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Posted by on Jun 11, 2009 in Arts & Entertainment, Places, Society, War | 7 comments

Book Review—“Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath”


Auschwitz, the Gulag Archipelago, the Killing Fields of Cambodia. These are names that immediately evoke images of some of the most horrific acts of cruelty and inhumanity.

In their new book, Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman take us to yet another place and another time when men and women “suffered an ordeal of unparalleled cruelty and savagery: forty-one months of starvation, dehydration, hard labor, deadly disease, torture, murder, and journeys on ‘hell ships’ to the enemy’s homeland.”

As so many of us have heard and read about, the place was the Philippine peninsula of Bataan; the time: immediately following what many consider the single largest defeat in United States military history—the 99-day battle for Bataan, that ended on April 9, 1942, with the surrender of more than 76,000 troops under American command.

However, that end would only be the beginning of one of the cruelest episodes in the annals of warfare: the infamous Bataan Death March and the ensuing imprisonment of American and Filipino soldiers by the Japanese.

In “Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath,” the authors not only compellingly and meticulously describe and document the unspeakable horrors of that infamous 66-mile forced march, but also the mistakes and the sense of shame and failure that preceded that ignominious defeat and surrender, and the years of agonizing brutality that followed for the survivors of the march.

They do so by following the experiences of their protagonist, Ben Steele, a 23-year-old Montana cowboy and aspiring sketch artist who joined the Army Air Corps “to see the world.” A year later, just prior to Pearl Harbor, Steele’s unit is shipped to Clark Field in the Philippines, to deter Japanese aggression in the Pacific.

Barely a few hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan launches a devastating attack on Clark Field. Surviving the attack, Steele joins the retreating American force that tries to defend and hold the Bataan Peninsula. He is eventually captured by the Japanese and becomes part of the Bataan Death March, a march that left more than 2,000 American and Filipino prisoners dead.

Miraculously, Steele survives the march only to endure, and survive, three more years of brutalization and hard labor—he was twice given his last rites—in Japanese prison camps and aboard “hell ships,” before being liberated in 1945.

(Of the approximately 25,000 Americans captured by the Japanese in the Philippines, only 15,000 came home alive at the end of the war).

Equally significant, juxtaposed against Steele’s and other American heroes’ stories, are “the heretofore untold accounts of a number of Japanese soldiers, the common hohei who struggle to maintain their humanity while carrying out their superiors’ inhuman commands.”

In fact, this may be the first American work to include an in-depth exploration of the Japanese point of view in the war.

To write this superb historical account, the Normans spent 10 years taking a fresh look at the first major land battle for America in World War II. They conducted over 400 interviews with Americans, Japanese and Filipinos, and examined more than 2,800 documents to tell the story of the soldiers on both sides of the battle in Bataan.

The result is a spell-binding, emotive, harrowing and beautifully written book.

Early reviews have called the book an important new historical work. Kirkus said the book would “excite discussion in military-history circles” and Booklist called it “an indispensable addition to every World War II collection.”

Although the book is classified as history, early reviews have noted that its focus on the struggles of ordinary soldiers on both sides, rather than solely on their commanders, makes the story equally relevant today.

Both the New York Times and the Washington Times have run recent articles on the book.

Almost as a bonus, the book includes several drawings taken from the sketchbooks of Ben Steele. Sketches that were made during his six decades as an artist and teacher of art in Billings, Montana.

The story behind those sketches is itself worthy of a book.

The original sketches were drawn by Private Steele during his years as an invalid prisoner of war in Manila.

According to the New York Times in “The Memorial of the Mind“:

When Navy P.O.W. doctors noticed Private Steele’s talent, they suggested that he secretly begin to document their experience. He made 50 such sketches, which an Army chaplain hid in the false bottom of a Mass kit. The chaplain was then shipped to a prison camp in Japan, and en route his vessel was sunk by American aircraft. Though the chaplain survived, Private Steele’s sketches ended up at the bottom of the South China Sea.

To read the rest of the Times article, please click here.

To see some of the sketches Mr. Steele recreated, his “war work,” please click here

Ben Steele, now 91, is a retired professor of art from Montana State University.

According to the authors:

The more we talked, the more we could see that he had thought deeply about what had happened to him. His reflections had led him to a profound understanding of what war does to those swept up in it. Most of all, we were taken with his philosophy of life. He is a man determined to make every day, every moment, count.

Michael Norman, a former reporter for The New York Times and a Marine Corps combat veteran of Vietnam, is now a professor of journalism at New York University. He is the author of “These Good Men: Friendships Forged from War, a memoir.”

Elizabeth Norman, author of “Women at War: the Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam” and “We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese,” is a professor of humanities at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

“Tears in the Darkness,” according to Kirkus is a story that:

Says a great deal about the inglorious and rightly unglorified aspects of war, from the sense of shame that settled on the American commander at the moment of surrender to the terrible years that lay ahead. Drawing on the memories of participants on both sides, the Normans provide a careful history of a ghastly episode that still reverberates.

“Tears in the Darkness” has just been published. It is available at and should be available now or very shortly at your local bookstore.

Sketch, above, is of Ben Steele, self-portrait in Bilibid prison hospital, Manila, 1943.
Copyright 2009 Ben Steele, with permission of the artist.

Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • archangel

    did the authors mention in the index, Violet Chang, who had begun the quintessential work on Bataan just six years ago? She was the author of the acclaimed Rape of Nanking, a young mother. She struggled to interview survivors of the march from Bataan, and … well, there is much more to the story of a lone author bearing up under the unbearable stories of many survivors who went through hell’s hell in Asia during the horror-war there, including Bataan. There is the reality of post-secondary trauma. Disaster workers often are affected by it, any professional who works with people who have experienced the unspeakable.

    It would have been a debt of honor to mention Chang, for she was not able, given years of laboring neck-deep in horrific stories of survivors, herself, to complete the work. She took her life at age 34, in 2004…

    you can read one account of her life at wikipedia


    • DdW

      I do not remember her from the text of the book. She is not in the index, but I haven’t gone through the voluminous notes yet.

      Thanks for mentioning her.


    • DdW

      dr. E,

      I received the following information from the authors:

      “Thank you very much for your support of the book and for sending along Dr. Estés inquiry. We did not know Iris Chang personally, but of course read her book, “The Rape of Nanking” along the way, and when we were in Japan, we heard a lot of comment on the book from the some twenty-five former Imperial Army soliders we interviewed. We’ve also read other books on the Nanking and critiques of Iris’s work. Indeed, one of the most powerful books about the Japanese Army and what led up to Nanking was written by Tatsuzo Ishikawa who, as a writer assigned to the IJA, traveled with the Japanese troops in 1938 on their way to Nanking. Soldiers Alive is both chilling and prescient. Iris began her work on Bataan several years after we began our project; in fact I think she was contacting some of the same sources we’d interviewed. So we were indeed curious about her progress. To lose anyone so young under such circumstances was both sad and tragic, especially for her family. Her notes and interviews were turned over to another writer we know very well, Joe Galloway. I don’t think Joe is going to proceed with the project. It’s always hard for one writer to walk around in another’s shoes. I think Iris would have liked Tears In The Darkness, would have found that while it also offered the Japanese point of view, it made the wages of war and the devastating consequences of atrocity very clear. At least we hope she would have liked it. Again, thank you very much for your support of our work.

      Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman”

      Dorian de Wind

  • nalogan1925

    I was disappointed in examining the references to find that the Normans apparently were not aware of one of the best accounts of the Bataan Death March and its aftermath that is contained in the memoir written immediately after he was freed [written while recuperating for a year in the hospitals from the injuries imposed on his body by the brutal Japs] by Dr. Alfred Abraham Weinstein and bearing the title “Barbed Wire Surgeon”, published The Macmillan Company, 1947, 310 pages.

    There is an excellent New York Times review at

    which was written by an older doctor who died in 1970.

    It is a pathetic comment on our appreciation of the contribution of such men as Dr Weinstein that the Atlanta (GA) public library no longer lists in its holding this book by one of Atlanta’s leading citizens in the period just after World War II. With librarians discarding from their shelves books that are not in active circulation, future generations are being denied access to the great contributions of men like Dr. Weinstein.

  • emn

    Dear Mr. Logan,

    Thank you for getting in touch with me. I have been a long time fan of Barbed Wire Surgeon and read it many times when I wrote I my first book on Bataan, We Band Of Angels. The nurse in that book whom I became very close too, Helen Cassiani Nestor,told me many stories about Dr. Weinstein. She worked with him on Bataan and knew him well. He was a gifted surgeon who possessed a wonderful sense of humor and a deep commitment to his patients. I am so pleased you know and are a “fan” of his book with me . We used 3400 articles, books and diaries in writing Tears in the Darkness and our reference list included only those book etc that we quoted directly in the text. In no way did we intentionally exclude this fine, fine memoir. I would recommend to any one, any time.

    Elizabeth Norman

  • Oyajidesu

    We may forgive, but we certainly do not forget. My cousin was with the 200th Coastal Artillery (New Mexico National Guard) – the first to fire and the last to surrender at Bataan. He survived the Death March, Camp O’Donnell, Cabanatuan, The Hell Ships, Japan and finally died of exhaustion digging coal in Mukden, China as a slave laborer for Mitsubishi. His death was only a few weeks before liberation and VJ Day.

    Of the 1,850+ New Mexicans that went to the Philippines in October 1941, approximately 600 were alive at VJ Day in August 1945 and only about 300 were still alive in 1946.

    I believe that my cousin would have forgiven his Japanese tormentors. His mother did and prayed for the Japanese mothers who had lost their sons, but who never knew their fates. Better people than me.

    I only wish that his story could have been written.

  • Bill McGarvey

    I knew Helen Nestor,her husband & children,many years ago.My parents were good friends of Helen & Ed.When I was about 10 or 12 years old,(1962-64)I met Bishop Francis McSorley at Helen & Ed’s home & heard talk of their experiences in the Philipines during WWII.Please give my regards to Helen.
    Bill McGarvey

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