Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lucky 73 - Aldona Sendzikas

This review comes to us from Curt Oja, a man I know quite well (as we've been hitched for about 10 years now).  As a WWII aficionado, he is far more qualified to review a book like this than I will ever be (and ever so good looking).

Summary: Today the USS Pampanito (SS-383) is a tourist destination. During WWII the submarine earned six battle stars. She sank six Japanese ships, damaged four others, and rescued seventy-three British and Australian prisoners of war from the South China Sea. This astonishing rescue happened three days after the wolf pack to which Pampanito was assigned, spotted and attacked a Japanese convoy near Hainan. Unfortunately, two of the ships in this convoy that were sunk in the attack were carrying more than 2,000 Allied POWs.

The chain of events that led to this rescue is truly amazing. Captured in 1942, forced to spend fifteen months constructing the Burma-Thai Railroad (later made famous by The Bridge on the River Kwai), then loaded onto floating concentration camps—“hellships,” as they were called—the prisoners were in the wrong place at the wrong time when Pampanito and her wolf pack attacked the Japanese convoy. Returning to the coordinates a few days later, the crew was astonished to discover survivors in the water, and rescued as many as the submarine could carry.

The rescue of these men is celebrated by the number 73 embroidered on Pampanito’s battle flag. Perhaps even more remarkable than this unlikely rescue is the fact that the submarine’s officers and crew thought, before delivering these men to an army hospital in Saipan, to ask them to record their thoughts and experiences while the events were still fresh in their minds. These extraordinary documents lay forgotten and unseen for years until Aldona Sendzikas, while working as curator for Pampanito, discovered these fascinating first person accounts of both the POWs and the submariners who rescued them. Realizing this was a story that needed to be shared with a broader audience, she embarked upon an odyssey to document the events surrounding the rescue and to interview the living survivors. Lucky 73 reveals one of the most incredible tales of the Pacific war—primarily in the words of the men who lived it.  (Summary from book - Image from eurospanbookstore.com - Book given free for review)

My Review: Lucky 73 is the story of a little known and all but forgotten event during World War II. It details one of the great tragedies of the war, and shows the compassion and perseverance of the human spirit in some of the most difficult circumstances. Aldona Sendzikas relied heavily on memoirs, journals, personal accounts and military records to bring this story to life. Told from the perspectives of the submarine crew that accidentally sent so many Allied prisoners into the water, and from the accounts of many of the survivors who were fortunate to be rescued, this book gives a detailed account of the experiences of many of the survivors and crew, illustrating how the events changed their lives.

There are many harrowing accounts of selflessness and courage throughout this book. It was heartwarming to hear the accounts of the sailors jumping into the water to tow exhausted, oil covered prisoners back to the safety of the submarine-- of the sailors giving up their bunks and a captain filling his sub well beyond its capacity. It was difficult, at times, to read of the travesties inflicted on the prisoners by the Japanese, and to read of their torture and deprivations while imprisoned by the Japanese Empire. The greatest horror was in knowing that over a thousand other prisoners were not rescued and perished in the South China Sea, and that their loved ones back at home never knew their fate.

This book was very captivating and drew me in immediately. Any history fan will become quickly absorbed in the stories and accounts it contains. Sedzikas brings in essential elements and writes the book so the reader can get a sense of order and the individuals involved. Although I would consider this an easy and quick read, the story is something that I will not soon forget.

Sidenote: I read this book while on business in Hawaii and had the opportunity to visit the USS Bowfin in Pearl Harbor (a similar model as the USS Pampanito). After touring the submarine, and standing in the forward torpedo room, I found it unfathomable that 73 rescued prisoners were held in such cramped conditions when the normal crew for an entire WWII submarine was 70 to 80 sailors and about ten officers.

My Rating: 4 Stars    For the sensitive reader: Be prepared for horrific descriptions of the deprivations inflicted on the Allied POWs.

Sum it up: A great read for any history buff, or anyone who is interested in WWII.

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