Description: The war journal of major damon 'rocky' gause
File name: The war journal of major damon 'rocky' gause
First Chapter: 'The War Journal of Major Damon ''Rocky'' Gause'
By CHRISTOPHER DICKEY
hen Japan attacked the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941, the American military there was cut off from reinforcements or escape. Under constant bombardment and faced with large-scale Japanese landings, American and Filipino troops nonetheless held out for five months before their final surrender. Later, many of the soldiers said that if they'd known the horrors to come -- the suffering in the camps, the death march on Bataan that cost as many as 10,000 lives -- they never would have given up.
Damon Gause never did. In one of the most spectacular escapes of World War II he traveled across 3,200 miles of treacherous ocean, through storms, coral reefs and much of the Japanese Fleet before he reached safety in Australia. ''The War Journal of Major Damon 'Rocky' Gause'' presents that story in his own words as he wrote it shortly after he returned to the United States. (A few months later he volunteered for combat in Europe, where he was killed test-piloting a P-47 fighter in March 1944.) The tale he's left us has the feel of that moment when America was desperate for heroes, and reading it now is as much a trip back in time as it is a journey across the dark Sulu Sea.
From what we know of Gause, he was the kind of man whose restlessness kept him constantly on the move even before the war. When he was still in his teens he left his home in Jefferson, Ga., looking for adventure as a radio operator with the Coast Guard and roughnecking on South American oil rigs. Eventually he joined the Army Air Corps. In 1941 he married a hometown beauty, but a couple of months later he shipped out for the Philippines. The planes his unit was supposed to fly still hadn't arrived when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the crippled American military faced all-out war in the Pacific.
Gause was ordered to improvise a communications post on the Bataan peninsula, where about 78,000 American and Filipino troops had retreated. In April 1942, when Bataan fell, Gause was taken prisoner. But in the confusion he managed to overpower a Japanese guard, kill him with his own bayonet, then swim to the fortress island of Corregidor. There, he weathered the furious bombardment as the Americans and Filipinos made their last stand, and when Corregidor fell, made it to the mainland in a canoe. As he lay half-conscious on the sand, a passing Japanese patrol thought he was just one more American corpse, ''another limp white body washed up on the beach.''
The narrative is spare, tough and full of cliches. There is all the stoicism and heroism of the time, but also the machismo and racism: ''A patrol of about 18 Japs tried to penetrate our lines during the early morning. The men got in some much needed rifle practice on them.'' There is even a beautiful sarong-clad heroine named Rita Garcia -- ''She was athletic and lithe . . . perfectly at home in the jungle or in a luxurious ballroom.'' Gause saves Rita in Manila when she is hurt in a bombing raid, then later dances with her all night on the eve of the Japanese Army's entry into the capital. After his escape from Corregidor, there is a brief idyll when he rests up with her at the home of a Spanish friend. (In one wonderful scene the Spaniard takes Gause back to Manila to a dance hall where they find themselves drinking with a Japanese colonel. A cultivated officer, he speaks perfect Spanish. A terrified Gause, who is pretending to be a Spaniard, does not.)
By August 1942, Rita Garcia had put Gause in contact with another American officer, Capt. William Lloyd Osborne, and the two men plotted their escape to Australia. Their craft, which they called the Ruth-Lee after their wives, was an old fishing boat with a tiny engine and a makeshift sail. Their only navigational tools were a compass and a tattered map of the Far East from a National Geographic magazine. Neither man was a sailor. When a typhoon swept down on them, Gause wrote: ''The gale caught us broadside, and picked the Ruth-Lee up like a twig and bent her over till I could almost have planted both feet on the right side and stood straight up. I saw that we were going to be overturned and was about to untie myself from the boat when the sail ripped apart and disappeared downwind.''
As Gause and Osborne made their way through the Philippine archipelago they found themselves among other outcasts of the islands. There was a suspected German spy who almost murdered them. They holed up for a while in a leper colony. They came across other American soldiers who were hiding out with a missionary woman. She gave Osborne and Gause a chocolate cake and a cheap Kodak camera, and Gause took pictures with it the rest of the voyage. The local people were mostly friendly, ''as pro-American as the Brooklynites are pro-Dodger,'' as Gause put it. To escape notice, Gause often flew the Japanese flag. When he and Osborne thought they'd almost reached Australia, they raised the Stars and Stripes, salvaged from Corregidor. A mistake. They were strafed and nearly sunk by a Japanese plane.
Osborne and Gause were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their uncommon valor, and Gause's account is quite a tale. But if every page of ''The War Journal'' sees action, almost every page raises a question as well. Gause seems to be holding back, giving no real sense of his emotions as he underwent these ordeals or explaining some of the more outlandish coincidences, like the many ''chance'' meetings with Rita, that were vital to his escape.
Rocky Gause's son, Damon L. Gause, answers some of the questions in his forthright introduction and epilogue, but at the end, as if anticipating doubts, he publishes his phone number and invites readers to get in touch. So I gave him a call. ''I researched every angle of what my father wrote,'' he said in a red-clay Georgia drawl. But I had a feeling the son, now 54, still hoped he'd hear from someone who could tell him more about the daddy he never knew. He told me that he had found a soldier who remembered the missionary with the chocolate cake, and said he had also been in contact with Osborne's daughters; their father's notes confirmed the basic facts. There wasn't much more.
What really drove Rocky Gause? We're not going to know. But one thing's for sure. He'd be just the kind of man you'd want around if you were hoping to try a great escape.Christopher Dickey is the Paris bureau chief for Newsweek. His most recent book is ''Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son.''