Escape from Davao by John D. Lukacs

By Richard R. Muller
9/30/2010 • World War II Reviews

Escape From Davao
The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War

By John D. Lukacs. 448 pp.
Simon & Schuster, 2010. $27.99.

The European theater has provided numerous escape and evasion stories, but far fewer tales come out of the Pacific. The reasons are obvious. American and British prisoners of the Japanese faced almost insurmountable geographic, climatic, cultural, and linguistic barriers to making a successful escape. Conditions in the Japanese-administered camps were so miserable that prisoners often lacked the physical strength required for escape attempts. Most POWs had no choice but to sit out the war, and often met death by beating, starvation, overwork, execution, or drowning while trapped in the holds of sinking hell ships.

Escape From Davao, a most impressive authorial debut, dramatically recounts an exception: a 1943 group escape from Davao Penal Colony (invariably abbreviated Dapecol) on Mindanao, Philippine Islands, by 10 American POWs and two Filipino convicts. Its main protagonist is Major Ed Dyess, a cool Texan and P-40 pilot who emerged as a natural leader during the desperate struggle against the Japanese on the Bataan Peninsula (see “Triumph on Bataan,” World War II, September/October 2010). Lukacs paints a grim picture of the Bataan Death March (universally known to participants as “The Hike”) and the hell of the initial spell of imprisonment at Camp One at Cabanatuan. After transfer to Davao, conditions improved—but only slightly. Rations were marginally more plentiful, sympathetic Filipinos outside the wire offered the prospect of assistance, and work details afforded the slim chance of slipping away. A group of POWs began to hatch plans for a group breakout. Their motivation: not only to save themselves, but to bring the Japanese treatment of prisoners to the world’s attention and, in the words of one escapee, “arouse the righteous fury of the American people for the punishment of Japan.”

Lukacs manages to recreate the drama of the escape and the return home of most (not all) of the Americans with a richness not often found in historical works, thanks to his diverse and unusual sources. He interviewed three of the escapees, who, with their families, rendered yeoman assistance. He also did impressive research in the Philippines, gleaning important insights into the Filipino resistance network—a vital contributor to the escape’s success. He referenced Dyess’s after-action report and other official statements. Finally, he tracked down the sole copy of a 400-page movie script draft by one of the POWs. Although the film was never made, this 1944 document was an indispensable aid for reconstructing conversations and emotions.

This book is more than a tale of endurance and survival. Lukacs has some important things to say about how the U.S. government managed the release of information to the public. The Roosevelt administration initially placed a strict gag order on the escapees and delayed revealing the story of both the escape and the details of Japanese atrocities. Lukacs concludes this was due to a combination of factors, including a desire to not jeopardize Filipino resistance groups or international relief efforts to POWs, as well as a more cynical need to make the announcement coincide with an upcoming War Bond drive.

Though his prose tends to run a bit purple in places (“He watched the winds of war whip the wind sock”), Lukacs does full justice to this complex, inspiring, but also heartbreaking story.

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