"The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies." Vergil, The Aeneid
Not since Edmund Gosse’s classic memoir, Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments, has an estranged son written more nobly of his father than Douglas Valentine. Nobly because, apart from a brief author’s note, the son is absent from the book, except as a faithful and creative amanuensis to his father’s chilling, dark, lifelong secret of his WW II years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese. A secret so horrifying that a reader can’t help but realize that its harboring throughout the thirty plus years of the son’s life could do nothing but poison his relationship with his father as it ate away at his father’s soul.
Responding to his ailing father’s call to come home and hear his tale of the war experiences that have tormented him his whole life, the son discovers that his father has awakened him to his vocation as a writer. By listening, the son receives the gift of telling. He answers the call. And in telling his father’s story (originally in 1984; see 2016 edition here) the son opens himself to other serendipitous opportunities that would result in other books exposing the treacherous secrets of state criminals, notably the CIA (The Phoenix Program) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). While these latter books have made Valentine’s reputation, his first and most intimate, The Hotel Tacloban, stands out in so many ways.
Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describes this acceptance of the call as follows:
The first stage of the mythological journey – which we have designated as the ‘call to adventure’ – signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown…. the hero can go forth on his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father’s city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur.
While I doubt Valentine or his father – Douglas Valentine, Sr. – considers himself a hero in any popularly understood sense, both are heroes in a deeper sense. They are truth tellers. They tell truths that, if closely heard and meditated upon, could transform the lives of other suffering souls, just as they granted the father a semblance of peace and began to heal the broken bond between father and son. While nothing is more unheroic and conventional than the social lie that glorifies war and the modern Minotaurs who demand an endless supply of war victims to feed their blood lust, father and son make it clear that war is nothing but a sick racket. Many people will nod in agreement, but the Valentines, through graphic illustrations, courageously lance the festering wound that war’s depravity inflicts on all who experience it.
Part ventriloquistic non-fiction memoir, part history, part murder mystery, part war story, part confessional – wholly beyond categorization, really – The Hotel Tacloban is a mesmerizing read that will leave you stunned and shaken, but also awestruck by the courage and depravity to which humans can rise and fall. So gripping is the story that I find it shocking that it hasn’t yet been made into a movie.
It is also a cautionary tale that exposes the destructive effects that guilty secrets can have on soldiers, who have returned from war terrorized by their experiences, and their families. And, by implication, on anyone who harbors secret nightmares that eat them alive.
Perhaps I would best describe it as a tale told in an Aristotelean tragic style that engrosses the reader from the start as one is slowly – as if stepping into quicksand – drawn into the story of a patriotic sixteen year old boy soldier’s war nightmare. With each page the tension builds as the reader is led by the action to feel pity, fear, and disgust – the gamut of emotions that lead to a catharsis, of sorts. At the end the reader, together with father and son, exhales, takes a deep breath, and exits the theater profoundly shaken by the experience. Shaken into life’s profound mystery.
Masterful in structure and eloquently written in poetic prose that belies its subject matter, it is reminiscent of the best American war writing.
Scene: New Guinea in the south Pacific. Late August 1942.
On the unpublicized orders of General Douglas MacArthur ("Dougout Doug"), poorly trained units of the U.S. Army 32nd Division are unexpectedly diverted to New Guinea to back up undermanned and beleaguered Australian troops trying to stop a Japanese advance to the southern Port Moresby. Among them is Douglas Valentine, Sr., a "sixteen, not too bright, runaway from a broken home in Pleasantville, New York, an orphan of the Great Depression." His best friend, Bobby Stevenson, eighteen, an Indiana farm kid and former hoopster, who cannot swim, dies in an amphibious landing, despite Valentine’s valiant efforts to drag him to the safety of a rescue craft. "And when Bobby’s dripping body rose out of the sea," he says, "I saw that both his legs were gone from above the knees. Not even his pants remained….That’s when I came apart."
So this kid Valentine, who should have been in his sophomore year in high school, despite coming apart, joins his unit chasing the Japanese through the jungles up to the mountain ridges. Here’s is how Doug Valentine, Jr./Sr. describe it:
Once the momentum had swung in our favor, we were little more than flotsam swept along on the tide of the forward movement. All our time was spent tramping through the twilight gloom of bamboo forests, or through mangrove swamps thick with wide buttressed banyan trees, or across sun-drenched fields of kunai grass. We skirted pools of deadly quicksand and we trudged through the stinking, greyish-brown peat bogs which were a common feature of the water-logged terrain. Some were as large as football fields, some were the size of swimming pools, all had rotten logs and decaying branches jutting out of their foul, porridge-like mass. Swarms of mosquitoes floated above the algae-covered surface, but we walked right through….We crossed frothing streams on slippery, moss-coated logs and tramped endlessly through ankle-deep mud. Mud. Mud. Mud….Thirsty and sweaty, filthy and soaking wet, sick to our stomachs from dysentery and burning up with fever, we pushed through…
This incantatory writing leads the reluctantly hooked reader deeper and deeper into the center of the story that takes place in the static and claustrophobic confines of a prisoner of war camp, where the boy soldier spends the next three years, rather than in his sophomore, junior, or senior years of high school. Captured while on patrol by the Japanese after all his compatriots are killed and dismembered – "They were pulling the pants off the dead men, laughing and giggling like it was a picnic for the fucks; then chopping the pricks and testicles off the corpses and stuffing them in the breathless mouths." – Valentine couldn’t understand why he was spared. As with Bobby’s death, guilt consumes him and follows him through his nightmare haunted life. As he was being transported in a locked and pitch-black cell in the belly of a ship to the Philippines’ POW camp, he tells his son:
Each time I shut my eyes to rest, I envisioned the anguished faces of the seven men on patrol. I saw their terror and I saw them die. Even when my eyes were open they stared at me from the infernal darkness of my cell, saying, ‘We died, but you lived.’ I felt I had no right to be alive….the ferocity of those little Japanese monsters having driven all vestiges of reverence for my own life completely out of my mind, neither would I ever know peace of mind. The faces of those seven men would be my constant companions; along with Bobby’s and Andy’s [who stepped on a land mine], and those of hundreds of others.
The story then revolves around the sixteen year old Valentine’s three years at the Hotel Tacloban, so sardonically named for its nearness to the town of Tacloban on the Philippine island of Leyte. The sole American prisoner together with a few hundred Australian and British soldiers, Valentine endures nightmarish conditions, totally cut off from the outside world, barely surviving with little food and water, malaria-ridden and death haunted, watching fellow diseased prisoners die all around him, being tortured and watching others being killed – all within a confined space not fit for barnyard animals. A place from hell where time stood still, and yet a microcosm of the "normal" world where human relationships take center stage, and where, despite the limited stage for action, much happens in a condensed, intense, and dramatic fashion.
If I told you all the details of Valentine’s sojourn in this hotel from hell, I would ruin the book for you. So I will keep some secrets. You must experience it for yourself. Some books you just read, The Hotel Tacloban you experience. You need to check in and stay a while. You will find the accruing intensity so chilling and so mysterious that it will shake you to your depths and leave you wondering, not just about the depravity of war and those who wage them, but about the mystery of "fate" and how sordid secrets can devour the soul and ravage the relationships of those who feel they must keep them.
Valentine was once told by a fellow prisoner, Lieutenant Duff, a sterling Aussie camp leader and confidant for Valentine, that if they survived and were rescued, "the closer you get to civilization the less people will want to hear about this. They won’t be able to relate to the experience, and they won’t want to know."
He took that advice to heart for far too long: "if I ever wanted to be part of society again, I had to obliterate the Hotel Tacloban completely from my mind. I knew that if I ever wanted to get well – if I ever wanted to be whole and normal – that I’d have to start forgetting then and there."
Then, when Army authorities threatened him and insisted that he forget; when they obliterated his army record and created a false one in its stead (the reason why is revealed at the end); when in doing so they denied that he ever had malaria that caused him lifelong health problems for which he could never get government medical services; and when guilt got the best of him, Valentine buried the truths he needed to shout from the mountain top.
Trying to have a "normal" life and forget as ordered, he condemned himself to many decades of imprisonment in a prison camp of the mind. It was a place where the demons of memory never rest. Why he did so is more than understandable, despite the terrible consequences, body and soul. He was a brave and admirable soldier betrayed by his own government, as is so often the case.
War spawns victims everywhere, generations of victims, even when you survive.
Those who wage the wars devour their children, as he came to learn. "The fact of the matter is this:", he tells his son, "the US Army is a predatory beast with the capability to destroy anything that threatens it, from within or without." For a long time this fear of the Minotaur had him trapped him in its lair, and his guilt held him there. Miraculously he sensed that it would be his son, his namesake, who would spring him from the prison of forgetfulness and help him slay the monster by the simply act of listening. And then by writing this profoundly moving book through which a father and son discover each other in the telling. It is a liberating book in so very many ways. A labor of love.
Don’t miss it.
Edward Curtin is a writer whose work has appeared widely. He teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His website is http://edwardcurtin.com/.