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The Pacific Theater and the Cost of Heroism


“Heroism is endurance for one moment more.”
--George F. Kennan

Back in 2010, I told an acquaintance that I had just finished a Word War II collective biography, due out the following year. She immediately began enthusing about a WWII book she’d been reading and asked if I'd also read it. I hadn’t and the way she described it—a WWII flyboy who becomes lost at sea before being nearly tortured to death in a Japanese POW camp—didn’t particularly pique my interest. 

My personal images and interest in WWII—as well as the book I was working on--all focused on the European conflict. My Army Air Corps dad and his three brothers had all flown in the European Theater and while I was in high school The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom had come to theaters. So the two basic images implanted in my mind regarding WWII—tall, dashing, Dutch-American flyboys and a middle-aged Dutch woman who defied the Nazis by hiding Jews—had, apart from Pearl Harbor, made me consider WWII as a primarily European conflict and had compartmentalized the war in my brain under the category of courage, not necessarily endurance. 

Louie Zamperini, on the other hand, the subject of my friend’s favorite read, had gained hero status in the Pacific Theater by what he’d endured: a sadistic Japanese officer named named Mutsuhiro Wantabe became determined to break him. Zamperini shouldn’t have survived. He did. 

When I decided to write a book focusing on the Pacific War, reading Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption became one way in which I immersed myself in the general topic. Like so many others before me, I became mesmerized by the story and Laura Hillenbrand’s masterful storytelling. And in the process of reading the book, along with the memoirs and biographies of the women featured in what would become Women Heroes of World War II—the Pacific Theater: 15 Stories of Resistance, Rescue, Sabotage, and Survival, I came to understand that endurance was precisely what the Pacific War had been for millions of people; not only for American troops fighting an enemy who refused to surrender, but for the civilians unfortunate enough to find themselves in Japanese-controlled territory.

Trying to promote their “Asia for Asians” mantra, the Japanese invaders/occupiers rounded up all Allied civilians into camps. While a far cry from the Nazi-run concentration camps, these Japanese internment camps were places of disease, starvation, and yes, endurance.

One fascinating way in which a group of imprisoned British and European civilians and Australian army nurses sought to maintain at least the health of their spirits was by something called the vocal orchestra. Two brilliant musically-inclined inmates initiated a choir whose repertoire consisted of orchestral pieces such as the Largo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Recreated in the film Paradise Road, the vocal orchestra was a brilliant antidote to the despair pervading the camp. 

But the body needs food, and medicine as well, especially when living in a tropical environment. Since the prisoners had little of either, the vocal orchestra literally died out long before the war’s end. But its impact was beautifully captured in the memoir of Helen Colijn, one of the women featured in Women Heroes of World War II—the Pacific Theater: 15 Stories of Resistance, Rescue, Sabotage, and Survival

Three women featured in my book perhaps fit more precisely into the Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption category because they, like Zamperini, endured intentional physical torture. Elizabeth Choy, Sybil Kathigasu, and Claire Phillips all suffered at the hands of the Kempetai, the Japanese military police, who, like the German Gestapo, were tasked with weeding out resistance activities. 

Elizabeth Choy found herself in their hands inadvertently after she had unknowingly passed radio parts to Allied prisoners in Singapore. The Japanese were convinced she was part of a larger plot so to obtain the desired confession, they tortured her nearly to death. Deeply religious, she refused to lie, even to save her life. 

Sybil Kathigasu, on the other hand, was an active member of the Malayan resistance: she provided medical care to local guerilla fighters. She was caught and taken into Kempeitai custody where one officer named Eko Yoshimura took a special interest in breaking her. He nearly destroyed Kathigasu's body but her will remained intact and she never divulged the information Yoshimura sought. 

Claire Phillips, an American member of the Manila resistance, charmed and chatted up Japanese officers in her nightclub, gleaning precious tidbits of intel, then used her earnings to sneak food to starving American POWs. She was caught, interrogated, tortured, and starved by the Kempeitai for nearly nine months without betraying anyone.

There was often a long-term cost for defying Imperial Japan. When I finished Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption , I understood that the book’s title was a bit of a misnomer. Yes, Zamperini survived Wantabe’s beatings. But years after the war, the Japanese officer was still in his head, tormenting his dreams so much that the American hero, now a full-fledged alcoholic, was convinced that the only road to peace was through an airplane ticket to Japan so he could kill Wantabe. 

Conversion to Christianity saved Zamperini from his dark, downward spiral but not all American Pacific War POWs fared as well: they suffered far more PTS, alcoholism, premature death, suicide, and divorce in comparison with their counterparts released from German camps. 

I found a similar trend among the women whose stories I encountered while writing my book. Sybil Kathigasu died three years after the war from complications arising from her beatings. Claire Phillips died in 1960 from alcoholism-related meningitis. 

Even women who hadn't been imprisoned during the war were powerfully and negatively impacted by it. Yay Panlilio, part of an anti-Japanese Filipino guerilla force, claimed post-war that the conflict had completely worn down her body, mind, and emotions. Gladys Aylward's health remained precarious for years after she'd personally escorted Chinese war orphans to safety during a long, dangerous trek. Minnie Vautrin, an American who exhausted herself trying to protect women during the horrific Nanking Massacre, eventually committed suicide.

All war creates suffering in the moment and in the aftermath. The Pacific War seemed to be a conflict in which this was intensely true for reasons I’m still sorting out. But whatever the reason, the people who stood up to Japanese fascism deserve respect and remembrance just as much as those who defied the Nazis. 

Louie Zamperini once dismissed his war hero status, claiming that mere survival does not make one a hero. Millions of his fans--myself included--profoundly disagree. Surviving the Pacific War was more than enough to earn the designation.