Friday, January 23, 2015

Some Survived by Manny Lawton

What is true heroism? On the battlefield it is when men put their lives on the line for the good of others. But what about off the battlefield? In Return From the River Kwai surviving the horrors of a Japanese internment camp during WWII constituted heroism. I don't want to undermine the courage and resilience of those men, but, as I said in my review, I am uneasy with heroism being equated with survival. (I wrote another book review on heroism off the battlefield here.)

Manny Lawton's Some Survived recounts many of the same events as Return From the River Kwai: the fall of the Philippines (spring of 1942), the Bataan Death March, the POW camps and the perilous journey to Japan on the "hell ships" (Dec 1944).

Lawton joined the army fresh out of college in 1940 and was stationed in the Philippines when the U.S. declared war on Japan. (The Philippines was attacked immediately after Pearl Harbor.) He and thousands of others marched the 91 miles to Camp O'Donnell. Of the 12,000 men who fought at Bataan, half would die "lonely, cruel, inglorious deaths"over the next six months (p. 37) Four thousand more would die on the death ships. The numbers are staggering. The conditions under which they lived and died are staggering. The fact that anyone could rise above the cruelty and show kindness is even more staggering.

Lawton tells of how it was "every man for himself" in the camps because they were all sick, starving, and dehydrated. Who had time or energy to think of anyone else? He remembers when he was so sick he could barely move. Tom was a barber who cut hair in trade for money or cigarettes, but this same man came over every evening and gave him a shave for nothing. That small act of decency helped restore Lawton's dignity. Another time when he and many others were severely ill with beriberi and couldn't sleep because of the pain, another POW, Warren Garwick, came in after a day of slave labor in the rice fields to massage the mens' legs and feet until they could fall asleep for a few hours.

Another time two men surrendered themselves to be tortured (confessing to a crime they didn't commit) so that the rest of the men would not have to suffer.

As John Toland wrote in the introduction: Captivity brought out the best and the worst. Some men remained indifferent to the fate of others; some gave their lives for their friends; some stole; some gave up food and fought for the rights of others. Many of those who survived did so because of their selfishness. Others, like Manny Lawton, survived because of faith in God, country and their fellow men...It's time we honored these unsung heroes who got no promotions or medals and who endured without losing their humanity.

That is the key. Remaining human enough to show compassion (rather than capitulating to mere animal instincts) made these men heroes to their fellow prisoners.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. It's a story of human depravity, barbarous cruelty, and desperate measures to stay alive. But because of its excellent writing, riveting stories and astonishing acts of kindness, Some Survived is one of my favorite WWII books.


Sherry said...

That's an interesting thought, Hope. I just heard a news report on NPR about one man, 35 years old now, who survived his childhood and young adult years in the LRA (Joseph Kony in Uganda) by becoming a leader in that cult group. He goes on trial this week (?) at The Hague for "crimes against humanity", and some people think he should get off because he was captured as a child and he did what he did (some horrendous acts) in order to survive. I'm not sure. Others, children in the LRA who have not been indicted by the international courts, are being offered amnesty if they will run away and turn themselves in. It's a complicated dilemma, especially since in this case it involves children. Here's a NYT story about the man whose name is Dominic Ongwen:

He was captured at the age of ten. Certainly not a hero, but . . .

Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

Wow! Sounds like a challenging and very worthwhile read. Thank you for sharing!

Carol said...

'Remaining human enough to show compassion (rather than capitulating to mere animal instincts) made these men heroes to their fellow prisoners.' Much more difficult to do - it doesn't feel heroic, it's just hard. Great point, Hope.

Farm Girl said...

A wonderful review. I used to enjoy books like this but now that my sons are of the age that it could be them in some situation in some war I find I don't have the stomach. I have raised them to think of themselves as serving their fellow men but until a person is in the situation do you know what you are made of and if we would do the same thing or become just as barbaric. My grandfather was a simple farmer but was chosen in World War II to go to those islands in the Pacific to clean out the Japanese. To kill everyone there. He said, every day he wondered if it was his last. He survived but with so many scars. I think all of those stories should be told. I am so glad that you told about this book today, because I hope we never forget those sacrifices.
Thank you so much for all of the wonderful reviews you give. There are so many books I would not have heard about until you share them. Excellent review, thank you.