Growing up, I do remember watching cartoons, but more vividly, I remember watching American Movie Classics (back when they showed true classics and not this “modern classics” business). World War II films captivated me from an early age, but nearly all of them focused on the European war.
When Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand first came out, the blog world was saturated with reviews of it, and I steered clear. But in December when the film came out, I watched it and thought it was good but wondered how much better the book was. That night, I raced home from the theater, downloaded the book and stayed up all night reading it.
Since then, I’ve been on a steady diet of Pacific War nonfiction. I realized how little I knew of those battles and how many of them there were. I’m still cultivating a list of authors and books to give me a broader perspective, but I thought I’d share a little on the ones I’ve read so far (click on the title below the book to add it to your Goodreads shelf!).
The book that started it all. No doubt about it, Zamperini’s story is incredible. A hardscrabble young man turned Olympic athlete turned soldier, Zamperini himself was a fascinating man to read about. Combined with Hillenbrand’s ability to shape his story and increase the tension as he crashes and finds himself in a Japanese POW camp, Zamperini’s story was an excellent introduction to the personal nature of war.
Rescue at Los Banos reinforced just how little I knew of the Pacific War. Mere days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they started in on the Philippines. Colin Powell teased the events in this book most enticingly, calling the raid at Los Baños “the textbook operation for all ages and all armies,” and Henderson does it justice, depicting the Pacific front of the war as well as the many American citizens whose lives were caught up in the fighting. The plans to liberate the internees were intricate and dependent on so many variables, and the tension Henderson creates in his narrative makes this an up-all-night read.
Though this book isn’t specifically about the Pacific War front, The Girls of Atomic City is an intriguing account of the women, many of whom were incredibly sheltered, picking up and leaving for Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a city so secret it wasn’t even on the map, and war work about which they knew nothing. The more technical sections are a bit daunting, but I loved reading about women who thought bobby socks were wild, trying to retain a semblance of society amid such a bizarre, manufactured atmosphere. When they realize what their work has done, many of them are unsure of how to feel, realizing what devastation they’ve enabled but also appreciating an end to the war.
Of all of these books, James Bradley’s account probably spurred my reading on the most. Flyboys: A True Story of Courage is the story of nine men, one them George H.W. Bush, who were shot down in enemy waters and the story of what happened to them after. Eight of the men’s stories were classified for many decades, and Bradley’s meticulous research honors their lives. Yet what gripped me was Bradley’s discussion of the history of Japan and its codes, which gave me an insight into why and how the Japanese seemed (and were) such brutal opponents. He manages to do this while not downplaying the brutality of America’s own ways and means and had me searching for more in-depth looks at the history of the empire of the rising sun.
Why yes, Lost in Shangri-La also happens to claim the subtitle “the most incredible rescue mission of World War II,” but I’d argue that this and Rescue at Los Banos are completely different, worthy accounts. Stuck in New Guinea near the end of the war, Allied Forces were frustrated with the lack of action they were seeing. In order to boost morale, a superior officer decided to take a select group on a sightseeing trip over “Shangr-La,” the newly discovered, untouched civilization in a lush valley. The plane crashed, and the only survivors were face to face with natives who were rumored to be headhunters. Their survival and subsequent rescue are the stuff of legends.
Survivors of the Bataan Death March lived only to suffer additional cruelty and deprivation at the hands of their Japanese captors. Near the end of the war, the Japanese massacred all prisoners of a nearby war camp in an effort to leave behind no witnesses to their treatment, as it was against the Geneva Convention (which the Japanese never signed), and American Forces realized they had no more time in which to plan a rescue for the Cabanatuan POW camp behind enemy lines. Just over 100 troops, along with Philippine guerilla forces and civilians, worked ceaselessly to execute a raid, and Sides dips into the lives of both the prisoners and the soldiers planning to save them, telling a story of incredible courage, strength, and will.
Next up, I’m reading James Hornfischer’s Ship of Ghosts, so I’ll have to check back later with an updated list. That said, I’d wholeheartedly recommend any of these, and I’m curious if you may have any recommendations as well.
Or have you ever been obsessed with reading books on a certain subject?