Ghost Soldiers

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(HOST) The celebrated author Dorothy Canfield Fisher is not the only famous member of her family. As we observe Memorial Day 2006, commentator Peter Gilbert has the story of her son, James, one of Vermont’s greatest World War Two heroes.

(GILBERT) Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, when, after the Civil War, families would decorate the graves of Civil War dead with bouquets and wreaths. This Memorial Day, Governor Jim Douglas, author Hampton Sides, the American Legion, and others will remind us of that tradition when they unveil a bronze plaque honoring Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s son, James Fisher. The public ceremony will be at three o’clock today in Arlington, at the Fisher-Scott Memorial Pines on Red Mountain Road.

In early 1945, the final year of the war, intelligence had determined that the Japanese were holding a large number of Allied POWs in a prison camp near Cabanatuan, Philippines. Many were survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March three years earlier. Recent massacres of POWs elsewhere in the Philippines brought urgency to any rescue mission.

A hundred and twenty-one hand-selected Army Rangers marched thirty rugged miles behind enemy lines to rescue them. Philippine guerillas provided essential intelligence, guidance, and protection. Captain James Fisher volunteered for the dangerous mission; he was a young medical doctor, a soft-spoken, self-deprecating graduate of Harvard Medical School, and a resident of Arlington, Vermont.

Dr. Fisher insisted on participating in the attack itself and not staying in the rear to wait for the wounded to be brought to him. He argued that precisely because it was such a dangerous mission and because the POWs might need medical treatment immediately, he should be up front.

While an American fighter plane buzzed the camp to distract and threaten the Japanese guards, the Rangers crawled the last mile, then stormed the camp, killing two hundred of the enemy and freeing all the five hundred thirteen prisoners. Miraculously, only two Rangers were killed. One was “Dr. Jimmy,” as the unpretentious young physician insisted on being called; he was mortally wounded by a mortar shell while treating the sick and wounded near the prison’s gate. Although operated on by two Filipino doctors, he died the next day.

The story of this dramatic raid is told in Hampton Sides’s compelling book Ghost Soldiers, which won the PEN award for nonfiction in 2002. The book is both deeply disturbing and truly inspiring. The movie “The Great Raid,” which came out in 2005, also tells this extraordinary story.

When the Fishers learned the story of their son’s death, they arranged for the Filipino doctors who cared for him to visit them in Arlington and to study for a year at Harvard Medical School. They also funded a medical clinic in Cabanatuan, which is still operating and which bears a plaque honoring James.

Today we pause to remember and honor those who, like Jimmy Fisher, have given, as Lincoln said, “the last full measure of devotion.” And we pray for the day, as Isaiah said, when swords will be beaten into plowshares and “spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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