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The Battle of Buffalo Wallow

Adult; Memoir; (Market)

In World War II, the U.S. Army’s 44th General Hospital found themselves at ground-zero of the Japanese counterattack on the island of Leyte. As Japanese infantry infiltrated and enemy paratroopers dropped around them, the 44th’s officers faced a life-or-death decision. With over 200 patients, the Japanese surrounding them, and no option to retreat, they had to act fast. Should they uphold their oath to “do no harm”? Or do they arm the medical staff and defend themselves and their patients? Do they risk violation of the Geneva Convention or risk death or imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese? But without authorization to obtain arms, how would they defend themselves? Could the 44th hold out until infantry support arrived? Their fate would be determined in what was called “The Battle of Buffalo Wallow”. This book tells the previously unknown and controversial story of the 44th General Hospital, medical professionals who were asked to perform actions over and above their expected duties. The Philippine island of Leyte became the stage for a key battle between the United States and Japan in World War II. The 44th was staffed by an experienced group of doctors from the University of Wisconsin. Untrained in combat, they were sent inland to the village of Burauen, very close to the front lines of fighting. Their courage and dedication would be tested in the heat of battle. The Surgeon General of the Army called the 44th “the finest that ever served.” Author James Odrowski’s father was an officer in the 44th. James grew up hearing his stories and later connected them with their historical context. What he discovered about the 44th was even more remarkable than the stories indicated.
Reviews
Odrowski debuts with a sensitive account of his father, a veteran of World War II, and his 44th General Hospital unit in an under-studied battle in the Philippines, the eponymous Battle for Buffalo Wallow. Drawing on his childhood fascination with hearing war stories, Odrowski transports readers straight into the action with his evocative descriptions of his father’s experience, such as his depiction of a visit to a native village in New Guinea with “tall coconut logs stood like sentries amidst areas of thick jungle growth.” He takes care to contextualize the human-scale story against the broader history of the war itself, explaining the proper chain of medical evacuation and considering deeper ethical questions, such as whether it was appropriate for a hospital unit to be fighting the in the first place.

Photographs of Odrowski’s father and mother, on the home front and in the field, illustrate the story, helping readers put faces to names and immersing them in the story’s events. Strategists will wish for more geographical context to follow the various maneuvers of the battle, but Odrowski does offer some maps and slightly too much primary material, such as when he quotes lengthy dueling poems between American units for several pages. Overall, his extensive research illuminates what happened and why, while not overwhelming the human interest at the core of his father’s story.

Odrowski even takes pains to highlight moral questions which may be overlooked by a less careful storyteller, recounting war crimes with deep concern and including a content warning for language used by Americans during the war to refer to the Japanese. (In honor of the “comfort women” abused by the Japanese, some of the proceeds from the book will go to organizations serving women impacted by war and sexual assault). This historical retelling is fascinating, and Odrowski does an admirable job of tying the personal to the world-historic in one engaging narrative.

Takeaway: History buffs will appreciate this family story that examines a little-known battle of the Second World War.

Great for fans of: E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, Hampton Sides’s Ghost Soldiers.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: B-
Illustrations: A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: A

Amazon

Top review from the United States

Myrtle Warbler

5.0 out of 5 stars What an amazing story!

Reviewed in the United States on February 20, 2021

Medical professionals serving in the Pacific during World War II and untrained in combat tactics are forced to take up arms to prevent their field hospital from being overrun by Japanese paratroopers.

The author’s descriptions of the conversations he had with his father really resonated with me. My father also fought in World War II, although in the European Theater of Operations. Unfortunately, my father and I never had the kinds of conversations the author describes in this book. As I look back, it was a missed opportunity.

You get a good understanding of how nerve wracking it was when the medical unit’s Liberty Ship convoy became stuck on a coral reef in the middle of an active war zone during the transfer from Australia to New Guinea.

From basic training in the United States to deployment first to Australia, then to New Guinea and finally to Leyte Island in the Philippines, the author provides an interesting description of the local ways of life experienced by his father.

I found it fascinating to visualize the medical unit setting up a makeshift hospital “on the beach” to deal with casualties taken during the landing on Leyte Island. The author provides good insights into the operation of treating casualties.

And of course the Battle of Buffalo Wallow!. The author does a really good job describing the Japanese counter offensive and the desperate defense of the hospital facility by a motley collection of defenders.

Blog

Years ago, my sister, Colleen Janes wrote a story about our father for family history. I thought the story should be told publicly, as so many stories of World War II have gone untold. I asked her for permission to publish the story on my little blog, and she agreed. You can find that story here. Little did I know that James R. Odrowski would read Colleen’s story. Mr. Odrowski’s father and our father were in the same place at the same time. Fortunately, his father was more willing to talk about his experiences in World War II than our father.

After years of research, Mr. Odrowski has written a book to document the compelling, but controversial story of The Battle of Buffalo Wallow, also known as the Battle of the Airfields. Until this book, my family had not understood the significance of what our father and those he served with did in the South Pacific. We did not understand that the Battle of Buffalo Wallow was, in fact, part of the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines.

Mr. Odrowski’s book tells the story of the 44th General Hospital, which was supposed to be several miles from the front lines, but became Ground Zero behind enemy lines. Since medical personnel were not supposed to be part of the fighting force, they were not trained in combat, and were not issued guns. After all, medical units were to “do no harm,” and were protected under the Geneva Convention from attack. The problem was, Japan never signed, nor ratified, the Geneva Convention documents. They did, in fact, attack clearly marked medical ships and other medical units.

Upon learning of impending danger, the 44th General Hospital had quite a dilemma: They could arm themselves to protect their own lives and the lives of their patients, or live by the Geneva Convention and face imminent death for all of them. They chose to live. Unfortunately, when they requested guns, the request was denied. By some miracle, the supply staff managed to acquire three ambulances full of guns. It is unknown how that was accomplished.  However, I can’t help myself from forming a hypothesis around my father and his duties as a supply sergeant. Dad was a force to be reckoned with when he felt there was some sort of injustice. If, in fact, he had been ordered to help secure weapons, I have visions of a whole lot of pounding and cussing. I have every intention of getting to the bottom of that story when I see him again in heaven.

History reveals a second controversy: Was the 44th General Hospital abandoned by General MacArthur to advance the bigger objective on Leyte? It appears that may very well have been the case.

There is danger in judging history from modern day perspective. Mr. Odrowski does an excellent job of telling the story as we know it from official documents and personal histories, without judging the actions of the men of the 44th General Hospital, nor General MacArthur. The facts are these: Everyone there did their jobs the best way they knew how. The Philippines was liberated from Japanese control. Allied forces were then able to turn their attention to the Japanese homeland. Within months, the war was over.

Mr. Odrowski’s book is more than just a history book. He tells the story of his parents, his family, and life for him growing up in post war America. His was a childhood of sitting at his father’s knee listening to war stories. Soldiers dealt with the war in many ways, and his father, thankfully, chose to teach his children about life through his war experiences. My own father didn’t talk about the painful parts of the war—only brief references and sketches of the personalities of war buddies—until long after I had left home. He finally opened up to my sister, Colleen, as she wrote a report for ROTC in high school. Dad was ill, and I think he realized he wouldn’t be around for too many more years. It was a story that had to be told.

As you read Mr. Odrowski’s book, ponder in your mind all the untold stories from World War II. Each soldier, each wife, girlfriend, mother, father, and sibling had their own story of life during the greatest war the world has ever known. Most of those stories are lost. Be grateful for those who had the strength to record oral and written histories. Be grateful for men like James Odrowski for spending years of his life researching and telling the stories before they completely disappear.

Then go a step farther. Write your own life story—and yes, you have one. We all have one. Tell your story for your children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. It may, or may not, be a compelling war story. I have spent countless hours reading and rereading the story of an ancestor who came from Demark and pushed a handcart across the country to Salt Lake City, Utah. Her story gives me the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other on days when I want to pull the blankets over my head and hide from the world. Now, because of Mr. Odrowski’s hard work, my children and grandchildren will read and reread my father’s story in The Battle of Buffalo Wallow and realize that they, too, can get through the hard times in their lives.

Mr. Odrowski’s book is well worth your time. I hope you will read it. If you have a family member who was with the 44th General Hospital in the Philippines, Australia, or New Guinea, I would love to connect with you. Leave a comment on this post. If you have questions for Mr. Odrowski, I am in contact with him and would be happy to relay those questions.

Goodreads

James Odrowski’s diligent work is a wonderful tribute to the dedication and courage of ordinary men and women asked to do the extraordinary. The selfless actions of the members of the 44th General Hospital exemplify why they will always be remembered, and rightfully so, as the greatest generation. Well done!
- Tom Heaphy

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