THE WAR JOURNALS OF
MAJOR DAMON "ROCKY" GAUSE
Edited by Damon Gause
Hyperion. 181 pp. $21.95
This is the story of Damon "Rocky" Gause, an adventuresome, restless, speed-loving Georgian in his early twenties who served in the Army Air Corps in the South Pacific in the early months of World War II. He was a dive-bomber pilot, but he had no chance to prove himself as one before becoming caught up in the brutal ground warfare on Bataan and Corregidor, after which he set out on an extraordinary fight for survival.
Gause had not distinguished himself in high school and quit the University of Georgia after only one year, but somewhere along the way he picked up a vivid prose style and a sense of history. How else are we to explain his decision, as he began his long voyage from the Philippines to Australia, to keep a diary and, immediately upon his return to the States, to transform that diary into the narrative now before us? Perhaps he sensed that what he was undertaking was so improbable, so audacious, that he had to keep a record of it. Whatever the explanation, he wrote a book that is every bit as extraordinary as the journey itself.
Gause wrote his story in 13 months, beginning in the fall of 1942. He had come home to Georgia, where he rejoined the girl whom he had married only two weeks before shipping overseas, and fathered his only child, the editor of this volume. In December 1943, he returned to the Air Corps and was assigned to Europe; he died in March of the next year when his P-47 crashed near London. The manuscript of his memoir was among the personal remains in a foot locker handed over to his young widow, who showed it only to members of her own family.
"To her," her son writes, "the contents of the foot locker represented my father's legacy to his only child," and she left the decision to publish it up to him. As a youth he was told by Gen. George Marshall: "Never let the memory of your father lay forgotten. He could never say die, and we'll always need men like him." Years later he "realized that it was up to me, my father's only child, to keep his memory and accomplishments alive," which is why we now have this book, published as well in tribute to "the members of my father's generation who sacrificed so much in the name of freedom, for their country, for their families, every one of them a hero."
That word "hero" is much abused nowadays, but it certainly fits Rocky Gause, a man of courage and a great warrior. He was in the Philippines as Japanese forces closed in, and was a member of the last American convoy "to get safely out of Manila," but his route was from the frying pan to the hellish fire of Bataan and Corregidor. The former was jammed with 80,000 American and Filipino troops when he got there, along with several thousand civilians; food was scarce, and "we were simply worn out physically and facing tremendous odds in material and supplies when the Japs finally broke through."
The Bataan death march loomed, but Gause managed to escape and get across the China Sea to Corregidor; the details of that escape, which do not lend themselves to precis or paraphrase, are breathtaking. Once again the Japanese closed in, and one again Gause eluded them, setting out in "a sluggish looking native outrigger that had washed up on the sands." Accompanied by Arranzaso, a Filipino lieutenant, he set out for Manila. In time they found themselves on a raft, when suddenly Arranzaso said, "Sir, my game is up!" and slid into the waves. "I knew," Gause writes, "that Arranzaso had sacrificed his life to save mine," an act that deepened the esteem Gause felt for the valiant Filipinos.
Back in the Philippines, Gause reconnected with Rita Garcia, a young woman whose life he had saved before the evacuation of Manila. She insisted on accompanying him as he worked his way to the coast, where he hoped to find a boat he could sail to Australia. She "was athletic and lithe and moved swiftly, uncomplaining through "seemingly endless days and nights of wandering," a "stirring example of Filipino courage and loyalty." Gause, decent and loyal to the core, came "to care for Rita more than I should have, under the circumstances, and I asked myself if I would have strength enough to leave her . . . after all that she had done for me." The moment of his departure is heartbreaking, because we know for certain that this is not merely a story of survival but a love story.
The boat in which Gause departed was a "20-foot, native-built, motor skiff" christened Ruth-Lee, in honor of Gause's wife -- try to imagine the tangle of emotions he must have felt as he sailed away from a woman he clearly loved in a boat named for another woman whom he also loved -- and the wife of Capt. William Osborne, "American commander of a Filipino infantry company, who had escaped from Bataan and had been hiding in the jungles with a handful of scouts." Osborne outranked Gause, but since Gause was the more accomplished sailor they agreed that he would be in command. Their relationship had its rough moments, "but when the trip was over we laughed about what seemed to us at the time to be serious difficulties, and we are today the best of friends."
The third party aboard the Ruth-Lee was the "Little Swede," the nickname they gave to the "temperamental Diesel motor" that operated according to dictates of its own: "Sometimes it would run for eight hours and then rest for eighteen. You might think it had a union card." They had to stop for repairs over and over -- including an extended stay at the leper colony at Culion -- but the machine worked when it had to, and, during a long, exhausting typhoon, "chugged away oblivious to the havoc around."
Gause's account of that storm is exceptionally vivid, but then his prose is rarely anything less. If the sail to Australia has something of the air of an improbable boys' adventure, something made for the movies -- Disney already has bought the book, apparently with a major film in mind -- elsewhere Gause gets across the horror of war in unsparing terms. Here is his description of the aftermath of a rebellion of American prisoners on Bataan:
"The Japs were unable to put their fingers on the leaders of the revolt but the next morning as the men were filing to the docks to begin work the Nips selected two second lieutenants and tied their hands behind them at the wrists. While all the men watched the Japs forced the Americans up on a high box and attached a rope from their bound wrists to a tree limb. Then they pulled the boxes out of the way and the officers plummeted downward, twisting their arms backwards and breaking them at the shoulders. The captors left the two officers swaying from the tree within sight of the laboring prisoners through the morning -- until the men became unconscious -- and then they were stripped and laid on the ground to be chewed and eaten by ants and other crawling insects."
Gause loathed the Japanese. They were "victory-crazed, sadistic devils," and "the cruelties that had been imposed by the Japanese" were in his mind -- as in history's -- unspeakable. Now it is no longer proper to call them "Japs" and "Nips," and those usages in this book will offend many readers. But given Gause's love for the Filipinos and his approval of a village in Timor -- "Chinese, Indians, Negroes, Malayans, in fact the most cosmopolitan population we'd encountered in our travels" -- it becomes clear that what he was expressing was not racism but hatred for the enemy. Many other Americans, in uniform and out, shared that hatred and used the same language. It is the way of war.
Rocky Gause was, perhaps above all else, a warrior. His story -- no matter how implausible it may be at times, every word of it rings true -- is utterly amazing, and so too is this book. We are in his son's debt for permitting us to read it.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.