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Military History - January 2012 - Letters From Readers

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: November 04, 2011 
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Still More Great Escapes
I read with interest "10 Great POW Escapes" [by Stephan Wilkinson, November]. I thought I would mention the escapes from Colditz Castle during World War II. This medieval castle with 700 rooms was determined by Nazi jailors to be escape proof, as not only were the walls thick, but also the guards were very alert to any escape intentions. So sure were the Germans that this POW facility was escape proof, they brought to Colditz most of the persistent escapers who had been recaptured after breaking out from other facilities.

As is covered by the several outstanding books on the subject (author Patrick Reid's are of note), Colditz's formidable walls and German efficiency and alertness were no match for a number of inmates who never stopped finding ways out of captivity. Some tunneled out, others went over the walls, and another even [built] a makeshift glider.

A number of the breakouts retold in the Wilkinson article [were] facilitated by poor facilities and guards' inattention. Colditz was remarkable in that it was designed to be escape proof and was manned by efficient prison personnel who knew full well the inmates would try to escape. Still, a number did just that, showing the intense desire to be free can win out despite unfavorable odds.

Mark Anderson
Stevensville, Md.

The article "10 Great POW Escapes" was very interesting. The men you highlighted did some hair-raising, ingenious and inspiring deeds. I would like to add the name of a Norwegian to this list. Though Jan Baalsrud was never a POW, his escape from a compromised commando operation above the Arctic Circle would be a truly unbelievable feat, except it really happened. David Howarth's book We Die Alone chronicles Baalsrud's ordeal. He didn't escape without help; the patriotic local Norwegians helped him as best they could, and when he eventually couldn't move due to frostbitten feet, they hid him and eventually got him across the border to Sweden.

Lloyd Bowler
Astoria, Ore.

Whilst I greatly enjoyed the article "10 Great POW Escapes" in the November 2011 issue, I was dismayed and astonished that you would consider the IRA terrorists who broke out of Maze Prison in 1983 to be prisoners of war. These men were cowardly murderers, convicted and sentenced as such, and it is irrelevant if they considered themselves at war or their acts had any political motivation. Was Lee Harvey Oswald a prisoner of war? Was Timothy McVeigh? The Taliban have engineered several daring escapes of hundreds of prisoners in Afghanistan, killing a CIA officer during one. Surely they would be more worthy of inclusion in the article, as they have a much greater claim to be POWs.

Able Seaman Patrick Walker
British Royal Navy
Somewhere in the Middle East

Villa's War Movie
As the grandson of Charles Jackson Hite, first vice president and treasurer of Mutual Film Corp., I had a personal interest in reading the November 2011 article "Pancho Villa's War (Movie)," by Allen Barra. I grew up with the legacy of Mutual Film Corp., Harry Aitken, D.W. Griffith, et al. But I have only seen reference to this filming event once before, and that was in a Parade article back in the 1980s. That article mentioned that one of the inconveniences Walsh had to face was Villa's tactic of attacking just before sunrise.

Clark Gordon
Reno, Nev.

Mac's Defense
In your September 2011 issue you referred to Gen. George C. Marshall as "America's Finest General" [by Kevin Baker]. Indeed, he was. But what bothers me is your assertion that "[General Douglas] MacArthur, at his wit's end and trying to hold onto the Philippines, passed along a half-baked plan to have the islands declare themselves neutral, in the hope his forces would then be allowed to peaceably withdraw." MacArthur's idea was taken out of context in view of the dire situation he was in at the time as commander of U.S. forces in the Philippines.

History books record that after the Japanese forces started invading the Philippines following the Pearl Harbor attack, Washington preferred to aid war efforts in Europe first. Hence, MacArthur's proposal to save his men from death and suffering. In fact, when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered him not to surrender, MacArthur declared Manila an open city by Christmas 1941 and moved his forces to Bataan and Corregidor to make a last stand against Japanese forces. Without help from the U.S. mainland, defeat was certain, and thus Roosevelt later ordered MacArthur to leave the Philippines for Australia.

MacArthur's assessment of the situation was correct, for after he left, Maj. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright had the unfortunate task of surrendering to an enemy force the biggest number of troops in American history—more than 70,000 soldiers fighting under the American flag. What followed, of course, were untold miseries during the Bataan Death March and internment at POW camps. It is this context MacArthur should be considered in history.

Felino C. Torrente Jr.
Cebu City, the Philippines

Irish Brigade
[Re. "Wild Irish Geese," by Dennis Showalter, September:] I wish you could run a picture of John Wayne when he was in those early horse operas side by side with the picture of Sergeant Michael O'Leary on P. 3. You'd swear it was the same man. All us "Micks" look alike!

Terry Patrick Mayew
Reidsville, N.C.

Counterinsurgency
I found Douglas Porch's article ["'Colonial School' Warfare," September] about supporters and opponents of COIN [the modern-day counterinsurgency doctrine] of great interest. I would recommend that anyone interested in the subject read A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq, by Mark Moyar. Moyar's book is not only a history but a valuable discussion of why some commanders were very successful in regular warfare but failed in counterinsurgency situations.

Robert A. Hall
Des Plaines, Ill.

Vote Lionheart
Edward G. Lengel's September 2011 Decisions article, "Lionheart's Crossroads," has shown us that Richard the Lionheart was not only a charismatic leader but also decisive. Charisma is one of the most dangerous characteristics a candidate or president can have. All too often it leads to groupthink and other decision-making problems. In fact, Irving L. Janis documented in his book Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes how John F. Kennedy's charisma helped cause the poor decisions leading up to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. There are many other examples of how a charismatic leader has led people into trouble because they just follow without thinking. Charisma is a good thing in a rock star, but we don't need a rock star in the White House. We need someone who can make good decisions based on solid information and careful thinking—someone [like] Lionheart and his ilk.

Evan Dale Santos
Adelanto, Calif.



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