The great escape of Major Gause - The Explorer: Editorials

The great escape of Major Gause

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Posted: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:03 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

There is certainly something to be said about having a second job in a bookstore. You often come across material you might not have otherwise discovered had you been merely passing through on a short visit.

Such was the discovery of a book entitled “The War Journal of Major Damon ‘Rocky’ Gause: The firsthand Account of One of the Greatest Escapes of World War II.” As a member of that obscenely large generation known as the Baby Boomers, we are well acquainted with “The Great Escape,” a movie from 1963 which featured well-known actors from both Britain and the United States and took part in Bavaria, near the Swiss border. Though based on actual fact, “The Great Escape” was still, well, Hollywood.

Major Damon Gause’s account of his 159-day ordeal to escape from the Philippines is the stuff of Hollywood and actually a surprise such an endeavor was pulled off considering the tight and cruel grip the Japanese placed on that island territory.

Though some of his account appeared in “The New York Times Magazine” May 2, 1943 issue and several other publications during the war, no more was heard of this fascinating experience until 1999, when it came out in book form. It included an enthusiastic introduction by Stephen E. Ambrose, who felt compelled enough to advise the reader “I’d further recommend it to anyone who thinks the Japanese behavior in World War II has been maligned.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was not an isolated affair but a coordinated onslaught to attack and capture both American and British possessions in the Eastern Pacific. Though General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme army commander in the Philippines, had an eight-hour warning of Japanese intentions as a result of the Pearl Harbor attack (it was actually Dec. 8 in Manila), the Japanese still managed to bomb unprepared military installations on this Pacific archipelago. And within three weeks Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma launched a two-prong amphibious invasion of the main Philippine Island of Luzon, which housed the capital of Manila.

Caught up in all this horror was then-Lt. Damon Gause, an Army Air Corps trained dive-bomber with the 27th Bombardment Group, and a newlywed of barely two weeks. He not only personally experienced the siege but the slow, agonizing retreat up the Bataan Peninsula. You have to realize the Philippines are a jungle and not only were the American and Philippine forces facing a well-armed and well-fed Japanese invader, but battling insects, malaria and malnutrition.

The battle for Bataan lasted from Jan. 1, 1942 to April 9. And the Island of Corregidor did not fall until early May. As infuriated as the Japanese were that the struggle for the Philippines took more than six months, from the first bombings to the fall of Corregidor, they were even more disgusted and filled with contempt and rage that the American and Philippines forces surrendered at all. The Japanese illustrated their utter disrespect for the vanquished foe by forcing them on a hike that came to be known as the Bataan Death March. Of the estimated 70,000 captured, nearly “10,000 Filipino and American servicemen died from hunger, thirst, disease, and the brutality of the enemy captors along the death march route.”

If anyone attempted to seek a drink of water from a stream or collapsed during the march and could not get up, they were dispatched by bayonet, shot or beheaded by the Japanese.

Gause was captured by the Japanese on Bataan, but before he could be marched off to the prison camps 64 miles inland on Luzon, he turned the table and used a bayonet on a Japanese guard and escaped into the jungle and hid. He eventually made his way into the sea and swam the more than three miles through “shark-infested waters” to the fortress of Corregidor. Unbeknown to him, the “fortress-island” was now faltering under a constant barrage of enemy fire (nearly one shell every five seconds), with supplies quickly dwindling and the wounded and sick filling the cavernous interior of the island. There was no hope of any help arriving from the outside and thus Lt. Gen. Johathan Wainwright accepted the terms of surrender and Corregidor and its occupants fell under Japanese control.

There is film footage of the Japanese takeover the island and shows them as they pull down the American flag and contemptuously drop it on the ground and step on it. Gause had a clear idea of what awaited the fallen defenders of Corregidor and wanted no part of it. Once again he slipped off the island by boat and swimming and made his way back to occupied territory, this time hidden by natives until he was able to make it out to some of the smaller islands and eventually to a seaworthy enough boat that managed to get him and a fellow American, William Lloyd Osborne, to Australia.

Gause and Osborne’s story was not only told in a 22-part interview for the New York Daily Mirror, but the two Americans received the Distinguished Service Cross. Gause made his way back stateside and was home long enough to father a son and to hold him in his arms. By January 1944, Gause was stationed in England and training for the invasion of Europe. However in early March, now with the rank of major, Damon Gause was killed when a P-47 fighter he was training in crashed near London.

So how come Hollywood keeps giving us remakes of television shows, mini-series, or of earlier films when there is so much new material out there that would make good entertainment, as well as providing some much needed historical information to several new generations of Americans who are, frankly, clueless about the Second World War? Oh goodness, I forgot, this is the politically correct Hollywood of the 21st Century with the likes of George Clooney and Sean Penn at the helm.

Well, to heck with Hollywood. If you want to find positive material about your nation and its history, you still basically need to read a book. I know, for a fact, that as of this writing there are still two copies of “The War Journal of Major Damon ‘Rocky’ Gause” at the Foothills Mall’s Barnes and Noble. Goodness, what an unabashed plug. But hey, that’s my part-time career, selling books.

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