‘Rock Force’, a deep WWII nonfiction cut about the battle for Corregidor
As World War II recedes into the distant past, nonfiction books slice it thinner and thinner. Some doorstoppers still cover the grand arcs of entire theatres and campaigns, but others narrow the lens and give lesser-known moments their dramatic–and sometimes cinematic–due. Books about battles have given way to books about battles within battles.
Kevin Maurer’s Rock Force recounts a little-known episode near the end of the war, when American paratroopers dropped on Corregidor Island in the Philippines, the former American fortress that the Japanese captured soon after Gen. Douglas MacArthur fled for Australia. If you recall, he promised he’d return.
But the paratroopers get there first, dropping from as low as 300 feet to hit “Topside,” the highest point on Corregidor. Those that miss– and plenty do–find themselves stranded in the ravines around it.
Maurer, the author of No Easy Day, an account of the Bin Laden mission that stirred up some controversy and questions, has a visceral sense of battle, having deployed with America troops in several conflicts. He can lay the tough guy lingo on thick. He uses rock-hard prose to tell a rock-hard tale of rock-hard men hitting a rock-hard target literally called, “The Rock.” Bullets claw at the earth, bazookas blow stuff to smithereens, officers with binoculars drop dead from unseen snipers and flamethrowers set stubborn enemies ablaze, all atop a hellish moonscape of shell craters and shattered buildings.
The 10-day fight is upside down and three-dimensional. The paratroopers battle their way down while amphibious troops work their way up from the beaches. The Japanese are caught in the middle, fighting in the ravines and a network of tunnels–dug in, surprised, cornered and increasingly desperate.
After some throat-clearing and a very, very condensed history lesson–“It came down to a simple fact: The Japanese had attacked the United States”–the firing starts. Rock Force can become a little redundant, as the days atop the Rock blend into one another, and characters come and go (and sometimes die). There’s a certain sameness to all the firefights.
Maurer makes an honorable effort to build characters we can care about. While it’s a little tough to keep track of who is whom, we do get to know a few of these men pretty well, especially First Lt. Bill Calhoun, a key commander. I wondered how on earth Maurer was able to tell such a detailed story so long after the fact but a quick glance at his source notes revealed that he’d struck the kind of research gold that would warm the heart of any journalist or writer: three of the men who fought in this battle had left unpublished memoirs behind. I’m tempted to say that Maurer was lucky, but good reporters always make their own luck.
Anyway, back to The Rock.
Tiny details and telling anecdotes give the story force. In one instance, soldiers stumble upon the body of Capt. Emmett Spicer, a doctor with an artillery battalion. Shot, the doctor had filled out his own medical tag–“gunshot wound, perforating the left chest. Severe.” Under prognosis, he’d written: “Death.”
He was right.
In another passage, Maurer uses his own penchant for rock-hard prose to surprise us. “OK, you bastards, you had it, now you’re going to fry,” Calhoun muses to himself as he sets a flamethrower team off on an assignment. We gird for some grisly humans-on-fire action. Mercifully, it’s not to be: the horrendous device fails to ignite, and the team sheepishly returns to the rear.
Maurer gives us such a deep sense of the paratroopers’ exhaustion and increasing thirst as the battle unfolds with plenty of ammunition but not enough water that, by the time fresh K-Rations and lukewarm canteens are parachuted in, we experience deeply satisfying relief right along with them.
In the end, the Rock Force vanquishes the Japanese, retake Corregidor, and Gen. MacArthur returns. Lots of good guys die. And someone has told another tale of World War II. How many can there possibly be? I wonder how much more precisely this grand conflict can still be picked apart.
Who knows? Maybe one day Capt. Emmett Spicer will get his own book.
I’d read it.
(Dutton/Caliber, December 1, 2020)