Once upon a time, a young man was doing construction work on an island in the Pacific when the Japanese attacked and, after a long standoff that has been called the “Alamo of the Pacific,” captured everyone on the island. Our hero spent the next three and a half years in a prisoner of war camp during World War II.
His ingenuity allowed him to survive and even flourish during those grueling years. One day, his Japanese captors were transporting him from one coastal Chinese prison camp to another, via train, when he decided to escape. He managed to get past defenses and slip out a window, jumping into the night. For weeks afterward, he skirted through the wilderness, until Chinese communists captured him…and helped him get back home. When he made it to an American base, he met a young Chinese revolutionary named Mao Zedong. After returning to the States, he would go on to become a stake president in the LDS Church, and the mayor of North Las Vegas, as well as being awarded high honors by the government and being featured on a special on the History Channel.
This is a true story, and it’s related in Rescued By Mao. It’s the adventure of Bill Taylor, who, as the first president of my local stake of the LDS Church, and a former mayor of my city of North Las Vegas, is a prominent figure in my area’s heritage. And I’d never heard of him until last month, when my current stake president mentioned this book in a meeting we had. So I picked it up from the library and found it very worthwhile. (The stake president also recommended Big Russ and Me, which I’m currently reading. He must enjoy WWII-era memoirs.)
Taylor never tries to make himself seem heroic, which makes his exploits come across as all the more gripping; the only thing better than an action hero is a realistic action hero. He is also quite frank about his mistakes and bad habits as a young man, and even though he doesn’t dwell on it or become preachy, it is fascinating to read about the spiritual growth he experienced by counting his blessings and seeking strength from God in the midst of such terrible suffering.
Taylor writes the kind of sharp, immediate history of WWII that could only have been written by one who lived through it; I learned more about that period from his brisk summaries than I had in all the textbooks I’d ever read. And during his narrative of being a prisoner of war, the best parts were actually the little explanatory interludes, where he would shed light on Asian culture, tell an amusing anecdote about something that briefly lightened the atmosphere in that wretched place, or clarify the background of the politics involved. I had known that, historically, Japan and China have tended to be enemies, but Taylor’s analysis–outsider though he is–is refreshingly clear.
My only two disappointments with the book are, first, that his simple, homespun writing style, which is usually what makes the text so easy to engage, sometimes lapses into outright stiltedness, relying on cliches and clunky phrasing to progress, and, second, that at the end, he neglects to temper his early praise of Mao by mentioning that he would go on to become one of the bloodiest butchers of the 20th century. It seems like a pretty major oversight, and clouded what should have been a storybook conclusion.
Still, this earnest portrait of the suffering and aftermath of war from the perspective of one who lived its worst is a powerful, important, and occasionally stunning reminder that the past is never dead and, indeed, can’t be.