Riveting WWII Japanese POW Camp Saga
Henry has had a difficult life on the family farm in Minnesota. After the death of his mother, his father took up drinking and abusing him, so at the age of 15, he signs up for the Marines, with his grandfather vouching for his age. He survives basic training and is sent to the Philippines. Just as his commander is ready to send him home for being underage, the Japanese attack. Henry (nicknamed "Tree"),along with his friends and protectors, Gunny and Jamison, must try to stay alive during the bombings, and when the Japanese take them prisoners. Henry has some problems with anger management, and makes lots of bad choices, angering a guard he refers to as "Scarface" and getting beaten regularly. He does manage to save an Australian soldier, and the alliance with this group helps when Gunny is taken for "questioning". Japanese prison camps were brutal, and Tree ends up spending several years there. The prisoners show a lot of resourcefulness when it comes to outsmarting guards, obtaining medicine and food, and helping each other, but conditions are such that not everyone will survive.
Spradlin's book is especially effective because it takes into account what younger readers want, which is action, adventure, and violence, with what the adults handing them the books want, which is a certain depiction that war is not a great option. Henry's enlistment is done out of desperation over his situation at home, which was not unusual at the time. While the story doesn't glorify war, it does celebrate the men who banded together to help each other survive, and showed the triumph of human will under impossible circumstances. The other thing that young readers like is anyone undermining authority, and the prisoners certainly managed to get the better of their captors on many occasions. I imagine that Hogan's Heroes was wildly popular with 12 year old boys when it was on television, for just this reason.
The historical details are rich and interesting; it had never occurred to me that the guards at the prisons camp were the less successful soliders, but it makes sense. The heat and humidity of the jungle, the food rations or lack thereof, and the historical background are all effectively portrayed, and will hold up to the scrutiny of the most well informed war buff.