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.