops feel when Gen. MacArthur took off for Australia and left them behind for capture, brutality, and privation? “I have returned,” is a great tale, but I figured it didn’t look so noble to guys on the ground. Dan’s answer? “I didn’t even know he was gone! I didn’t hear anything about MacArthur until he came back.” Ha!

A few minutes later this women in the audience took the mic and introduced her father. He was 95 and also a former Scout. He had been in one of the engineering units. The guys on the panel waved him up and he joined them onstage. It was a surprising and touching moment.

I’m glad I had the chance to go to the screening. The Museum of Flight is a great place and I’m happy I’m a member so I hear about events like this. If you are a history nerd like me, seek out Forgotten Soldiers.

 

Recent Reading: Ill Met by Moonlight

Ill Met by Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss is an account of how two British officers from the Special Operations Executive and a band of partisans conspired to kidnap a German general on the island of Crete. What’s interesting about this memoir is that Moss, one of the officers involved, actually wrote most of it as a diary during the events themselves. He and his cohort Patrick Leigh Fermor lived on Crete for months and spent many idle days hiding in caves and waiting for developments. During that time Moss recorded events as they unfolded. He added some explanatory text after the war (like what their actual plan was, which he didn’t write down in case the Germans should get hold of his diary), but largely the events are related within days or even hours of their happening.

The bold band succeeds in kidnapping German General Kriepe and then spends three weeks dodging German patrols before getting him off the island and whisking him to Cairo.  They manage to do all this without firing a shot. This was possible because they had the support of an angry Cretan populace. Again and again, the band is sheltered, fed, hidden, and assisted in ways great and small by Cretan villagers and shepherds. As a Greek-American, I found the details of the Cretan resistance movement quite interesting (so much so that I just ordered a used copy of Antony Beevor’s Crete: The Battle and the Resistance).

I really enjoyed Ill Met by Moonlight. It is focused on just this one mission, so after reading it I had to look up the main characters and find out what happened to them during and after the war. To my surprise I found a clip of a 1972 Greek television show about the kidnapping. It reunited Patrick Leigh Fermor with many of his partisan comrades and General Kriepe himself! The video is not subtitled but I watched it anyway to see these characters I had read about and see their reactions and body language. I’ll have to have my mom translate it for me some time.

The book was a birthday gift from Will Hindmarch, so thanks, Will!