In a recent interview for this blog, I questioned former Gurkhas commanding officer General Sir Peter Duffell about the reasons why Viscount Slim – the victor of Burma – is less recognized in popular culture than Field Marshal Montgomery for his contribution to victory in World War II. Montgomery, he replied “[…] was much the better-known British Commander because his campaigns were fought much closer to home [North Africa, D-Day, Arnhem].” In a certain way, much the same applies to the fighting of the American forces. Anyone visiting Washington, D.C., can admire the impressive Iwo Jima Memorial, but movies, bookstores and the remembrance rationale are largely dominated by the fight in Europe.
Fortunately, recent years have offered the publication of excellent books about the Pacific theater – for example the contribution of China to the Allied war effort. As we observe and live the geopolitical shift towards Asia, this literature is not only a welcoming phenomenon to better understand the Second World War, but also to navigate the troubled seas of the current world order. Thankfully, the increasing interest generated by the war in the Pacific will be of assistance to further develop our historical conscience in that direction.
I was therefore thrilled to read Rock Force: The American Paratroopers Who Took Back Corregidor and Exacted MacArthur’s Revenge on Japan (Caliber) by Kevin Maurer. Having been forced to evacuate the island on 11 March 1942, General MacArthur only makes his entrance in the story at the very end, after the men of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment neutralized the Japanese troops assigned to defend the strategic sentry island guarding the entrance of Manila Bay.
Starting on 16 February 1945 and for about two weeks, the paratroopers of the 503rd (which was christened the Rock Regiment after the battle) were faced with the gruesome task of fighting heat, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, battle wounds and cruelty at the hands of fanatical Japanese marines who were entrenched in tunnels ironically built initially by American engineers to protect against those potential enemies.
I have always thought that the best quality of an excellent writer is to make you are embedded in the story. Kevin Maurer is such an artist. You can surmise that he has spent time with soldiers in operations and that he knows their reality in combat. With him, you feel the thirst of the paratroopers of the 503rd, share their fear when Japanese soldiers marched in a banzai attack during which they could not call for reinforcements or assistance because the radio net was deactivated at night. You also encounter larger than life and attaching characters, notably the Private First Class who baked apple pies.
My personal favorite was Private Lloyd McCarter. In previous operations, “When the paratroopers ran into Japanese other patrols, McCarter often laughed and shouted as he attacked.” During the attack on Corregidor, he was no less insolent with death. “Not the least concerned with his welfare”, he was eventually hit by Japanese bullets as he headed back weaponless on a hill for a third time. Through his ordeal, he remained calm and the author tells us that “if anything, he was angry to be out of the fight.” That soldier has nothing to envy Marvel characters.
The American soldiers were ready to do anything to help a comrade in need. Rock Force is packed with episodes to that effect. The most striking to me was when the time came to save the life of a soldier whose leg needed to be amputated. Another soldier who required the same intervention had died and surgeons determined that ice would be necessary to give him a fighting chance. But ice was nowhere to be found on the island.
The solution was to send a plane to a naval base to get ice from a destroyer. Two hours later, the delivery was made, the amputation was performed and the patient survived. “It took the Army, the Navy, and the Air Corps to save you,” the navy surgeon said [to the soldier] as he left. “We’d have called the Marines in too, but they’re busy enough at Iwo Jima.”
“The soldier who wants to live is a better fighting man than the kamikaze fanatic who is happy to die”, observes the author. And between the covers of Rock Force, the pure generosity gifting anyone who values life fought alongside inspiring bravery. In itself, Dark Force epitomizes all the reasons why those who embrace the warrior ethos have always resided at the pinnacle of my admiration.
If you want to grasp the generosity – and valor – of the men of the 503rd who ensured that General MacArthur could ultimately fulfill his promise to return to the Philippines in 1945, look no further than Rock Force. An essential addition to the bookshelf of any military history enthusiast.
Kevin Maurer, Rock Force: The American Paratroopers Who Took Back Corregidor and Exacted MacArthur’s Revenge on Japan, New York, Caliber, 2020, 304 pages.
I would like to express all my gratitude to Emily Canders, publicist at Dutton, for her precious assistance by offering me a version of the book.