Film tells little-known story of World War II heroism
It was April 4, 1943 when Lt. Col. William Edwin Dyess, nine other American war prisoners and two Filipino convicts made a daring escape from the Davao Penal Colony, an Imperial Japanese Army prison camp in the Philippines.
More than 71 years later, a film telling the story of this piece of World War II history — through the eyes of the little-known hero Dyess — is coming to Champaign's Virginia Theater.
Called "4-4-43: Lt. Col. William Edwin Dyess and the Greatest Story of the War in the Pacific," the documentary is based on the book "Escape from Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War."
Here's the book on John D. Lukacs, the film's executive producer and the book's author, and what he learned in the years he spent bringing this story to life.
What does he hope viewers and readers take away from the film and book?
"It sounds corny, but it's sort of the triumph of the American way," Lukacs says.
That's because the men who escaped Davao were unarmed and abandoned, but they didn't give up.
"It says a lot about what is in our DNA, problem solving, working together, never-giving-up spirit," Lukacs says.
He also hopes readers and viewers will take up his campaign to right what he calls a 70-year injustice and secure a Medal of Honor for pilot/hero Dyess, who was known as the "one-man scourge of the Japanese."
Dyess, who died at age 27 in a plane crash, survived the Death March and nearly a year of torture, starvation and slave labor at the hands of the Japanese before helping lead the escape from Davao.
Then he worked with the Chicago Tribune to help break the news of the atrocities he and the others fled, Lukacs says.
Many people who have read his book have come to understand what bad shape the U.S. was in during this part of the war, how the country got involved and about guys like Dyess "who almost single-handedly got us out of it," he says.
Dyess has remained largely unknown, partly due to his early death and the fact that he didn't have any children to promote his achievements, Lukacs says.
"He was sort of pushed under the carpet," he adds. "There were other heroes to celebrate."
Gaining that overdue recognition and celebration of Dyess and his heroism has become a personal mission for the author, and he invites everyone to join him in his Medal of Honor campaign. An online petition can be found at: 4-4-43.com.
He started his career as a sportswriter and working for newspapers and magazines.
Opening some doors for him as a sportswriter was an internship at ESPN The Magazine, while his work for ESPN's College GameDay show piqued his interest in the visual interpretation of storytelling.
"Escape from Davao" was his first book and it took five years to complete, partly because of all the traveling he did to interview people and experience the significant places in person. He doesn't undertake a story without going there himself, he says, and he believes this benefits viewers and readers.
"I'm sure I antagonized my editors because it took me longer to do things," he says.
Writing a book wasn't on his horizon until he met and became friends with the late Mario "Motts" Tonelli.
A former Notre Dame football player and World War II veteran, Tonelli survived the Bataan Death March and more than three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.
It was Tonelli who first told him about the group of American war prisoners who pulled off the amazing escape from the Davao Penal Colony and got him more interested in America's war in the Pacific, Lukacs says. He told Tonelli's story in a 2002 USA Today cover story.
"It was one of those interesting connections that was meant to be for a reason," Lukacs says.
What surprised him the most in his book research: How much he didn't know and had never learned in school about this part of World War II.
Overshadowed by what was going on in the European theater, the war in the Pacific lacked the personal connection many Americans have with European roots. It wasn't part of the war on which Hollywood was fixed, he says.
Plus, Lukacs says, "it was a war we were losing, and in American history we don't emphasize losing."
Because of military censorship, people had no idea how bad things were and what was going on until the men who escaped Davao fulfilled their mission to let America know about it all.
"It was also one of the first times in our history that, for whatever reason, these guys weren't willing to do what they were told and thought they had a greater responsibility," he says.
His impression of America's understanding back then of the Japanese and the way they waged war: "I don't think we went into the situation knowing how difficult the war was going to be, and how brutal a war we were facing," he says.
This was a different war than the one being fought in Europe, and the government was naive to think the Japanese would adhere to human decency standards, Lukacs says.
Japanese soldiers, beaten and trampled on throughout their service and in a society that was brutal and oppressive, had prisoners below them on the ladder, and "they had the opportunity to beat and mistreat," he says.
Many American soldiers taken prisoner by the Japanese were shell-shocked that they could be treated the way they were, Lukacs says, and he calls the American public's eventual eye-opening a "coming of age moment."
He dedicated the book to his father, a history teacher who died of pancreatic cancer while work on the book was under way.
His dad had a great interest in the Civil War and took him on battlefield trips during his growing up years, Lukacs says. His father fostered his interest in history and encouraged him to become an educator in his own style.
What's next? More war stories.
The background work for Lukacs' second book about the Battle of Manila is largely done, and work on a third book, about the Battle of the Aleutian Islands, is also in progress.
If you go
What: Showing of the movie "4-4-43: Lt. Col. Willliam Edwin Dyess and the Greatest Story of the War in the Pacific"
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., C.
General admission: $5. Veterans and active duty military service personnel get in free.
Afterward: A panel discussion with John D. Lukacs, the author and historian who produced this film.