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

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

by John D. Lukacs


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One of the greatest Pacific war stories never told. 

On April 4, 1943, ten American prisoners of war and two Filipino convicts—nicknamed the “Davao Dozen”—executed a daring escape from one of Japan's most notorious prison camps. Called the "greatest story of the war in the Pacific" by the War Department in 1944, the full account has never been told—until now. A product of years of in-depth research, John D. Lukacs's gripping description of the escape brings this remarkable tale to life. In this remarkable contribution to the realm of WWII POW narrative, Lukacs describes the dramatic escape for a new generation to admire the resourcefulness and patriotism of the men who fought in the Pacific.

“Like the event it covers, Escape from Davao is unique. You are holding in your hands the story of the only successful American group escape from a Japanese camp.”—James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451234100
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/03/2011
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 187,257
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John D. Lukacs is a writer and historian whose byline has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, and on

Read an Excerpt

Ten Pesos

… Soldierman, sailorman and pioneer
Get yourself a girl and a bottle too,
Blind yourself, hide yourself, the storm is near.

Nichols Field, Luzon, Philippine Islands

It was late morning on Saturday, December 6, when they began filing into the post theater at Nichols Field, an American procession of sunglasses, swagger, Vitalis, and lit cigarettes with the brass insignia of Army Air Forces pilots, winged propellers, pinned to their collars.

An assortment of accents, body types, and backgrounds, the fifty-odd pilots of the 17th and 21st Pursuit Squadrons assembled in uniform fashion: clean khaki, college rings, and lieutenant’s bars, with overseas and crush caps perched rakishly on their heads. They carried photographs of their wives and sweethearts in their wallets, but each shared the same, seductive mistress: a love of flying. That love, as well as an appetite for adventure and a sense of duty, had brought them from all corners of the United States to this USAAF base in the Philippines. The 1939 Hollywood blockbusterGone With the Wind was currently playing in the theater, but the lights did not dim on this warm, peaceful Philippine morning. These pilots were not here to see Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

With crossed arms, Col. Harold H. “Pursuit” George waited for stragglers to take seats. George, the forty-nine-year-old chief of staff of the Far East Air Force’s 5th Interceptor Command, was a short, bespectacled, and brilliant officer with a magnetic personality. A decorated pilot in the Great War, he had piercing black eyes. Through the lazy gray haze of curling cigarette smoke, George made a sweeping reconnaissance of the room. Chatter ceased. Zippo lighters snapped shut with a clink. Pursuit George, as was his way, got to the point.

“Men, you are not a suicide squadron yet, but you’re damned close to it,” he said. “There will be war with Japan in a very few days. It may come in a matter of hours.”

George paused. The monotonous drone of airplane motors on testing blocks filled the dewy tropical air. Leather soles nervously scraped the floor.

“The Japs have a minimum of 3,000 planes they can send down on us from Formosa and from aircraft carriers. They know the way already. When they come again, they will be tossing something.”

There was church silence. None of the pilots, most of whom were rookies in their early twenties, had seen aerial combat. But George’s bombshell had not caught 1st Lt. Ed Dyess by surprise. Dyess, the twenty-five-year-old commanding officer of the 21st Pursuit, had watched the winds of war whip the wind sock at San Francisco’s Hamilton Field and for months had worked and prayed that his raw outfit would be ready. The odds, however, had been stacked against him long before he had descended the gangplank from the President Coolidge to Pier 7 in Manila back on November 20, 1941.

According to Japan’s militarists, the rising sun of Amaterasu, the ancient goddess of creation, was waking the Yamato race to its destiny. The annexations of Formosa, Korea, and Manchuria, followed by an invasion of China in 1937, signaled Japan’s desire to resurrect the holy mission of Jimmu Tenno—Japan’s first emperor circa 660 b.c.—called hakko ichiu, meaning to forcefully bring “the eight corners of the world under one roof.”

By the summer of 1941, the United States could no longer ignore the gathering Pacific storm. President Franklin D. Roosevelt commenced a diplomatic chess game with Japan, halting exports of American oil, iron, and rubber, freezing Japanese assets in the United States, and closing the Panama Canal to Nippon’s merchant vessels. Roosevelt then looked to America’s most distant ward and its most powerful overseas base, the Philippine Islands, which had been ceded to the United States by Spain after the Spanish-American War. He recalled to active duty sixty-one-year-old Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the former chief of staff, who since 1935 had lived in Manila while serving as military adviser to President Manuel Quezon’s nascent commonwealth government. MacArthur was given command of all forces in the islands, designated USAFFE—United States Army Forces, Far East—but before he could build a Pacific bulwark, he first had to reinvigorate a slumbering command and repair decades of neglect.

The relentless climate—MacArthur called it an “unchanging cocoon of tropical heat”—had gradually suffused the U.S. Army’s Philippine Department in a universal lethargy. There was a five-hour workday, from 0700 to noon. As the mercury rose, men retreated to their billets and barracks, tuned their radios to Stations KZRH, “the Voice of the Orient,” for news and KZRM for big band hits, and took siestas while the blades of electric fans moiled the languorous air. An exchange rate of two Philippine pesos per U.S. dollar ensured that Filipino houseboys kept their bunks neat and their shoes shined, that lavanderas kept their custom-made uniforms and sharkskin suits pressed, and that they could send a few dollars home. Though the islands were rumored to contain a collection of aging and incompetent officers and enlisted eight balls, most were energetic young officers and soldiers using the assignment as either a career springboard or a means to escape the Great Depression.

Poker, baseball, and air-conditioned double features were pastimes for enlisted men; officers golfed or rode their ponies across the Manila Polo Club. At night men from Clark Field and Fort Stotsenburg, the sprawling 150,000-acre U.S. Army complex seventy miles north of Manila in the foothills of the Zambales Mountains, slugged ice-cold bottles of San Miguel beer at the Star Bar while airmen at Nichols Field haunted joints like the Chicago Bar in nearby Parañaque. The real action, however, was found in Manila, a lively hive of culture and commerce abuzz with music from the nightclubs lining Rizal Avenue and the Escolta and aglow with the romantic incandescence of the neon signs advertising the Alhambra Cigar Company and La Insular Cigarettes. Soldiers caught furtive glances from raven-haired Filipinas, drank Tanduay rum, and danced at the Santa Ana Cabaret while sailors drank at the Silver Dollar and staggered out into the sultry night air redolent of jasmine, sewage, and burning incense. Officers mingled with Manila’s social elite in the Jai Alai Building’s Sky Room and debated the football fortunes of West Point and Annapolis at the Army-Navy Club. Any way one looked at it, from an officer’s privileged view or from the vantage point of those in the enlisted ranks, the Philippines seemed a serviceman’s Shangri-la.

But the combat prowess of U.S. troops was unknown. MacArthur also suffered a severe numerical disadvantage: he could oppose Japan’s military might with only the 22,000 troops comprising the U.S. Army’s Philippine Division: the all-American 31st Infantry and two regiments of Philippine Scouts, crack Filipino soldiers serving under U.S. officers. Ten Philippine Army reserve divisions would soon be available, but these troops, noted one observer, knew how to do little else but salute and line up for chow.

The American and Filipino soldiers thus far mustered drilled with brimmed model M1917A1 “doughboy” steel helmets and coconut fiber pith helmets and old Springfield 1903 and Enfield rifles. Glaringly, there were no tanks or armored vehicles in the Philippines. Two years after the bloody slaughter of Polish lancers by German tanks, anachronistic cavalry troops still galloped across the immaculate grounds of Fort Stotsenburg. Hangars throughout the archipelago housed mostly observation planes, obsolete bombers, and pursuit planes. The Asiatic Fleet was still anchored in the past at Cavite, near where Commodore George Dewey’s squadron had sunk the Spanish fleet in 1898, a skeleton force of cruisers, old flush-deck destroyers, submarines, tankers, and PT boats, “a little stick which the United States carried while talking loudly in the Far East,” remarked an Associated Press correspondent.

Inside USAFFE headquarters at No. 1 Callé Victoria in Intramuros, the old Spanish fortress city at the mouth of the Pasig River, MacArthur went to work. He deemed War Plan Orange—a contingency plan developed in the 1920s that called for American forces to withdraw to the Bataan Peninsula and the fortified islands of Manila Bay and wait for the Navy to dispatch the Japanese fleet—“defeatist.” Instead he argued for an aggressive defense of the Philippines. Such a plan, taking into account the sheer size of the Philippines—the archipelago was composed of 7,107 islands and nearly 100,000 square miles of shoreline segmented into the three main island groups: Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao—was impractical. Envisioning the Philippines—and himself—as the nexus of America’s military presence in the Pacific, the egotistical commander requested an expansion of his mission in late 1941.

The War Department, viewing the Philippines as, in the words of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, a “strategic opportunity of utmost importance,” would accommodate MacArthur. Stimson and Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall had convinced FDR that with enough time, the islands could become an impregnable stronghold—America’s Singapore. The advent of Rainbow 5, the War Department’s newest plan for a global, multi-theater conflict, illustrated Washington’s commitment. The AAF agreed to ferry thirty-five new B-17 Flying Fortresses, one-third of its existing bomber strength, to the islands, and promised ninety-five more B-17s and B-24 Liberators and 195 brand-new Curtiss P-40B and P-40E Warhawk pursuit planes, as well as fifty-two Douglas A-24 dive bombers, by October 1942. Three radar units were scheduled to be operational by early December. The 4th Marine Regiment would depart Shanghai—where it had been buffering the International Settlement from the Sino-Japanese War—to join antiaircraft, engineer, and tank elements, mostly National Guard units, earmarked for the Philippines. MacArthur was also promised 50,000 Army regulars by February 1942.

Ships were hurriedly discharging their cargoes onto Manila’s crowded wharves, but much of the matériel would never arrive. A shortage of transports had created a backlog of nearly one million tons in U.S. ports by November 1941. The eleventh-hour buildup had accelerated beyond the logistical capacity of America’s war machine, resulting in an epidemic of snafus and shortages that would plague USAFFE throughout the coming campaign. The fledgling Far East Air Force would be affected. Lieutenant Dyess, for example, had arrived with only his crew and thirteen pilots—half of a squadron’s regular complement—and no planes. His first batch of P-40s had finally arrived, unassembled, on December 4, but making the planes combat-ready was another matter. There was hardly any engine coolant or any oxygen for the planes’ high-altitude compressors. Because of a scarcity of ammunition, the wing-mounted .50 caliber machine guns could not be boresighted, despite the hard work crews had put into cleaning the barrels of the greasy, anticorrosive substance called Cosmoline.

Perhaps the most acute shortage affecting USAFFE in late 1941 was that of time. MacArthur thought the chance of offensive action by the Japanese before early 1942 highly unlikely. Not only did he exaggeratedly assure Washington that the training of his Filipino recruits was proceeding ahead of schedule, he also thought that the B-17s would prove an effective deterrent. “The inability of an enemy to launch his air attack on these islands is our greatest security,” he told British Admiral Sir Thomas Phillips during a conference in Manila.

Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo, however, had its own timetable. An unidentified plane had been discovered over Luzon in the early morning hours of December 4. Throughout the next two days, the oscilloscope of the Air Warning Service’s new SCR-270B radar unit at Iba Field had registered additional blips, bogeys thought to be enemy reconnaissance planes. Since the blips meshed with intelligence reports of Japanese fleet movements, a state of alert was declared. Leaves were suspended and MacArthur ordered his B-17s to the distant safety of Mindanao, but less than half had gone south. The remaining bombers, unpainted, gleaming metallic silver, were scattered about Clark Field.

In the eerie, blacked-out quiet of Manila, tropical tradewinds sighed through palms, diffused fleeting scents of hibiscus and sampaguita across Luneta Park, and fluttered American flags. Months earlier, the “Pearl of the Orient” had been a bustling, multicultural historical intersection where Pan American’s Clipper flying boats skipped across the harbor while the calesa ponies and carabao carts symbolic of a colonial past still traversed the streets. Now, as searchlight beams swept the skies, the city seemed almost devoid of its soul, its future in doubt.

As George’s briefing continued, Ed Dyess surely sensed that war was on the way. It was something for which he had rehearsed his entire young life.

It was hardly a surprise that Ed Dyess chose to fly. A lust for adventure and mobility seemed to be a hereditary trait in the Dyess clan. John Dyess, a Welshman who crossed the Atlantic to stake out land in Georgia in 1733, was the pacesetter for two centuries of westward migration. Dyess’s father, Richard, son of a Confederate Civil War veteran, landed in Albany, Texas. Two years after the August 9, 1916, birth of his son, he took an oath as the judge of Shackelford County, a position he would hold until 1928. Thereafter, in various roles as a public servant, he would continue to be known as Judge Dyess.

Hallie and Richard Dyess raised Edwin and his sister, Elizabeth Nell, in a yellow and white house on Jacobs Street, a long block from the same Main Street that Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp had tramped only a few decades earlier. Father and son were inseparable, sharing a love of hunting and sports and also a fascination with flight that began with a ride on a rickety de Havilland biplane when Edwin was four years old. The allure continued with news of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic crossing in 1927. As a teenager, Dyess starred on the Albany High football and track teams, but his love for flying flourished and he worked several jobs to pay for secret lessons from barnstorming pilots.

At John Tarleton Agricultural College in Stephenville, Dyess was the school’s ranking ROTC officer, student president, and one of the most talented actors in the campus theater troupe. He graduated in the spring of 1936, intending to enroll in the law school at the University of Texas. But while working on the Humble Oil pipeline that summer he thumbed a ride with a wash-out from San Antonio’s Randolph Field. He became entranced with the idea of becoming an Army pilot and all but guaranteed his father that he could succeed at Randolph, the “West Point of the air.” All he needed was an appointment. “Son,” Judge Dyess promised, “if she can be got, we’ll get her.”

Dyess graduated from the advanced school at Kelly Field in 1937. He was a gifted pilot. Hallie Dyess, however, did not share her husband’s enthusiasm and chided Edwin each time he buzzed Albany. But Dyess shrugged off her concerns. A Presbyterian who had embraced the church’s doctrine of predestination, Dyess had developed a keen awareness of what he felt was his destiny, a decision from God that had led him to flight school. “Mother,” he would reply after each admonition, “if I only have so long to live I’d rather spend that time in the air.”

Tall and lean, he stood six foot one and was proud of that last inch. With recruiting poster good looks, Dyess was a young comet in the AAF. One of the service’s youngest squadron commanders, he married Marajen Stevick, a pretty socialite whose family owned several Illinois newspapers and radio stations. But the couple’s plans for children were put on hold because Dyess felt immediately responsible to his surrogate family of pilots.

He preferred to lead by example, and in the air the daring pilot was tough to keep up with. At Hamilton Field, he was frequently observed slow-rolling his P-40 just above the ground, banking between trees, his trademark burnt orange flying scarf flapping from his cockpit. As his pilots flew through the dust clouds and dancing leaves in his wake, he exhorted them to tighten their formations. “You look like an old maid’s sewing circle,” he howled over the radio. It was a combination of that folksy sense of humor and his talent with the stick that made Dyess’s pilots—most were recent flight school graduates—regard him like a beloved older brother. According to 2nd Lt. Sam Grashio, who knew Dyess as well as anyone, Dyess possessed a magical aura and a mesmeric hold over people he encountered. “He was intelligent, magnetic, and fearless,” said Grashio. “A natural leader who commanded respect without being intimidating … but you knew he was the leader. It was something you felt in your bones … his pilots and enlisted personnel revered him and would have followed him anywhere.”

On the starlit evening of November 1, 1941, the President Coolidge, a 21,936-ton American President liner, passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Dyess, like many of those gathered on the ship’s afterdeck watching the ocean darkness swallow San Francisco, had no idea where he was leading his squadron. His orders gave his destination as “PLUM.” Some pilots were certain that the Coolidge would drop anchor in Trinidad. Jack Donohoe, a mechanic in the 21st Pursuit, firmly believed that the squadron was headed to Jamaica. At Pearl Harbor, theCoolidge coupled with another transport and a Navy cruiser escort to resume its journey. The blacked-out convoy had wended along its westward course for several days when the men finally learned their secret destination; someone had correctly deciphered PLUM as an acronym for Philippines-Luzon-Manila.

As the Coolidge’s smokestacks poured smoke into the air across the Pacific, several pilots, Sam Grashio included, sat in on discussions headed by recent graduates of the National War College. The Japanese, declared the officers, would not be so stupid as to start a war they would surely lose within a few weeks. The pilots were convinced that the Japanese were Lilliputians who could not hope to prevail over the industrial might of the United States.

The reasons by which Americans had assured themselves of a quick victory were numerous and absurd: Japanese pilots possessed poor eyesight and could not fly their shoddy planes proficiently; the Japanese soldier’s standard-issue .25 caliber rifle couldn’t stop an American adversary; Japanese ships, with their pagoda superstructures, could barely float. A victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 had heralded Japan’s arrival as a world power, but the U.S. military establishment, as well as Americans in general, remained unimpressed. Few knew that Japan had never lost a war and that the sacred home islands had not been threatened since a pair of failed invasions in the late thirteenth century by Kublai Khan’s Mongol hordes.

As Colonel George explained in his Nichols Field briefing, the AAF pilots were in peril. He concluded with an estimate of the number of planes that would be necessary to defend the Philippines—five to eight pursuit groups, of which Nichols Field had only one. “We were shocked,” Dyess would say. Everyone, that is, except for Sam Grashio. Grashio sidled up to Dyess as the latter strode urgently toward the hangars. He had a mischievous smile on his face and a betting proposition for his commanding officer.

“I’ll bet you five pesos that there will be no war with Japan,” said Grashio, echoing the smug words of the officers he had listened to traveling on the Coolidge. “What do you say, Lieutenant?”

“I say you’re on, Sam, and I’ll lay another five down that the war will begin within a week.”

At 0445 on Monday morning, Grashio had just fallen back asleep when he heard the officer of the day banging on the doors again. The pilots of the 21st Pursuit had been roused from their bunks a little more than two hours earlier, only to rush to Nichols Field where an enigmatic Ed Dyess spoke of an emergency, then ordered them back to their quarters. This time, the knocks were followed by a command: “Get dressed! Pearl Harbor has been attacked!”

Within minutes, Grashio and the other groggy, half-dressed pilots assembled in the operations tent at Nichols Field. Silhouetted by the glow of a blacked-out gas lantern, Dyess confirmed the sensational news of Japan’s surprise attack on the other side of the International Dateline and then ordered them into their new P-40Es—so new that none of the eighteen planes had logged more than two hours of flying time. Four, in fact, had never even been in the air.

With throbbing hearts and dry mouths, they clambered into their cockpits. As the sounds of whirring propellers and clicking parachute harnesses floated along the flight line in the predawn darkness, Grashio somberly reflected on the gravity of the situation.

Strangely, no orders from Far East Air Force Headquarters were forthcoming. After several tense minutes, the pilots cut their idling engines, vacated their cockpits, and sat, stunned and bleary-eyed, beneath the wings of their planes as the first spokes of sunlight poked over the horizon. The standard operating procedure of the U.S. military, noted Grashio, remained the same. The 21st Pursuit Squadron had no choice but to hurry up and wait.

For the ABCD powers—America, Britain, China, and the Dutch East Indies—confusion reigned supreme as Imperial forces struck simultaneously at Hawaii, Guam, Wake Island, British Malaya, Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Yet nowhere was this confusion more devastating than in the Philippines. Unbeknownst to the pilots at Nichols Field, a historic series of events was transpiring in the higher echelons of the USAFFE command, a blur of blunders, poor decisions, and bad luck that would yield terrible results in the Philippines.

Word of the Pearl Harbor attack first reached the Philippines at 0230 hours on Monday, December 8 (approximately 0800, December 7, on Oahu), when a Navy radioman at Asiatic Fleet Headquarters in Manila’s Marsman Building picked up a startling message: “Air Raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!” One hour later, MacArthur’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Richard Sutherland, woke the USAFFE commander in his Manila Hotel penthouse. By 0500, FEAF chief Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton was in MacArthur’s office seeking permission to launch a retaliatory raid on Formosa at first light, but the autocratic Sutherland refused Brereton’s request for an audience with MacArthur. Brereton was given permission to prepare his bombers for offensive action—nothing more.

At 0715, Brereton returned to Intramuros and was again ordered to stand by. It has been speculated that during these crucial hours, an overwhelmed MacArthur, much like Napoleon at Waterloo, had lapsed into a semi-catatonic state, unable to command. As Brereton’s car navigated Manila’s empty streets—it was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and many Filipinos, devout Roman Catholics, would be attending mass and fiestas—back to FEAF Headquarters at Nielson Field in Makati, the storm clouds darkened.

Shortly after receiving a transoceanic telephone call from Air Force chief Gen. Hap Arnold at 0800, Brereton hurriedly ordered his B-17s aloft, bombless, to keep them out of harm’s way. As the morning progressed, Japanese planes raided Baguio, the summer capital in northern Luzon, and American installations near Davao City, on Mindanao. But these were merely feints. At 1015 Formosa time (0915 Manila time), the main strike force of the Japanese navy’s 11th Air Fleet, 108 twin-engine bombers and eighty-four Zeros, after waiting for a thick fog to lift—the Japanese had feared the fog would leave them susceptible to an American attack, the attack Brereton had wanted to launch at dawn—took off from their bases. Their mission: to destroy the largest concentration of American airpower in the Far East. Their primary target: Clark Field.

At 1145, the phone rang in Dyess’s operations tent. Enemy planes had been detected and the 3rd and 21st Pursuits were being scrambled for interception. Dyess eagerly relayed the message: “Tally ho, Clark Field!” Within minutes, the P-40s’ supercharged 1,150-horsepower engines hurtled the the olive-drab Warhawks—which Dyess had divided into three six-plane flights, A, B, and C—into the sky.

While Dyess led A and B flights in a climb for higher altitude, some planes from C Flight discovered that they were unable to locate Dyess and, perhaps because of atmospheric conditions, were out of radio contact. Therefore, when Dyess received a message advising him of a change in orders—the planes were to assemble at a point above Manila Bay to intercept Japanese bombers en route to Manila—the C Flight pilots were unaware. When engine trouble forced two pilots to abort the mission, the remaining pilots, Lts. Joe Cole, Gus Williams, and Johnny McCown, turned to the next-senior pilot for leadership.

That individual, Lt. Sam Grashio, all of twenty-three years old, regrouped the lost squadron into formation and shepherded it north toward Clark Field, sixty miles distant, the assigned objective and, in Grashio’s estimation, the most logical location for action.

Almost from the beginning—he was born on April Fool’s Day 1918, in Spokane, Washington, to be precise—action, in one form or another, had been the main objective of Samuel Charles Grashio. The sixth of seven children, he was short and thin. With fair skin, blue eyes, and ringlets of light brown hair, he possessed a disarming physical appearance.

Growing up, Grashio was competitive and impetuous, and deeply religious—a holy terror. The wiry altar boy could usually be found in railyards hopping freight cars and fighting. As he matured, Grashio—described as “119 pounds of condensed dynamite” in one newspaper—boxed in smokers and quarterbacked his high school football team at Gonzaga Prep to three straight championships, but shortfalls in the class room precluded a chance at college. As the shadow of the Great Depression eclipsed the country, Grashio’s career choices dwindled. He had no desire to take over his father’s barber shop, so he approached the Jesuits of Gonzaga University about joining the priesthood. They told him to wait and see if his interest waned. It did.

Grashio had rekindled two old flames, one of which was his high school sweetheart, a big-eyed blonde named Devonia Carolus. The other was Grashio’s longtime love affair with airplanes, which showed considerably less promise. Nevertheless, much like his father—who in 1902 had traded his likely future as a goatherder in Calabria, Italy, for a ticket on a New York–bound steamer—he took a chance and enrolled in Gonzaga’s federal flight training program in 1938. With hard work, newfound focus, and the practical experience he had gained with the Washington Air National Guard, Grashio earned his pilot’s license in 1940. He navigated the rigorous cadet programs at Randolph and Kelly Fields and was assigned to Ed Dyess’s 21st Pursuit in 1941, a break Grashio would later consider the biggest of his life. “Ed … took me right under his wing. He was only two years older than I—he was twenty-five—but he was like a father to me at first,” said Grashio. “Then, when I became more assured, he was like a pal.” At the time, Grashio could not have known how strong that friendship would become, nor could he have known how much action was in store for him.

Despite the heavy fog of war settling over Luzon, the skies were clear and the air, recalled Grashio, was “as smooth as glass.” The P-40s of C Flight passed over 3,000-foot Mount Arayat until 1220 hours, when Grashio surveyed Clark Field from 10,000 feet. Seeing nothing unusual, he decided to wing westward to join up with a formation of P-40s. Ten fateful minutes later, his radio crackled to life. “All P-40’s return to Clark Field,” shouted the tower operator there, his voice muted by exploding bombs. “Enemy bombers overhead!”

There were fifty-three Japanese navy Type 96 and Type 1—known as “Nell” and “Betty”—twin-engine bombers in two V formations blackening the skies at Clark Field. It was about 1230 when the first wave of Nells, like bursting storm clouds, began to rain destruction from their bomb bays. The shrill whine of an air raid siren sent men pouring from crowded mess halls. They dove into slit trenches and scrambled to their battle stations as bomb concussions rocked the ground beneath them.

The Japanese bombardiers possessed uncanny aim. Direct hits obliterated hangars, barracks, and communications stations and felled radio towers and telephone poles in showers of sparks. Fragmentation bombs ignited ammunition dumps and oil tanks, and fuel trucks exploded in orange fireballs. Shrapnel, giant sheets of aluminum, corrugated iron, and whipping propellers slashed through the air, striking men indiscriminately. Strings of bombs smacked the flight line, blowing apart dozens of new P-40s. The flames hungrily spread to tufts of cogon grass and thickets of dry bamboo. Towering plumes of dark, oily smoke billowed skyward. After the second wave of bombers had passed, dozens of gray Zeros streaked down through the smoke blanket, their blazing guns shredding the silver steel skins of the just refueled B-17s.

Antiaircraft gunners frantically fired their 3-inch guns, but most of the corroded fuses—much of their ammunition was World War I surplus—were duds and those shells that did explode did so in harmless smoke puffs well beneath their targets. Others peppered the sky with fire from old water-cooled Brownings, rifles, and .45s. Though heroic, their efforts were largely in vain; by the time Grashio had boomeranged his P-40 back to Clark, he found a broiling holocaust.

Shaken out of his dreamlike trance, Grashio reflected on “how utterly and abysmally wrong” the officers on the Coolidge had been and prayed for those on the ground. He then spied a handful of Zeros, the blood-red hinomaru, or rising sun emblems, visible on their wings. Drawing a deep breath, he motioned for his wingmen to follow, but McCown and Cole were already engaged. Suddenly, a lone Zero darted out of the swirling smoke below his ship, apparently circling around for another strafing run. His heart pounding, Grashio steadied his P-40 and the plane shuddered as he let fly a barrage of bullets. The Zero slid out of the sky leaking smoke, but Grashio would not have time to celebrate his first victory.

Wingman Williams had spotted nine Zeros preparing to dive, but before they could complete their turn, the two lead planes completed a climbing turn of their own and were now on the tails of the Americans. In seconds, the hunters had become the hunted. Grashio did not know it, but one of the pilots chasing him was Imperial Navy Chief Petty Officer Saburo Sakai. Sakai, the leading Japanese air ace to survive the war, would shoot down more than sixty Allied aircraft before being grounded by wounds and failing eyesight in 1945. After the war, Sakai would become a Buddhist and renounce all violence, but on this day he was eagerly pursuing his first American victories.

As Grashio veered left, Sakai fired a ribbon of explosive shells from his 20 millimeter nose cannon and ripped a gaping hole into the left wing of Grashio’s plane. Grashio’s sweaty hands white-knuckled the stick. Instinctively, he turned to his faith. As his lips trembled in fervent prayer, the three planes sliced through the sky, molten lead pouring from the Zeros’ guns. “I was sure I was going to die on the first day of the war,” said Grashio. Suddenly, his prayers were answered. Grashio remembered Dyess’s lectures: “Never try to outmaneuver a Zero; go into a steep dive and try to outrace it.” Indeed, the P-40 was much heavier—one pilot had called the armor-plated plane “a streamlined safe”—so he pointed its nose to the ground and pushed the throttle wide open. The needle in his altimeter spun wildly as the earth flashed upward at breakneck speed. Attempting such a maneuver in a new plane was “courting suicide,” said Grashio, “but with two Zeros on your tail, the admonitions in technical manuals are not the first things you think about.”

Grashio’s luck, as well as the plane’s virgin engine, held. He pulled up, skimming the treetops as the Japanese pursuers receded into the distance. When Grashio touched down at Nichols at 0130, Dyess greeted him—he had led the other flights on an uneventful patrol over Cavite—and together they inspected the damaged plane. Grashio shook his head, remarking excitedly between breaths, “By God, they ain’t shootin’ spitballs, are they?”

A few hours later, after the order came in to abandon Nichols Field, Dyess, Grashio, and the rest of the 21st Pursuit Squadron landed at cratered Clark Field amid clouds of pumice and dust. Guided by the “eerie glow cast by the smoldering hangars,” they weaved around fire-gutted wrecks and opened their cockpits to a stinging stench of cordite, burnt flesh, and gasoline fumes. Lt. Joe Moore, whose 20th Pursuit had been decimated, summed up the damage tally in one terse sentence: “We got kicked in the teeth.” Despite sufficient advance warning—nearly ten hours had elapsed between the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines—MacArthur’s air force had suffered a death blow. Twelve of the nineteen B-17s at Clark Field were now charred wreckage and thirty-four of the 5th Interceptor Command’s ninety-one P-40s—two entire squadrons—were destroyed. The lone radar station at Iba Field was damaged beyond repair and the one-sided onslaught (Japanese losses totaled seven planes) had also destroyed precious stocks of fuel and parts.

Two days later, with Japanese planes streaking over Manila and the port area unopposed, MacArthur and Adm. Thomas Hart would be overheard discussing the disastrous calamity that had been delivered upon USAFFE, as well as all American forces in the Pacific.

“Oh, God help us,” one of them had reportedly exclaimed, “if Clark Field can’t now.”

© 2010 John D. Lukacs

Table of Contents

Author's Note xiii

Prologue 1

Part I War

1 Ten Pesos 7

2 A Long War 22

3 The Raid 30

4 God Help Them 46

Part II Hell

5 The Hike 61

6 Goodbye and Good Luck 74

7 A Rumor 93

8 The Erie Maru 110

9 A Christmas Dream 119

10 A Big Crowd 143

11 The Plan 158

12 Cat-and-Mouse 168

Part III Freedom

13 A Miracle 185

14 Another Gamble 208

15 Unexplored 229

16 Little Time to Rest 246

17 A Story That Should Be Told 263

18 Duty 277

19 Greater Love Hath No Man 291

20 Legacies 308

21 Conditional Victory 319

Epilogue 337

Acknowledgments 355

Notes 363

Bibliography 405

Index 415

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