A Great Escape
ESPN sportswriter John D. Lukacs changes direction to write about an amazing WWII feat of bravery.
During the waning months of 1941, a badly outnumbered and outgunned outpost of the American military fell to the Japanese 14th Army in the Philippines during World War II. In early 1942, some 90,000-100,000 American troops and their Filipino allies were sent on a 63-mile death march up the Bataan Peninsula and into waiting Japanese prison camps.
Those who survived random execution by Japanese foot soldiers along the way had to endure "the most diabolical of nightmares" in prison camps like Davao, according to Maj. William Edwin Dyess, who was imprisoned there and escaped in 1943 with nine other American POWs in the one of the boldest prison escapes in American military history—and the only successful group escape from a Japanese POW prison.
Export, Pa., native John D. Lukacs, 33, a graduate of The University of Notre Dame and a well-known sports writer for ESPN.com and other national publications, has brought forth this remarkable story in a new book by Simon & Schuster, Escape from Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War. Lukacs interviewed the few remaining survivors and was granted full access to their letters, photographs and scrapbooks in order to create this, his first work of history.
How did you decide to make the journey from sportswriter to historian?
My father, John F. Lukacs, was a history teacher at Springdale High School. Growing up, we were inseparable, and he took me on many trips to Civil War battlefields—no trips to the beach. He hung out with older people, veterans, and I heard their stories.
These soldiers accomplished something bigger than most of us can imagine. After majoring in American studies at Notre Dame, I started my career as a sportswriter and contributor to ESPN, but I eventually wanted to move away from covering football. I wanted to write about legitimate heroes. The Pacific and the soldiers who fought in that theater weren’t getting the attention they truly deserved. I thought that this hole in history could be filled by someone like me.
How did you find this story?
I did a story on former Notre Dame football player Mario Tonelli for USA Today in August of 2002 about how he lost his player’s ring in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, and a guard gave it back it because the guard had been educated in the United States and had seen him play in a famous game against the University of Southern California.
He told me that he shouldn’t talk to me about his experiences in Davao because he was working on his own book. But we clicked as Notre Dame alumni, and we got to be close friends. One thing led to another, and he told me his escape story and helped me to find the few people who were still alive to talk about it.
What was your initial reaction?
I didn’t think anyone had escaped from the Japanese. I called my agent and said, "We have something pretty big here."
Did other survivors talk to you? Was it difficult for them to open up?
A lot of these guys aren’t comfortable discussing it, but they trusted me. They knew I wasn’t some guy hoping to make a few bucks from [their story]. For some, talking to me was cathartic.
How did you discover the little details to make this book both historical but also so gripping and poignant?
These guys, their memory is fantastic. They knew all the details. They remember the smells, sights. They left an indelible mark physically and spiritually. I know. I’m not a rear-echelon writer. I don’t believe in writing cold, abstract history, so I didn’t just sit in the National Archives and regurgitate old interviews.
When the survivors asked me if I’d ever been to Manila, the answer was, "Yes, I know that street corner." I believe that to understand a man you have to walk the ground he walked, so I not only did library research in Maryland, Carlisle, Pa., Annapolis and Alabama, I went to the Davao prison camp in the Philippines, which is still up and running as a penal facility.
I had the great fortune to be led around there by a man in his 80s whose father had worked in the camp. The relics of war are everywhere there—shrapnel; guns are all over the place in the poorer places in the Pacific. If you close your eyes and take a deep breath and listen, you get a really good picture of what it was like. Going there helped me to paint a better picture.
Why do you think the U.S. government initially suppressed this story?
The Pacific front hadn’t been given what it needed in terms of troops or equipment. Nearly all of the government’s attention was on the European front. That’s why they withheld news of how American soldiers were treated who were captured in the fall of Bataan, the largest surrender in American military history.
Were you affected personally during your five years of research into this sad tale?
The gruesome details of the soldiers’ captivity does draw on you, but as a writer, you push yourself forward with the thought that if they went through it, the least I can do is go through it, too, in order to honor what they did. I believed in this story from the beginning and genuinely cared about the people behind it. It was easy to go all in.
I’m moving to become a full-time historian, and I have two new books in the works. One is a book on the Battle of Manila, the other is about the Rose Bowl—I’ll get my sports fix that way.