What the world does not need is another super-hype treatment of World War II that glamorises the mayhem and creates visions of heroism in the charmed brains of 11-year-old boys. This is the net effect of such recent coffee-table items as "Life Goes To War" (Little-Brown) and even the very fictional novel and movie, "Bridge Over the River Kwai," which left us all with a tune to whistle.
Fortunately, this new, roughly stitched together account of what happened in 1944 when 2,100 Australian and British prisoners of war were taken off the "Railway of Death" in Thailand for transshipment to Japan as forced labor is straightforward and disquieting. Their Japanese cargo ships were sunk by aggressive American submarines in the South China Sea, and at least 1,500 of the POWs died in the water. The tales of the nearly 600 survivors, one-third of them rescued by the American subs which had torpedoed them, are harrowing:
"'The thirst was awful. It's a dreadful feeling to die of thirst. Some tried to drink urine, but there wasn't much there. One of the boys on our raft, an Australian, was pretty far gone. In fact, he was dead, as far as I was concerned. We tried to cut a hole in his neck to drink some blood out of his neck. We scratched a hole in his neck with a piece of bamboo, but there was no blood.'"
That is not the grizzliest scene that turned up in the notes of this husband-and-wife team, who interviewed several scores of survivors and U.S. submarine personnel. The tale contains real-life elements of Darwin's "The Origin of Species" (some fitter POWs pushed others off flotsam rafts when there was not room for everyone), Nordhoff and Hall's classic "Men Against the Sea" (men going mad from drinking sea water or their own urine) and "Alive!," the cannibalistic survival story of the South American soccer team whose plane crashed in the high Andes. It is a soldier's-mouth primer on the pure horror of war.
The book, told exclusively from the Allied point of views is essentially monochromatic. The Japanese pass through the story as mere stick figures bent on brutalizing the emaciated prisoners. Post-war statistics, of course, support this bloody view of the Japanese Captors: 20 percent of the 61,000 British and Australian prisoners assigned to laying rails in Malaya, Burma and Thailand perished.
To its credit, this account does not mask the atrocities the good guys were also capable of committing. When they found themselves unceremoniously dumped into the drink along with Japanese soldiers, the Australian POWs pummeled one hapless raft-rider to death and summarily drowned others. One memoir: " . . . McGrath jumped first. Clifford hung back: 'I just stood and watched him. He got this Nip around the neck and throttled him. Gurgle. Then he went on to another one. Gurgle, gurgle. Then to a third one and gurgle, gurgle, gurgle.'"
The U.S. Navy, which did not know it was sinking ships carrying prisoners of war, comes off rather heroically. But there is a bit of My Lai in all soldiers. When the pristine American submariners first came across the unexpected sight of men floating around the South China Sea on a wreckage raft, they took them for Japanese survivors of the torpedo attacks. No mercy here. The captain "'passed the word below to break open the gun locker. Anyone who wanted to shoot a Jap, get a tommy gun. A whole lot of guys came up with guns, all set to have a ball.'" Only the sight of one man's blond, curly hair and the sound of an Australian twang coming across the water prevented a massacre-within-the-massacre.
Because it is hung together like index cards on a bulletin board, this book is slow going until the sheer adventurous horror takes over. Then it becomes an all-nighter, replete with a heartbreaking ending, when a number of survivors are forever abandoned by the last, overcrowded submarine.