Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tears in the Light: Why Bad History Always Makes Me Cry

This newsletter is Steve’s reaction to the ongoing remembrance of the 68th anniversary of the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, his recent reading of a newspaper article and Elizabeth Norman’s “We Band of Angels,” and his subsequent viewing of the movie “So Proudly We Hail.”

Before we moved to Corregidor we lived in Lansing, Michigan for over 25 years. Michigan State University (MSU) is located right next door in the city of Ann Arbor. MSU won the national basketball championship in the mid-1980’s behind its star, Michael Jordan. Their coach was Jed Heathcote. He never won a head-to-head game against Bobby Knight at Illinois.

Some of you are probably asking, “So what?” Others of you are saying, “WHAT????” You see, the preceding paragraph is loaded with errors. Most of you failed to notice any of them. You just expected that we would never print things that weren’t true, that we’d be sure to check our facts, or that, since we claimed to have lived in Lansing, what we said could be taken as gospel. But others of you would know immediately that MSU is in East Lansing, that they won the national championship in 1979, that their star was Magic Johnson, and that Judd (not Jed) Heathcote won and lost many games against Bobby Knight, who coached at Indiana University. Some of you sports followers were probably ready to write letters saying I didn’t know what the heck I was talking about.

So I ask, why do we take our sports so seriously, yet casually tolerate blatant errors and sloppy fact-checking in historical books and movies?

The misinformation about the war here in the Philippines never ceases to amaze and dishearten me. I have commented so often about errors in the bestseller, “Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath,” that someone suggested I write a book called, “Tears in the Light: Why Bad History Always Makes Me Cry.” For example, I pointed out that the endnote on the top of page 414 in “Tears in the Darkness” which states, “…perhaps as many as 2,500 Filipinos were killed or died on the death march…” grossly understates the heavily researched and accepted range of 5-10,000, and perhaps represents an attempt to paint the Japanese in a slightly kinder light.

Unfortunately, exaggerations in the other direction are also common. For example, in an article in the Manila Bulletin earlier this month, writer Brian B. Garcia states that “54,000 reached the concentration camp,” a reasonable figure. But then he continues, “In the end, 50,000 more men lost their lives during the four-month stay at Camp O’Donnell. Only one out of thirteen made it out alive.” This is beyond unreasonable, it is preposterous. In reality, somewhat more than 2,000 Americans died during the period including the DM and their six-to-eight-week stay at Camp O’Donnell, while about 29,000 Filipinos lost their lives during the DM or during their seven (not four) months at O’Donnell. So, of the approximately 76,000 who started the DM, roughly 45,000 soldiers either escaped along the DM or left O’Donnell alive, more than 10 times the 4,000 that Garcia claims. To grossly overstate the atrocities does as much injustice to history as to understate them. Admittedly, the exact numbers will always be in dispute, but writers ought to stick to the accepted ranges rather than rewrite history. Or they had better be able to show reliable documentation before challenging or overturning 65 years of scholarship and research.

In 1999 Elizabeth Norman (who with her husband co-wrote “Tears in the Darkness” ten years later) wrote “We Band of Angels.” In it, Norman discusses the making of the movie, “So Proudly We Hail,” the aim of which, she says, “was to tell the story of the battle for the Philippines through the eyes of the nurses who served there.” It focuses on the female American nurses who served on Bataan and Corregidor. Some were evacuated by submarine in the last days before Corregidor fell, and the movie was filmed as if seen through their eyes. One evacuee, Eunice Hatchitt, was assigned as a technical consultant to the director and screen writer. Norman goes on to state that the movie was a great hit, supposedly accurate, but in fact was “storytelling.” Including stars Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake, the movie was a smashing success. Critics went wild, and audiences filled the theaters. But the nurses whom the movie portrayed, according to Norman, “were embarrassed.” You see, the movie was made and released DURING the war, when most of these nurses were still POWs in internment camps. This was serious business. After the war, many of them had a hard time forgiving Hatchitt, despite the fact, according to Norman, that she had done her best to have their story told accurately.

Made curious by this introduction to the movie, I watched “So Proudly We Hail” this week. Although I caught a few inaccuracies within the story, I’m sure that I was nowhere near as sensitive to the subject matter as were the nurses who saw the movie after the war, nor did I spot nearly the problems that they would have noticed. Ms. Norman seems to be making the point – she uses five pages for this topic alone – that the portrayal was unfair to the nurses. She essentially makes an argument for historical accuracy in movies.

Whenever I read books or see movies about Bataan and Corregidor, I am as sensitive about accuracy as the nurses who were critical of “So Proudly We Hail.” Some of you may ask, “Why do you get your shorts in a wringer about such matters?” I love, and more importantly, respect history – especially as it relates to WW II in the Philippines. Over the past several years we’ve had the privilege of meeting many survivors, including Malcolm Amos, Dick Francies, Everett Reamer, Chuck Towne, Frank Stecklein, Ray Makepeace, as well as a host of Filipinos. Ray Heimbuch, Tony Bilek, and James Baldassarre are among the thousands we’ve never met, but whose stories are each important and unique. These, like my father, are real men whose stories deserve to be accurately reported and portrayed.

Once something is published it tends to become accepted history. A prime example occurs in William Manchester’s “American Caesar.” On page 291, Manchester states, “On May 6 a terrible silence fell over Corregidor. White flags were raised from every flagstaff that was still standing, and the triumphant Japanese moved their eleven thousand captives to Bataan. The next day the prisoners began the brutal Death March – the long trek northward in which between seven thousand and ten thousand Fil-Americans died of disease, starvation, sadistic beatings, and outright execution.” Today, many books (including, most ironically, “World War II for Dummies” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World War II”) contain this “fact.” In truth, the men who were captured on Corregidor, including my father, DID NOT subsequently participate in the Death March, since it was concluded two weeks before Corregidor surrendered.

Is it wrong for me to hold the Garcias, the Normans, the Manchesters and other writers and historians to the same standard for accuracy that Ms. Norman appeals to in “We Band of Angels?”

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