Ed Dyess was a smart, talented, athletic kid from Texas who had a passion for flying, movie star good looks, and a flare for acting. Thanks to a chance encounter on a highway in the middle of nowhere, he went on to become an ace fighter pilot, lead men with guns-a-blazing in America’s first amphibious attack during World War II, survive the Bataan Death March, and escape a harsh Japanese POW camp. All the while, Dyess kept quietly inspiring and leading everyone he encountered.
Today on the show, I discuss this real life GI Joe with writer and filmmaker John Lukacs. John is the author of Escape From Davao and made a documentary about Dyess called 4-4-43 (narrated by past AoM podcast guest Dale Dye). John shares how Dyess started his military career as fighter pilot during World War II, but ended up leading men on the ground in the earliest infantry battles in the Pacific. We then dig into Dyess’ experience during the Bataan Death March and how he continued to support his men during this crucible. John then shares how Dyess, along with nine other men, escaped from one of Japan’s harshest prison camps and how he fought his way out of the jungle to let the world know of the atrocities going on in the Philippines. We end our conversation with a discussion of why Ed didn’t win the Medal of Honor despite his heroic actions, his tragic death, and the leadership lessons we can all take from him.
- Why do so few people know the story of Ed Dyess?
- Dyess’ childhood and teenage years in Texas
- How did Dyess fare in his early military career?
- How Dyess went from pilot to infantryman
- Why stories of the European theater of WWII are predominant
- The way Dyess rallied his men in the midst of their fear of battle
- How Ed was taken prisoner at Bataan
- Ed’s experience during the Bataan Death March
- Ed’s continued leading in the midst of the march
- How Ed pulled off one of the most daring escapes of the war
- How Ed and his fellow escapees made it back to friendly forces
- Why did the government try to hide what was happening in the Philippines?
- What happened to Dyess after the escape?
- Was Dyess ever awarded the Medal of Honor?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My podcast with Alex Kershaw about Felix Sparks The Liberator
- Battle of Bataan
- Lessons From the Epic Age of Flight
- Voices of the Pacific
- The Incredible True Story of Lucky 666
- The Sands of Iwo Jima
- Bataan Death March
- The Great Escape
- Sign the petition to award Ed Dyess the Medal of Honor
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Ed Dyess was a smart, talented, athletic kid from Texas who had a passion for flying, movie star good looks, and flair for acting. Thanks to a chance encounter on a highway in the middle of nowhere, he went on to become an ace fighter pilot, lead men with guns a-blazing in America’s first amphibious attack during World War II, survived the Bataan Death March, and escaped a harsh Japanese POW camp. All the while, Dyess kept quietly inspiring and leading everyone he encountered.
Today on the show, I discuss this real-life GI Joe with writer and filmmaker John Lukacs. John is the author of Escape From Davao. He made a documentary about Dyess called 4-4-43, narrated by AOM podcast guest Dale Dye. John shares how Dyess started his military career as a fighter pilot during World War II but ended up leading men on the ground in the earliest infantry battles in the Pacific. We then dig into Dyess’ experience during the Bataan Death March and how he continued to support his men during the crucible. John then shares how Dyess, along with nine other men, escaped from one of Japan’s harshest prison camps and how he fought his way out of the jungle to let his government know of the atrocities going on in the Philippines. We end our conversation with a discussion of why Ed didn’t win the Medal of Honor, despite his rogue actions, his tragic death, and leadership lessons we can all take from him. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at AOM.is/Dyess. That’s D-Y-E-S-S.
John Lukacs, welcome to the show.
John Lukacs: Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Brett McKay: So you reached out to me after … I think we did the podcast about The Liberator, right? The guy-
John Lukacs: Correct, Alex Kershaw’s book.
Brett McKay: Yeah, Alex Kershaw’s book. Incredible story just following the 45th Infantry all the way from Italy to Germany. You reached out to me, said, “Hey, I’ve got another story that a lot of people don’t know about, and the guy’s incredible. His name’s Ed Dyess.” Before we get into details, how did you discover this story of Ed Dyess, and why do so few people know about him?
John Lukacs: Well, Brett, it’s an excellent way to start off. Very few people know about Ed Dyess just because Battle of Bataan, in the … It was the darkest, earliest days of World War II. It was a loss. You mentioned Alex’s book and Felix Sparks. We tend to dwell on the victories in terms of military history, especially in the US. I think it is a … I don’t know if it’s an ego thing. Definitely we don’t want to talk about when things went wrong. That was a situation where things went very wrong, so I think that his story’s been … He was a big part of that battle. It was the largest … remains the largest surrender in U.S. military history, and that’s probably the reason why we haven’t heard that much about it.
Brett McKay: Right. But, you know, despite losing that, he did some incredible stuff. We’re gonna get into what he did, ’cause he is like a real-life GI Joe. But before that, let’s get to his background. Where was Ed from? Where was he raised? And he started off as a pilot, so did he have an interest in aviation even as a young man?
John Lukacs: Yes. That’s a great line to call him GI Joe. I’ve used Captain America quite a lot, and they’re both interchangeable. He is almost a superhero-type figure. It’s strange sort of … Actually, go back to your previous question. Now, I was researching this story about this escape from a Japanese prison camp. It was the only large-scale POW escape of the Pacific War. Obviously Colonel Dyess participated in that. He was a prime mover in that story. But it was through the course of researching that escape story that I got into the Battle of Bataan and Corregidor — again, the early part of the war in the Philippines — and Dyess’ name popped up everywhere. So this is long before he become a prisoner of war. Before the Bataan Death March, he was basically GI Joe-ing it around in the Philippines in the air, on the ground, and doing everything he possibly could.
Brett McKay: So, yeah, as a young man … He was kind of exceptional even as a young man. He showed a lot of leadership potential. He’s kind of Mr. All American even as a teenager, right?
John Lukacs: Yes. To get into his background, growing up in Texas, a small town called Albany, and basically it was the frontier. He was born in 1916, and it was the kind of town where residents in his time, they remember Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, coming through there. There was a lot going on in the country at this time, and in terms of progress, moving forward, the new frontier was the sky. It was airplanes, the aviation boom post-World War I into ’20s, and that’s … He got hooked. There were a bunch of guys, barnstorming pilots, World War I guys, that would land in these small towns out in the middle of Texas, Midwest. They’d try to make a few bucks by taking up townspeople for airplane rides. And Ed Dyess, he got his first ride at the age of four, and he was hooked ever since.
Brett McKay: And he saved up for money, did odd jobs so he could take pilot lessons, even as … I think he was like a teenager when that happened.
John Lukacs: Right, yeah, he worked several odd jobs in order to be able to take flying lessons, and I think it was one of those things where … I guess for a boy or something back then, I’m sure sports were a big deal, and I think a lot of these guys, they looked up to pilots and things who were doing these extraordinary technological feats. He was into Charles Lindbergh, I guess, instead of Babe Ruth. But he was very resourceful. You gotta keep in mind, this was the Great Depression. Nobody was sitting around watching TV or playing on the internet, no cellphones, anything like that, so he was out and about. He was busy working, and, like I said, doing odd jobs and multiple things in order to indulge his love of flying but also to sort of further his education.
Brett McKay: Did he sign up to be a Army pilot right out of high school, or did he have other plans and then got diverted there?
John Lukacs: No. You know, he was kind of a jack of all trades in high school. Class President, obviously. His leadership skills were evident from an early age. He was really into acting. He had a dramatic flair. And he was great at sports. He kept the flying thing on the down-low. I don’t think … His mother wasn’t very, very keen into it, so I think the flying lessons were very secret. He ended up going away to school, a place called John Tarleton Agricultural College. It’s now Tarleton State in Stephenville, Texas. It’s about an hour away from Albany, outside of Abilene where the Air Force base is named for him.
He graduated from there. Again, did all these same things in high school, kind of was big man on campus. And then when he graduated … Well, he was also in ROTC. That was a high school and college thing, so he had that, I guess, early military tendencies as well.
But it’s a great story. He was hitchhiking to the University of Texas in Austin. After he got his undergraduate degree, he was gonna go to law school. His father was a judge. He never got to Austin, though. He ended up being picked up by a flyer, and guy who had washed out of Randolph and Kelly Field training program, which was called the West Point of the era at the time before we had an Air Force academy. So he never made it to Austin. He literally and figuratively did a U-turn with his life and went back and told his father. He said that “I want to be a pilot, and I want to fly the fastest aircraft around,” and there was only one way to do that at the time, and that was the United States military.
Brett McKay: So how did he fare early in his military career? This was before World War II started, I assume, that he . . .
John Lukacs: Right. This was … Right, the mid-to-late 1930s. Once he was accepted into the flight training program, the West Point of the air, and it was just a perfect fit. Basically went to the head of the class in terms of leadership, flying skills, everything that was needed, and kind of made his way up through the ranks and then became the country’s youngest squadron commander in 1940.
Brett McKay: And where was he stationed when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor? Did he have a role in Pearl Harbor at all?
John Lukacs: No. Actually, he was in the Philippines. And he left the U.S. He deployed in November 1941. He arrived in Manila Thanksgiving Day 1941, which was about two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and so he was already there. He was at the tip of the spear, I guess you could say, in terms of our most far-flung outpost in the Pacific, the Philippines. It’s interesting because Pearl Harbor really gets all the attention, December 7, 1941, but December 8 was the day the Philippines, due to the international dateline factor, Japanese … They hit Pearl Harbor once, and they hit them pretty hard, but they hit the Philippines December 8, and the difference between the famous day of infamy of Pearl Harbor, they kept coming back to the Philippines and kept leveling our forces there throughout December. So Dyess was, he was in the thick of it from day one.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and he shot down several planes, I think, in those skirmishes.
John Lukacs: Yes, he shot down reportedly six planes, which would qualify him as an ace. You need five enemy planes to qualify as an ace. He shot up a Japanese truck convoy. Unfortunately, though, with the loss of records … And this was an early part of the war, again. There were no gun cameras on the fighter planes, P-40 Warhawks, at the time. But that was kind of the least of his worries was, at the time, was being able to get credit for shooting down the planes. It would’ve been nice, but there were a lot of other things going on. Shortage of food, shortage of ammunition. There wasn’t enough oxygen for the high altitude compressors, so these guys, they couldn’t really get in any high altitude dogfights, so there was … He was making due with what he had, but, again, the way that guy operated he functioned spectacularly with very limited resources.
Brett McKay: How old was he at this time?
John Lukacs: He started out … When the war started he was 25.
Brett McKay: Okay, so he’s 25. So about mid-20s, but still pretty young, right?
John Lukacs: Right.
Brett McKay: I think it’s funny, sometimes whenever … I tend to do this. When I think back to World War II vets, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, they were like in their 30s,” but these guys, some of them like 19, 20, 21, like flying big bombers and fighter jets. These were really young guys.
John Lukacs: Exactly. That’s something that I’ve always found as amazing, similarly. It’s strange. I do think we have a tendency, when we’re studying history, especially … You think back at the Revolutionary War, and you think of those guys as just being a bunch of old timers, and with the exception of Ben Franklin they were all in their 20s. And I think Washington was in his low 30s. So these guys were all very young, and similarly with World War II. These guys were put on the front lines right off the bat. And again, as … He was in the service before the war. Obviously wasn’t part of the draft. He was in it from day one, so he was one of those guys that was kind of learning as he went as a young guy, starting out as an amateur and literally becoming a professional in a matter of weeks.
Brett McKay: All right. So here’s Dyess. He’s, beginning of the war, basically an ace, ’cause he’s shooting down Japanese Zeros, but suddenly he has to become an infantryman. So he goes from fighter pilot to basically a grunt on the ground. How did that happen? Why did he have to go from being a pilot to an infantryman?
John Lukacs: It was really unfortunate turn of events. The famous line that Dyess uttered … He joined the military to fly planes. He wanted to be fighting a war in a cockpit, not the jungle. He was out on patrol as an infantryman and was overheard to remark to one of his troops that he’d rather be back home in Texas staring at the Southbound end of a Northbound mule. He wasn’t happy with the situation, but, again, the exigencies of the situation. The Japanese had a blockade on. The main Pacific battle fleet was basically demolished. We lucked out that they didn’t hit any of the carriers at Pearl Harbor, but we couldn’t muster force for any convoys. We couldn’t relieve the Philippines. We couldn’t get reinforcements, supplies. For a while, attrition basically took care of our small air force in the Philippines at the time, and so Dyess was taken out of the cockpit, handed a rifle, and sent into the jungle.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think part of the problem, too … We talked about this in my … We did a podcast about Lucky 666. At the time, the beginning of the war, the strategy for the Allies was Europe first, right? So most of resources were going to Europe, and the guys in the Pacific weren’t really getting that much.
John Lukacs: Exactly. You nailed it. And to be perfectly honest, I think … To go back to even the first question, why have we not heard of Ed Dyess, why hasn’t this story gotten more attention, is I think there still is a Europe first mentality. I think we … I don’t know the exact numbers, but if you look at publishing houses, Hollywood, European movies, European theater stories are predominant, and I think that that’s just partially a factor of most people have some type of historical or hereditary ties to Europe, to the continent, and it was just a more romantic-type war. You’re basically dealing with a bunch of natives, don’t speak English. There’s no big cities. There’s nothing that geographically or historically connects anybody to all these little islands and atolls basically out in the middle of nowhere. And so, yes, he was suffering from the Europe first strategy where the lion’s share of the United States and the Arsenal of Democracy was sending around the world, the Philippines got very little of it, and that’s a great tragedy. And my opinion is the decision was made, obviously, a strategic one that we would be basically supporting the war efforts of almost every other country, Great Britain, Soviet Union, but yet our own guys were left out.
Brett McKay: Right. So Ed didn’t like the situation, but he still made the best of it. What did he do to overcome this challenge? Especially the challenge of leading men who were probably demoralized because of the situation.
John Lukacs: Right. And it’s, again, he was fortunate in having these very special, this innate talent for leadership, but the men under his command, they weren’t really digging the new roles, either. And keep in mind, it’s a lot different than current military training where almost everybody has some type of … has to qualify for marksmanship or knows how to pitch a tent or spend a night out in the field somewhere or use a compass, go on long hikes, endurance, stamina, that type of thing. Back then, the military training was a lot different. If you went in the Air Force, you’re gonna be a pilot, you spent your time around planes. You’re gonna be a mechanic, you were taking apart engines. And so these guys had no idea how to be basic field soldiers. That was just a product of the era.
But Dyess, thankfully, through his background, his upbringing, growing up, again, kind of on the frontier in Texas, guy knew how to … He knew how to ride a horse, he was handy with firearms, and so he was able to transmit that knowledge through his leadership skills, through the force of his personality, basically, to sort of serve as a commanding officer but also a drill sergeant, also a weapons expert, communicate everything thing he knew to his men. And I think that’s … These guys were very fortunate that he did have that background, that upbringing and training, and I think it helped them get through a very difficult situation.
Brett McKay: Right. What I thought was impressive, he didn’t wait around for someone to tell him to do that. He just did it. He saw a problem, and he just, “All right, I need to show these guys how to shoot, and we’re gonna train for that now.”
John Lukacs: Exactly. It was funny that … Some of the stories I’ve heard … And I’ve been fortunate to interview guys who served with him in his unit, and they’re basically all gone now except there’s one sort of lone survivor left. And from what this gentleman told me, Lieutenant Colonel Cowgill — John Cowgill is his name — Dyess didn’t believe in sitting around. He was obviously a junior officer, so he knew how to take and fulfill orders, but he was very proactive.
Brett McKay: All right. So Dyess, in the Philippines because he’s there, he had the opportunity to take part in America’s first amphibious battle of World War II. So tell us about that, that battle.
John Lukacs: February 2, 1942, the Battle of Aglaloma Bay on the west coast of the Philippines, the Bataan peninsula. Very, very extraordinary circumstances, but trying times bring out the best in extraordinary people, and Dyess was there at the right time, the right place, and the right moment in history. It’s really hard to describe how a fighter pilot ended up leading America’s first amphibious landing of the war, yet he had demonstrated such proficiency as an infantry leader, as a ground-pounder, as a real, true warrior instead of just being a fly boy that high command, they figured that there was only one guy who could successfully pull of this mission. And Dyess, he jumped at the opportunity.
Brett McKay: Yeah, there’s this line you describe in this document you’d prepared for the Texas Medal of Honor. You talk about the men were just … They were in a dire situation. It was a tough battle. And then Dyess is able to rally his men, and I love what he said. Can you talk about how did Dyess rally his men who were just kind of … who were sitting still out of fear, basically.
John Lukacs: Right, yeah. At the time … And to give you a little bit of background, the Japanese intended to conquer the Philippines in 45 days. That was their timetable, their schedule, because they wanted to get south, the very oil-rich resources, the Dutch East Indies, break through that barrier and cut off the allied supply chain to Hawaii and to the West Coast. They wanted to get down to Australia, but they needed to conquer the Philippines and do it quickly. And they got kind of desperate, so they tried basically an end run on Bataan, landing 2000 troops in hopes that they could get behind our lines and sow chaos in the rear echelon and bring this campaign to a conclusion. But fortunately these airmen, Dyess, the 21st Pursuit Squadron, a lot of shipless sailors, and a similar kind of a hard-scrabble, ragtag outfit stopped these guys in the jungles.
And then when the landing took place is because there were few of these Japanese soldiers left. As you’ve studied the war, you know that the fanaticism of the average Japanese soldier was basically unmatched by any other combatants during the war. So there was a handful of these guys that refused to surrender, but unlike the History Channel documentaries and all the old newsreel footage, these guys didn’t have flamethrowers. They couldn’t call in airstrikes. They didn’t … basically didn’t have any ships to bombard these guys offshore who had fortified themselves in these caves and these little read outs on the cost there, so we had to make an amphibious landing, and that’s where Dyess came in.
He organized and planned the whole mission from start to finish, hand-picked the guys from his unit, the guys who were the crack shooters in the outfit, guys he knew were tested under fire and they wouldn’t crumble or wilt. But this was a new thing. I guess it was one thing to be able to ask these guys, these airmen, these pilots and mechanics, to fight in the jungle. It’s another thing to ask them to charge up on a beach, in terms of enemy fire. So a lot of them, yes, a lot of them did freeze. Partially fear, partially you have no training to fall back on. But Dyess, he was the first one up on the beach. He’s firing a Lewis machine gun basically from the hip, almost a Hollywood-type cowboy story.
So Dyess is up on the … he’s up on the beach there. Japanese planes are shooting at him, dropping fragmentation bombs, plus these entrenched soldiers that are hugging the shoreline there in their little rocky caves, they’re firing at him. So he’s basically trying to handle this entire situation and get these guys to join him on the beach so he’s not the only one fighting this … making a one-man landing. And I guess the way you could describe it was he shamed them into being men, into doing their duty, and they all kind of snapped out of their funk, and they joined him in the battle, made a successful conclusion, and ended up stopping the Japanese threat. Long story short: the Japanese planned on taking the Philippines in 45 days. It took them 120.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, I mean, he said, “Come on, men! Aren’t you men?” I mean it … That description … It sounds like from a John Wayne movie, World War II movie. It’s textbook.
John Lukacs: Exactly, it’s like Sands of Iwo Jima. It’s an old black and white. You can imagine him there exhorting these guys to do their duty, and he was basically calling out the manhood of these guys. You’d rather almost get shot, maimed, wounded, killed than appear to be a coward. These guys, they looked after and they looked up to Dyess, and I think they wanted to emulate him in that regard. He was a leader, but he was a man among men, not just in the air or on the ground but in pretty much everything he did. They didn’t want to let him down, and I think that was a big part of it as well. They liked him so much. And again, it wasn’t a fear thing. It wasn’t a disciplinary thing. They wanted to prove they were men, but they also wanted to be accepted by Ed Dyess, by their commanding officer. And again, this wonderful warrior but a great human being who they looked up to and aspired to.
Brett McKay: So what was the outcome of that battle? Did they win?
John Lukacs: Yes, they completely wiped out all the Japanese on the beachhead with only actually one casualty, which out of 20-some men is unbelievable. Sometimes you can confuse bravery and glory and all those things, and like I said, rushing into the battle with little regard for your own personal safety, but Dyess, he was … He wanted to bring his guys home as well. I think he did think of them as family. He was not just a commanding officer and a friend, he was also kind of a father figure even though he was only, some cases, a few years older than these guys. I think he thought that, hey, Uncle Sam trusted me with their lives, and I want to do my best to get them home to their loved ones and their families. He wasn’t always playing Rambo, let’s just say that. He was trying to save lives as well.
Brett McKay: So what happened to Dyess and his unit after the Battle of Aglaloma Bay?
John Lukacs: Well, after the successful landing and the conclusion, that was the climax of the Battle of the Points. Medals were handed out. Dyess, the other pilot with him, received the Distinguished Service Cross, which is the second highest medal for valor you can receive in this military. The enlisted men all received Silver Stars. But for Dyess, the bigger reward was he was returned to flight duty. We had managed to cobble together a handful of planes, and so he was basically put in charge of all air operations on Bataan, and which was running … It was called the Bamboo Fleet. It was a small, small number of aircraft. A lot of them were unarmed, basically sort of training planes. So he started figuring out, “Okay, what can I do with this small handful of planes? How can I, again, be on the giving part of it instead of taking it?” So he was returned to flight duty and started putting together more targets for the Japanese.
Brett McKay: But he eventually gets taken prisoner at Bataan. How’d that happen?
John Lukacs: That’s another part of Dyess’ myth. His legend is that he was ordered to evacuate Philippines. Obviously high command saw that the battle was going south. Obviously as a skilled squadron leader, pretty valuable to the war effort. They wanted him out of there. And you think about it, pilots don’t do very … can’t really help their country behind barbed wire, so they wanted to evacuate Dyess. But again, Dyess, his responsibility to his men … His sort of definition of leadership required him to stay. He wasn’t going to run out on these guys, and I think we felt as though anybody who tried to get off Bataan was lacking in their duty or their sense of manhood.
So he sent out basically everybody in his place, which is, again, the way he was, very unselfish and very … Best way you could say it is he did care about others more than he cared about himself. That’s how he ended up becoming stuck on Bataan and had the misfortune of being in the infamous Bataan Death March.
Brett McKay: And how did he fare during that and during the Bataan Death March?
John Lukacs: Well, the Death March was actually as bad as you could imagine as it’s been portrayed in history through books and stories of that nature. Dyess had it a little bit worse just because he was taller than the average GI, blue eyes, blond hair, that type of thing. It made him and target. And plus he was an officer, so he was a pretty big target for abuse for the Japanese. He took it in stride, literally and figuratively. I think he understood that if he could deflect some of the blows from his men, from wounded guys, that was no question. He would do that. Again, the guy never, ever gave up at anything he ever did in his life.
Brett McKay: So I’m curious: did he … So I guess it sounds like he continued his natural leadership role even during the march.
John Lukacs: Definitely. The line that he uttered was … He said, “We were surrendered, but we didn’t feel licked.” There was this sense of these guys didn’t lay down their arms out of any type of cowardice or fear. They were ordered to. Even though he was no longer a warrior — he was a prisoner — I think he took the same mentality as he did in combat, again, whether he was in a cockpit or out in the jungle to survival, and he sort of transformed from that mindset to being a survivor instead of a prisoner.
Brett McKay: So where did the march go to? What prison camp did he go to?
John Lukacs: Well, the march was actually … Bataan Death March, it’s one of those confusing things where you think it’s just one endless line of prisoners. It was more or less a series of marches by different numbers of prisoners which the Japanese had collected in various groups, and they would move out specific days. From start to finish, the march took about 60 miles north into Luzon out of Bataan, and depending where you were on the road, where you were on Bataan when you surrendered, these guys started trickling into the first prison camp anywhere from three days to three weeks after the surrender. That first prison camp for all the men captured on Bataan was called Camp O’Donnell. And, like I said, it was heading up into the plains of Luzon out of Bataan.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. So how did he … So he makes the breaks. He escapes from the camp. How did he pull that off, because not many people … Was he the only one who … to escape from a prisoner camp in the Pacific?
John Lukacs: Yeah, well, he wasn’t the only. There were a few other individuals who broke out of different camps, and this was throughout the Pacific, throughout the Far East, the Asian mainland, China, places like that. But he moved from Camp O’Donnell to Cabanatuan, which was basically the largest holding center the Japanese had of American prisoners in the Pacific. Again, outside of Manila, plains of Luzon. But he was actually transferred to Davao, which was called the Davao Penal Colony, outside the City of Davao on the island of Mindanao, which is the southernmost island of the Philippines about 600 miles south of Manila. And the reason he was sent there along with … He was in a group of about 2000 prisoners that were herded onto this merchant ship, crowded together like cattle pretty much, because the Japanese needed prisoners to work the penal colony, and that was basically a pre-war prison in the Philippine Commonwealth that was designed to be escape proof. It was for all the worst criminals in the Philippines, all the murderers, rapists. It was kind of like their Alcatraz or their Devil’s Island.
But it was also a plantation, and so the Japanese got this bright idea, “Well, we have all these thousands of American prisoners of war, let’s put them to work for the greater good of the Japanese empire and to help the war effort.” And so Dyess was one of those individuals selected to go there. Again, never say die. His can-do attitude. To the Japanese, that camp was escape proof. No one had ever broken out of there in its 10-year existence, but to Ed Dyess there was no such thing as an escape proof prison camp or a mission that couldn’t be accomplished.
Brett McKay: So he escapes. Did he escape with other people as well, other men?
John Lukacs: Yes, there were. It was a group of 10, 10 Americans, two Filipinos. The two Filipinos were convicts who had been incarcerated there, both for murder, and they signed on as guides. 10 Americans. It was basically an all service team, kind of an all-star team of … Dyess was an Air Corp guy. His wing man, Sam Grashio; his head mechanic on Bataan, Lieutenant Leo Boelens; plus three marines, Captain Austin Shofner, who was a manly man if there ever was one, football player from the University of Tennessee. He was the ranking Marine officer. And there were two lieutenants, great friends of his, Jack Hawkins and Mike Dobervich; and three Army personnel, a Coast Artillery officer who fought on Corregidor, plus two enlisted men. Steve Mellnik was the officer, Major Mellnik. And Sergeants Bob Spielman and Paul Marshall. And the ranking officer was a Navy commander by the name of Melvyn McCoy, who was one of those living geniuses who graduated from the naval academy with … the way I understand it, still has the highest ranking in mathematics in the academy’s history. So you have guys from basically every branch of the service, every part of the country, and Dyess, again, used his team-building skills to select this group, this all-star team of escape artists, to accomplish this mission.
Brett McKay: And what happened? How did they make it back to the Allies? Escaping’s one thing. It’s evading that’s often the hard part.
John Lukacs: Well, this is usually the part of interviews where I say, “Well, buy the book or watch the documentary.”
Brett McKay: Right, right, right.
John Lukacs: … to not give away the entire story. It’s a fascinating story of how these guys got out. Basically, they walked out the front door. They outsmarted the Japanese. But then again, as one of the men, Bob Spielman, said … He said, “You know, there’s no use in escaping if you’re just gonna go hide under a rock somewhere.” You have to do it for a reason. They had a reason. They wanted to break the news of the Death March and the atrocities that the Japanese were committing against the prisoners of war to their government, to the rest of the world. They had the motive, they figured out the means, and basically met up with friendly Filipinos and figured out that there was resistance movement that had formed after the surrender, and there were a lot of guys who didn’t give up, and a lot of local … basically a Filipino army led by a few American officers that had managed to stay out of these prison camps, and they had coordinated with General MacArthur’s headquarters in Australia, and they were receiving supplies. Sounds sort of trite to say it, but he basically flagged down a ride with a submarine.
Brett McKay: Right.
John Lukacs: And that’s how he reached friendly forces. It was him and two other individuals, Lieutenant Commander McCoy and Major Mellnik, who were the first three to get out of the Philippines to meet with MacArthur in Australia, and they were the first ones to bring out the word of what was going on in the occupied Philippines behind Japan’s Bamboo Curtain, so to speak. They were the first to bring out the news of the Death March and the atrocities and what was going on in these prison camps.
Brett McKay: But here’s where things get kind of crazy, because … They’re telling the government officials about the Bataan Death March and what the Japanese are doing. The government says, “Okay, thanks, but don’t tell anybody.” What was going on there? Why didn’t the government want these guys to talk publicly about what was going on in the Philippines?
John Lukacs: Exactly. It’s remarkable because, again, you’re looking back, and it’s historical hindsight. Hindsight’s 20/20, and you’re thinking, boy, these guys just pulled off probably, I mean, the greatest escape of World War II. I think Hollywood gives all the credit to the guys in Europe. That Steve McQueen movie, you know the great escape in Europe, but what these guys did … They pulled off something that was impossible. They escaped from an escape proof prison camp stuck in the middle of this giant swamp, alligators and head hunters and all these things. Got off an island surrounded by the Japanese navy, somehow got to friendly forces. So you’d think that would probably be worthy of a ticker tape parade, but the government thought differently.
And again, it goes back to what we discussed a few minutes ago. The Europe first policy was the order of the day strategically, and the United States government … Keep in time the time period of the war that this happened was kind of a gray area of the war. 1943, middle part of the war. We had gotten past Pearl Harbor, the dark early days where there was nothing but a succession of bitter losses, to turning the tide at Midway, Guadalcanal. So we had the Japanese, basically kind of holding them at bay. We had reached a stalemate with them to a certain extent, but in Europe, the invasion of Europe was being planned.
So, you know, late 1943 … You’re looking at D-Day in June of ’44, and the government didn’t want to upset the strategic applecart with an invasion of Europe and everything that that had to go into planning that in terms of keeping all these despaired allies, Britain, free French, and all these countries, on board with the plan that they didn’t want to disrupt planning for that, jeopardize it, because they knew that if the American people heard what was going on, what the Japanese were doing to their prisoners of war, it would’ve created such a dramatic outcry for revenge. A lot of people would’ve begged the question, “Wait a minute, Japan attacked us. They snuck-attack us at Pearl Harbor. Why are we putting them on the back burner? Why are we concentrating on Hitler in Germany first?” If we find out your guys are being beheaded and tortured and treated in all these despicable ways, I think that the American public would’ve … There would’ve been a vociferous outcry to make a Pacific first policy instead.
So when Dyess and these guys first came home, there were no ticker tape parades, and there was no hero’s homecoming. They were told to shut up and keep quiet.
Brett McKay: But eventually the government released the story, and that caused … It happened exactly what they thought would happen. The public was just like, “No, we gotta do something about this.”
John Lukacs: Exactly. And I think that, and again, I get into this in much greater detail in my documentary and on Colonel Dyess’ … There’s not just … We may think now. I think there’s a lot of low approval rating for all of our politicians, but there weren’t any idiots working in the government back then. They figured out, “Well, hey, we need to harness this anger and this outrage,” and they did it by basically sort of controlling the flow of the story, when it was released, to coincide with war bond sales, and basically sort of creating a spark that …
Again, this was a period of the war where a lot of people aren’t familiar with. Again, kind of right smack in the middle of things, between these more well-known historical events. And not a lot of people are aware that the war did drag on for four years, and it wasn’t a concerted, high-output, high-emotional-feeling situation for the duration of those four years. I think there was the initial outrage over Pearl Harbor, and then, again, we had some tide-turning victories, but things had sort of stagnated at this time. People were kind of taking it easy. We weren’t being threatened with invasion on the West Coast anymore. Hitler had been turned in Russia, and things were going in a better direction. I think people started getting a little complacent. War plane industries, people were taking days off. They had problems with hiring and output. People weren’t buying bonds for the war. I think everyone was just getting tired of the endless slog of this fight. But this story, the government expertly turned it around as pretty much an ingenious propaganda move to light a fire under everybody.
Brett McKay: What happened to Dyess after this? Did he go back to … After he went back to America and back to the Allies, did he get back into battle or what did he … Did the government have other plans for him?
John Lukacs: We talk about this GI Joe and Captain America, and he is almost this great Hollywood-built or Hollywood-dreamed-up hero, but there isn’t a happy ending, unfortunately. He was preparing. He was gonna get back in a cockpit. He was gonna talk command of a squadron that was heading over to Europe, flying P-38 Lightnings, which was at the time one of the fastest, most heavily-armed fighters that we had during the war and one of the most fearsome in terms of the way the enemy regarded it in both theaters. So he was preparing to do that. Unfortunately, he suffered a tragic plane crash over Los Angeles, Burbank. And it’s really, again, tragic, but you think about all the things that this guy went through: survived aerial combat, ground combat, leading the first amphibious landing of the war, nearly a full year as a prisoner of the Japanese after the infamous Bataan Death March, escaping from a prison camp and being on the run for several months and surviving the jungle and all those things. To die in a freak plane crash, it almost … It defies convention.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, it reminded me of how Patton died, right? He died in a car crash after doing all this stuff in Europe, and his last words were, “This is a hell of a way to die.”
John Lukacs: You know, it’s amazing. It really was. You think about that, again, but … Plus Patton’s life, if you look back bigger picture, he was wounded in Word War I, and all the adventures he had in terms of being a great horseback rider and everything else. You think about all the things these guys went through. And MacArthur was another one. He’d been shot at everywhere for close to 30 years in his military and was always very daring and brave, and to sort of escape fate so many times. Maybe Dyess was just sort of so much of a man he just kind of ran out of luck or ran out of his nine lives, I guess you could say.
Brett McKay: Right. So he’s 27 at this time, so still a young man. He did all this stuff. You kind of went through what he did in two short years. You hear this like, “Man, this guy should win the Medal of Honor, be awarded.” Did that happen to him?
John Lukacs: No, and that’s … It’s, again, another tragic aspect made it sort of a sad ending instead of a happy ending. He had several opportunities where he could’ve been awarded the Medal of Honor. Again, there were things that happened over in the Philippines, obviously, in terms of loss of records and being part of a losing battle. Things didn’t go the right way or break for him, and you need people to recommend you and all the paperwork has to be in order, and that was, again, you’re … It’s a loss, so you’re burning documents and records and things like that. So he was unfortunate in that regard.
He was also … I think he was recommended for it after … for his last heroic act, which was he died in that place crash, but he saved the life of an innocent bystander, a motorist who had strayed in his landing path. Dyess could’ve saved his own life and probably crashed into this car on a street in Burbank, but he decided to try to save the life of this unknown motorist and in that regard lost his. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but the motion was denied, and he received the Soldier’s Medal, which is a very prestigious award, but it’s for action not involving … heroic action not involving an armed enemy, and it took place on American soil.
But, I guess, in terms of talking about a happy ending, I’m leading a movement, so to speak, to have Dyess recommended and reconsidered for the Medal of Honor, and hopefully we can rectify this past wrong. Which, a lot of things happened according to fate and things out of his control, but I think there was also some resistance from members of President Roosevelt’s administration and other people, so it was semi-political. Again, Dyess was the … kind of a survivor of the Alamo who shows up and wants to tell his story at a particularly bad moment in time, so he was kept quiet and kind of pinned down by government forces, his own government forces, in that regard. But hopefully we can rectify this situation and get him the medal he deserves.
Brett McKay: So, I mean, I love to take … There are so many lessons we can get from this guy, but the thing that stands out the most as I read about Ed’s story was just his ability to inspire men and his leadership under fire. Was that natural? Was that something he was just born with, or did he consciously develop that? Do we know that, or … He was just born with it.
John Lukacs: I think it’s a little bit of both, to be honest with you, Brett. If you look at … Again, I think the innate part of it, he was born with the way to sort of carry himself, the way to appear before others and inspire. I think he just had that natural personality where he could get people together. He was a team-builder. He was someone who was a very inspirational, motivational type figure. But if you remember the small line I mentioned earlier when describing Dyess’ background, his upbringing, his personality, he was a hell of an actor. He was always in school theatrical productions, and even once he joined the Air Corps he still, in his spare time, acted in local theater communities in Shreveport and at Barksdale Airforce Base, Hamilton Field out in San Francisco. He kept up his acting skills in that regard. So I think he was also sort of aware of how he carried himself and how he could appear. He could put on a good show, let’s just say that. I think if you add all those things up together in sum, that’s what made him a great leader. But it wasn’t act. It truly was him.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, John, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book? Not that book. It’s the documentary.
John Lukacs: Right, well, the documentary focuses on specifically on Ed Dyess exploits and his … the way he led people, the way he conducted his war, that brief two-year period that you mentioned. The book covers the escape in … adds in the other characters on sort of a bigger picture. 450-age book and then you have an hour documentary, sometimes the documentary is a little bit easier for a lot of people in a busy world to digest. You can go to 4-4-43.com. That’s the name of the film, 4-4-43. And you can sign the Medal of Honor petition that we have for Colonel Dyess. We’re nearing almost 30,000 signatures right now, and so we’re gonna be getting out there and sent to the folks in Washington with a lot of other materials for this Medal of Honor request. All your listeners out there, if you can sign up for that, we’d really appreciate it. Add your name to the list, join the mission, so to speak.
And also the film, the documentary. Again, it’s an hour long. It was an official selection of the GI Film Festival in Washington. You can purchase DVDs there on the same website, 4-4-43.com. All the proceeds go towards helping this mission to get Dyess recognized and to get him the award that he deserves and, frankly, that he earned.
Brett McKay: Well, John Lukacs, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
John Lukacs: Brett, hey, the pleasure was all mine. Thank you. Thank you very, very much for helping me share this story. I really appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was John Lukacs. He’s the author of the book Escape from Davao, as well as the filmmaker of the documentary 4-4-43. You can find out more information about the film at 4-4-43. You can also buy it there, and you can also find out more information about John’s mission to get Ed Dyess the Medal of Honor there as well. You can also check out our show notes at AOM.is/Dyess — it’s D-Y-E-S-S — where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at ArtOfManliness.com. If you enjoy the show, if you got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.