Blog Updated! April 9, 2013
Story Updated! August 2, 2012

My Book Review of "Undefeated: America's Heroic Fight for Bataan and Corregidor"

April 9, 2013

Today is the 71st anniversary of the Bataan Death March, so it's appropriate I review a book concerning that battle and those who fought it. The book isn't really about Bataan or Corregidor, despite it's title. It's about the men who fought there then survived hell and horrors for three and a half years.

Initially I'd not planned on reading it because of that misleading title. "Undefeated" by itself is an odd title for a book about a battle lost and the subtitle, "America's Heroic Fight for Bataan and Corregidor" was almost too much. The defenders were the Battling Bastards of Bataan because they were America's bastards- the country had abandoned the Philippines and gave them no support throughout the ordeal. This was because America was incapable of attempting to hold or support the Philippines. Distance and logistics made that an impossible task. So America didn't defend Bataan and Corregidor- 80,000 Filipino and American troops did. "Undefeated" though, seems to be the attitude among some Bataan troops who felt that they had been "surrendered but undefeated."

I'd read about the book beforehand and saw some complaints about the author's style but decided the book was worth a read solely for the many first-hand accounts. After reading it I find that my appraisal of the situation is still correct. Those first-hand accounts made reading worth it and there's a lot to learn from those accounts, but Undefeated is a book that needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

Bill Sloan writes a great narrative. It reads like the book version of a History Channel special, which is a double-edged sword. The reading is easy and very engaging, but this feels like it comes at the expense of hard facts and supporting information that would have given the reader a better understanding of the battle, though after the battle is over and there's no longer a singular event being followed as the defenders are sent to prison camps, on Hell Ships and make escapes the scant background details become less relevant. I was fascinated by the various stories as everyone did his best to survive their own personal Hell on earth.

One of my other complaints are Sloan's occasional false statements or ones that make me question their veracity. I don't believe it's any intent on his part to misinform but rather that he didn't bother to fact check statements, like quoting Ed Ramsey's book which states only 8 women were capable of flying army fighters. (There were 1,074WASPs in service and at one point half the pilots ferrying fighters across the country were female.) He also says Ramsey led the last cavalry charge in world history. It was American history.

Hard numbers on the Bataan death march are hard to come by because no head count was done when it began and the Philippine-American forces destroyed their records before surrendering. So all numbers are estimates that I've seen range from 70,000-78,000 in various books and sources. He pulled the high-ball numbers for initially marchers (78,000) and mated it to a low survivor number I'd never read before (52,000) without explaining where he derived those numbers from. These kinds of statement bugged me throughout and though there is a sources and notes section at the end of the book he doesn't marry a lot of statements made in the book to particular facts at the end.

I found it bothersome that a book about the defense of Bataan that's based on individual stories was also completely devoid of a single account by a Filipino. The defending force was mostly made of Filipinos, most of which were untrained conscripts, who to their credit may not have been good soldiers but they also stuck it out until the end. The exception to this would be the Philippine Scouts who were both excellent professional soldiers and stuck it out the end. Jose Calugas comes to mind immediately. He's a Philippine Scout Medal of Honor recipient who lived in the US until his death in 1998. Surprisingly his story was omitted and he's not even mentioned. Calugas' part in the Battle of Layac Junction was part of an important delaying action that was among the first fights in the Battle of Bataan. That entire battle isn't even mentioned. There's a single quote from a Filipino in the whole book and that's it. It's because of things like this Undefeated feels uneven if you already have a decent understanding of the battle.

And on a personal note, I'm gearing up for another trip to the Philippines. This time we're heading up north to Sagada and Vigan. Vigan is an old town built in the Mexican-style and was the site of initial Japanese landings on December 10, 1941. The town is well preserved and the local history mostly runs older than World War II. We're considering stopping at a historic World War II battleground, Balete Pass but it may be too far out of the way. I'm also excited for this trip because we're stopping in Capas on the way up and will visit the Death March memorial and final Death March kilometer marker there.

Ghosts of Seattle

Mariveles, Bataan Province, Philippines

This metal 'Soldier's Grave' is part of the Death March Memorial at Kilometer 0, where the march began in Mariveles. An identical sculpture is on Corregidor as well. We found this by accident, we were driving to the bancay boats to get to Corregidor when we missed our turn. I noticed the Death March marker we passed said "2 km" on it, so I asked our driver if he could go another two kilometers before turning around. Sure enough two kilometers down the road, across the the beach and nestled in a quiet little park next to a Jollibee fast food restaurant was the Death March Kilometer 0 Memorial Park.

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