LAKE JACKSON — World War II ended about 75 years ago, but despite the numerous books and movies written about soldiers’ struggles and experiences, some stories still remain untold.
In his newest book, local author Donald Caldwell offers a look at some of the lesser-known pages of that chapter of history, and the courage of some of the lesser-known figures who played critical roles in the story.
Donald Caldwell’s eighth published book, “Thunder on Bataan: The First American Tank Battles of World War II,” can be purchased in stores and online. The book tells the story of the American Provisional Tank Group, a National Guard-based unit made up of six light tank companies sent to reinforce the Philippines against Japanese forces.
When the Philippine Army could not hold back the Japanese, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commanding a combined army of Filipinos and Americans, ordered a retreat to the peninsula of Bataan. The provisional tank group played a critical part in covering the retreat and holding back Japanese forces as they came down the Central Luzon plain toward Manila, which was the primary objective, Caldwell said.
“If they’d not been able to hold the Japanese back even the small amount, the Japs would’ve taken Manila immediately,” Caldwell said. “The campaign essentially would’ve been over, and the Bataan campaign, which MacArthur reverted to, would never have taken place.”
In his retelling of the story, Caldwell focuses not only on the events but also the people involved in them. The book follows a number of soldiers from each of the group’s six companies through “the entire arc of their service, from enlistment, training, and combat to imprisonment, liberation, and return home,” according to a news release from Stackpole Books.
“By the end of the war, only half of the 1,100 men in the Provisional Tank Group were still alive,” Caldwell said.
The majority died during captivity, and many of those who did return home suffered from medical conditions such as pellagra, and mental conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder — decades before the term “PTSD” was even invented, he said.
Caldwell initially collaborated with Tony Meldahl, a National Guardsman from Ohio whose extensive research got him started, he said.
“I found the story fascinating because it was totally untold,” Caldwell said. “People really know very little about the National Guard and how it was called up, and what it did in the early part of the war.”
Some people know about the towns where the soldiers came from, which were greatly affected by everything that happened, he said. Even though half of the men returned home eventually, “these towns lost a greater percentage of their young men than any other towns in the U.S. over the course of the war.”
One town, Maywood, Illinois, still celebrates Bataan Day, Caldwell said.
“The rest of them, it kind of died out with time. The stories are in the book,” he said.
Caldwell has been researching World War II for more than 30 years. His other published books focus primarily on the Luftwaffe, the air force of Germany during World War II.
“It’s a certain niche there,” his wife Jackie Caldwell said. “He’s been doing it for years.”
She would often accompany her husband on research trips to Germany, and found people there receptive to Caldwell’s work.
“Everybody has their own propaganda, Germans and Americans,” she said. “The people gravitated to Don because he tried to be honest about the German side and the American side, and not glorify one over the other.”
Part of the enjoyment of working on the book was everything Caldwell learned during the process, “about a period that’s just about forgotten about,” he said. He hopes readers will come away with some of the same things he did, he said.
By writing this book, Caldwell also aims to keep the stories of these young men alive, and to share “the kinds of things folks can do when they’re really called upon to do them,” he said. “Young men, with or without a high education, can really perform exceptional feats of courage.”