Prisoners in Paradise

Natalie Crouter, a forty-six-year-old American wife and mother living in the Philippine Islands, sat down at the end of an evening in late October 1942 to write in her diary. She recounted a school pageant, which her two children, Fred and June, participated in, celebrating both Halloween and Thanksgiving. Natalie was especially moved by the Thanksgiving portion of the show, which retold the familiar story of the first Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth Rock. This year in particular, she felt a personal connection to the tale of people in a strange land worrying about food, getting along with an alien population, and just surviving.

Natalie ended her diary entry that evening lamenting that “we are waiting for America.” Her contemporaries may have regarded those five words as an opening phrase that would end “to win this war.” In the fall of 1942, Americans waited, hoped, and prayed for the United States to win its arduous battle against the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy. But American women did not wait in idleness. They expressed their patriotism and support for the war through action, taking up a variety of work ranging from riveting in airplane factories to enlisting in the armed forces to serving donuts and lemonade at USO socials.

In many ways, Natalie Crouter waited for victory just like other American wives and mothers. She kept a close eye on the activities of her two children, monitoring their progress in school, keeping track of their health, and discussing the war and its possible implications for their future.

A smart and resourceful woman, Natalie adjusted to doing without materials and foodstuffs, substituting new items into her family’s wardrobe and diet to replace the unattainable ones. She generally expressed optimism for a decisive Allied victory, but at times she despaired because it was taking so long.

The longer the delay, Natalie knew, the more likely she and her children, confined to a concentration camp, would die.

Coinciding with their attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese struck at other American territories, including the Philippine Islands. The Americans living there were trapped. When the Japanese invaded and occupied the islands in January 1942, the Crouters became enemy aliens. To prevent sabotage and humiliate the Allies, the Japanese rounded up all Allied civilians, including women and children. The Japanese viewed them as hostages, valuable bargaining chips.

Natalie, her husband Jerry, and their two children were interned along with about five hundred other civilians in Baguio, a mountain resort city north of Manila on the island of Luzon. Altogether, close to fourteen thousand American civilians spent about three years as prisoners of the Japanese.

The Crouter family was relatively lucky, since they managed to stay in the same camp. But to frighten and demoralize their captives, the Japanese decreed “no commingling” and forbade families to live together. Natalie and the children lived in one barrack, with Jerry housed separately. Visits were allowed, but touching was limited. Family life was altered, strained, with the children struggling to adjust and make sense of their new reality. Fear was a daily companion.

The Japanese understood what they were doing. They not only had hostages, they had compliant hostages. The adults in the camps proved reluctant to overtly resist Japanese authority. Parents like Natalie and Jerry did not want to risk any retaliation that might be taken out on the children.

To find out what happened to the Crouters and other Americans, you can read

or my own,

978-0-7006-1003-7

which opens with Natalie’s story. The cover photo was taken in the Baguio camp, before the worst of the wartime deprivations took hold.

An edited version of Natalie’s diary was published in the 1980s:

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Depictions of D-Day

As a historian who has written quite a bit about World War II (okay, three books), nothing looms as large as D-Day, Operation Overlord, launched on June 6, 1944. Allied forces stormed the Normandy beaches and fought their way east to Germany. The war ended in Europe in May 1945.

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(NARA)

What a lot of people today know about D-Day probably comes from Steven Spielberg’s 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan, which is lauded for its realistic depiction of the landing on Omaha Beach. And in 2001, fans of the movie likely tuned in to HBO’s limited series, Band of Brothers, to follow the exploits of Easy Company, the men who parachuted into Normandy. The series was based on Stephen Ambrose’s popular 1992 book of the same name.

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While both of these projects benefitted from updated, modern filming techniques, the structure of their stories is decades old. Assemble a motley crew of men, give them a mission, and watch what happens. Sure, these newer film versions have vivid color and up close violence. But they don’t have the gritty black-and-white moodiness of the 1962 Darryl Zanuck epic, The Longest Day. And they don’t have John Wayne as Lt. Col. Ben Vandervoort, a real-life hero.

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All of these are Hollywood, and no matter how many claims film and series creators make for authenticity, they cannot be regarded as accurate history. Scads of books have been published about D-Day. One of the most recent–and one of the best–about soldiers’ experiences in Europe is Mary Louise Roberts’s What Soldiers Do.

What Soldiers Do

According to the book’s synopsis: “Roberts tells the fascinating and troubling story of how the US military command systematically spread—and then exploited—the myth of French women as sexually experienced and available. The resulting chaos—ranging from flagrant public sex with prostitutes to outright rape and rampant venereal disease—horrified the war-weary and demoralized French population. The sexual predation, and the blithe response of the American military leadership, also caused serious friction between the two nations just as they were attempting to settle questions of long-term control over the liberated territories and the restoration of French sovereignty.”

This view of D-Day and its aftermath isn’t likely to make it to the screen, big or little. But for those interested in a deeper understanding of World War II, Roberts’s book is essential reading.

 

 

Getting Ready for Memorial Day

From the blog’s archives from last year:

We’re on the downside of May. This is always my favorite, favorite time of year. It marks my wedding anniversary. It means the end of another academic year. It means warm weather and the promise of even warmer, sunnier days–so welcome after the long Wisconsin winter.

Memorial Day kicks off summer. It’s an odd marker. Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day to honor those who died during the Civil War, is about remembering members of the military who died in service to their country. It became a federal holiday in 1971, and its observance was moved to the last Monday of May.

The women I wrote about in Angels of the Underground were not in the military. They didn’t die during World War II; they didn’t make the ultimate sacrifice. Horrified by the number of Americans and Filipinos who died during the battles of Bataan and Corregidor, who perished along the Death March, and succumbed to diseases in POW camps, they did whatever they could to minimize additional loss of life.

On this Memorial Day, remember those men.

I’m Working Here

This summer I had the good fortune to meet author James Duffy. Most recently, he wrote this fascinating book about the Pacific theater in World War II:

He’s written more books than I ever will, and he’s done so while working a full-time job. James frequently turned down speaking engagements because he didn’t have the time. He was always working, whether at his day job or nights and weekends at his writing.

Now, whenever I hear the phrase “I’m working here,” I think about the life of a writer. We’re always working. The day job pays the bills. The writing, well, it both keeps us sane and drives us crazy.

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Right now, it’s keeping me sane. I’m doing what I think of as preliminary writing: working on a book proposal. Still, it’s writing and it’s history. It keeps my mind off the great swirl of contemporary politics. As a historian, I’m more comfortable dealing with events that happened in the past. For now, I keep the radio and the television turned off and keep my eyes and fingertips on the keyboard. I’m working here.

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I’ve Been on Television

All sorts of interesting things can happen once you’ve published a book. As an academic historian, I’m used to giving classrooms lectures and presenting research papers at scholarly conferences. The lectures usually involve large rooms of a mostly captive audience. The research presentations usually small rooms populated by other scholars interested in the same historical topic I am.

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After I published Angels of the Underground, I was invited to give a talk for a World War II symposium at the MacArthur Memorial. While most of the people who attended didn’t know much about those angels, they did know something about the war in the Pacific theater. It was a very engaging day, and I got to talk to a lot of interesting people.

The entire symposium was fascinating, and it was filmed. There was a C-SPAN camera rolling in the back of the auditorium while I gave my talk. I tried not to stare at it. I did pretty good with forgetting but not forgetting it was there.

C-SPAN3 American History TV aired the talk last night. You can watch it here:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?411781-4/us-women-spies-philippines-world-war-ii

So now I’ve been on t.v., and the angels have gained a wider audience.