As Good As Dead: The Daring Escape of American POWs From a Japanese Death Camp

Image of As Good As Dead: The Daring Escape of American POWs From a Japanese Death Camp
Release Date: 
November 21, 2016
Reviewed by: 

With perhaps the exception of the Holocaust in Europe, no other phase of World War II was more horrific than captivity under the Imperial Japanese Empire, the same being said of combat against these same forces. Many know of or are familiar with the treatment meted out by Japanese captors against those who happened to fall under their sway. Think Bataan Death March, Bridge on the River Kwai, or Unbroken for relevant context.

Given the Japanese Code of Bushido, or Way of the Warrior, it is not surprising that they would treat with contempt any foe who would surrender or otherwise allow himself to be captured in battle. Notwithstanding their use of POWs as a ready-made labor force, Allied military men were seen as disposable, used up, and thrown away, as it were, with very little food, inadequate medical treatment, shelter, or rest.

Much has been written about the Bataan Death March and its attendant horrors and the “hellships,” prisoner of war transport vessels that were frequently and unknowingly sunk on their way to mines and factories in Japan and China, mostly by American submarines. But this book is not only about a horrific act of murder by the Japanese but also a successful story of escape, one of few where the Japanese are concerned.

With many prison camps located in remote jungles or other relatively inaccessible areas, it was difficult enough to escape and survive, never mind the fact that the Japanese held accountable those who did not try to escape through beatings, torture and even execution. As a Caucasian in an Asian world, it was doubly difficult to do so, particularly when one could not always necessarily rely on the loyalty of the indigenous population.

Indeed, one of the Filipino characters in this book was considered by American prisoners to be a Japanese collaborator even as he collected intelligence and led a guerrilla force on the island of Palawan where the prison camp in question was located.

After forcing their prisoners to endure the unendurable and build an airfield for them on the island, as the war progressed and the Allies drew closer to invading the Philippines, the Japanese decided to exterminate the prisoners in order to prevent their recapture.

Herding their 150 prisoners into trench-like bomb shelters in the prison compound, the Japanese poured aviation fuel on them and set them alight. Those not burned to death were gunned down or bayoneted by soldiers positioned to prevent escape from the inferno. In the event, not all were killed immediately but most were eventually hunted down by their enemy and eliminated.

The success in this story revolves around the eleven men who did ultimately escape the clutches of the Japanese. In spite of suffering wounds during the escape and their previously weakened constitutions via their treatment, the eleven were able to make their way to Filipino guerrillas who were only too happy to provide food, rest and what medical treatment they could until such time as arrangements could be made with Allied forces to complete their rescue.

Although some Japanese soldiers escaped prosecution by being killed in action or acquitted following trial, others did suffer legal penalty by postwar imprisonment although, from the descriptions in the text, it would seem that at least some merited the ultimate penalty.

As many of the prisoners were survivors of the Death March, a map is included showing Corregidor Island and route of the march from Bataan to Camp O’Donnell. The other map shows Palawan Island and related features. There is also a diagram of the layout of the camp.

The photographic section has portraits of some of the prisoners and the survivors, the camp and airfield as well as some of the Japanese figures involved. Three appendices list the murdered victims (their ranks and other information), the survivors, and the names of those who were held at the camp at one time or another, respectively.

For sheer horror, this is certainly a graphic story in multiple respects yet it is also a demonstration of the determination, spirit, and will to live on the part of those Americans who could just as easily have given up and died, considering the circumstances.

With the present rapid passing of the “Greatest Generation,” there is still a multitude of stories that need to be told and this was definitely one of them.