When I first glommed onto the Far East Prisoners of War as a favorite topic, one of the first memoirs I read was Alistair Urquhart’s The Forgotten Highlander. Just about everything bad that could happen to any white dude as a prisoner of the Japanese happened to Alistair Urquhart. He’s #5 here, and no surprise it’s from Cracked – the story’s so awful it’s funny, especially because the title is so apt: Urquhart careens through Asia being royally pissed off at everybody for having left him to die out there.

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I felt a tiny drop of his righteous bad attitude while engrossed in Ian W. Toll’s magisterial Pacific Crucible. A super-readable broad history of the Pacific war with an emphasis on the Navy, Toll’s work is giving me all the context I didn’t know I was missing. And I mean all context, because at least in this volume (there’s also book 2 of a planned trilogy) the word ‘prisoner’ essentially doesn’t appear.

Here’s American-held Wake Island, December 23, 1941:

That night the invading force quickly swept through the islands, cutting the defenders off into isolated pockets. The marines put up a gallant defense…but their positions were gradually overrun. At 2:50 AM…Commander Cunningham notified [his boss] Pye: ‘Enemy apparently landing.’ With superior numbers, the invaders gradually advanced across the islands, and at five in the morning Cunningham signaled: ‘The enemy is on the island. The issue is in doubt.’

Toll then explains why Pye, with good reason, did not extend his crippled forces to relieve Wake. He goes on:

For many in Hawaii, both military and civilians, that was the single worst day of the war. The cancellation of the Wake relief operation coincided with ominous news from the Philippines: Japanese transports were pouring troops onto the beaches of Luzon and Leyte without opposition, and MacArthur had fled Manila. The United States had no realistic hope of sending reinforcements or supplies to the Philippines; they would probably be abandoned and conceded to the enemy, as Wake had been.

I turned the page: OK, Wake Island overrun by the enemy, the Philippines are next, I’m on the edge of my seat: now what? Now the focus goes back to Washington DC. The above is the last mention of Wake for fifty pages. It’s like once the island’s valiant defenders conceded defeat, they were removed from the board like chess pieces.

Duh: That’s exactly what it is to become a prisoner of war. As the Germans famously put it, For you the war is over. Toll’s not writing a book about POWs; he’s writing about the prosecution of the war. And those poor bastards at Wake aren’t prosecuting any more war. What my reaction reveals is only how many books I’ve read about POWs, wherein the surrender is only the start of the story.

Later on Toll writes

The entire Allied strategy in the Pacific depended on two cardinal points: Hawaii must not fall, and Australia must not fall….Every other concern was to be ruthlessly subordinated to what [Admiral] King called those ‘two vital Pacific tasks.’ Though it had not yet been acknowledged in Washington, the Philippines would fall. Though it had not yet been acknowledged in London, Malaya and Singapore would fall. Burma would fall; the Dutch East Indies would fall; the remaining British, Dutch, and American forces in the southeast Pacific would disintegrate. The U.S. Asiatic Fleet…would probably be annihilated by the enemy’s ships and planes. Its main contribution to the war effort would be to…buy a few precious weeks…

In my brain this paragraph sounds like

…the Philippines would fall THE BATAAN DEATH MARCH, O’DONNELL, CABANATUAN
Malaya and Singapore would fall CHANGI, THE RAILWAY, SONGKURAI
…Burma would fall ROMUSHA
…the Dutch East Indies would fall AMBON, THE SUMATRA RAILWAY
HELLSHIPS, PALAWAN, ETC. ETC. ETC.

And yet Toll just goes on about admirals meeting, and to say that is no criticism of his excellent book. It’s only to understand why Alistair Urquhart felt so damn abandoned by his government and his superiors. It’s because his government and his superiors had in fact, by bitter necessity, decided to abandon him. He was the forgotten Highlander – not forgotten by history, but certainly forgotten by the narrative of the actual war.

This circles back to one of the compelling qualities of POW narratives: while everyone else is struggling to kill each other, they’re struggling to stay alive and keep others alive. They’re fighting one hell of a war, yet it’s all a footnote.

Or, to vary a variously attributed quote:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

For more Alistair Urquhart, see this jaw-dropping, attitude-filled documentary:

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