In The Last Ring Home, a modern-day advertising executive named Minter Dial II tries to piece together the story of his grandfather — Lieutenant Nathaniel Minter Dial of the US Navy, who died as a Japanese prisoner of war in World War II.
The first chapter is one of the book’s strongest. It takes the reader into the stinking, mosquito-infested Cabanatuan prison camps in Luzon, the Philippines. No gruesome detail is spared, from maggot-infected wounds to what happens when dysentery runs rampant in primitive conditions. It is here that Lt. Dial and his captured men are held in the tropical heat, under the threat of torture and execution by Japanese guards.
Still, the American men hold onto a thread of camaraderie and hope. Dial, the author, has a wonderful way of illustrating how starving prisoners shared feelings of homesickness and nostalgia, especially for food. “At night, the men would call to each other in the darkness,” the author Dial writes. “ ‘Strawberry rhubarb pie. Georgia peaches. Asparagus with hollandaise sauce’.”
Also in the dark, Lt. Dial would finger his invaluable, jeweled class ring from the US Navy Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, which he hid on his body, hanging by a scrap of fabric.
In just four pages, Dial creates a vivid image of the POW’s horrific conditions, and sets the stage for the rest of the narrative. The journey of his grandfather’s ring, after which the book is named, will be the item that holds the rest of the story together.
After its first chapter, the book steps back to describe the rarefied world Lt. Dial knew before the war. He came from a “good” Southern family with deep political and military ties: His grandfather fought for the Confederates under General Robert E. Lee in the American Civil War, and his father was a US senator from South Carolina.
Lt Dial is described as a dashing young gentleman who grew up in well-appointed homes with all-black staff. His dignified upbringing — which included a certain romanticism about the military — comes in shocking contrast to what the young lieutenant would actually find in the field.
The Last Ring Home is a self-published autobiography and family history; the publisher, Myndset Press, is part of Dial’s digital branding company. And, relative for that genre, this is a polished project. The paperback, at a shade under 200 pages, is well-written and supplemented with maps and photographs.
However, the author tends to toggle awkwardly between his own writing experience and his grandfather’s wartime struggles. It is difficult to write about oneself – much less one’s venerated war-hero grandfather – with any sense of distance. And these are parts that a critical outside editor could have tightened up.
When the book steps back into the brutality of World War II, the writing regains the strength and vividness of the first chapter.
It is 1941 and the Japanese have just attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii — the surprise strike on US soil that launched America into the war in the Pacific. At that time, Lt Dial was in charge of The Napa, an outdated ship trapped in the Philippines, running low on fuel and under fire by the Japanese. “Dive bombers sporting the unmistakable Rising Sun emblem broke cloud cover and opened fire,” he writes.
American troops in the Philippines were all but sacrificed in the Battle of Bataan and the notorious Bataan Death March. The descriptions of Japanese abuses during this period read like a horror novel — only they are far more distressing, as they were actually real.
The Last Ring Home is not uncritical of the United States. Dial points out that in Washington, the US War Department had “come to regard the Philippines as a lost cause.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt may have been sending upbeat messages to Asia — pledging freedom, independence and “an intensive and well-planned campaign” — but the reality was that America was focused on Europe, not Asia.
Here, the letters from Lt Dial to his wife Lisa, at home with two young children, become poignant. This was an era long before CNN or the Internet, and relatives often waited months for news about their loved ones. On the rare occasion that Lt Dial could get a message to his wife, he was relentlessly positive — although the reality was heartbreakingly different.
Lt Dial made it alive out of the camps, but sadly did not survive the war. Information about POWs in the Pacific was so scarce that the author was initially not even sure exactly when or where his grandfather died.
In the book’s afterward, Dial makes an effort to point out that the war did not only take 400,000 Americans like his grandfather. It also claimed an astounding 20 million Soviets, 6.8 million Germans and 3 million Japanese.
As for the ring, it miraculously made it back to the Dial family, to be held briefly by Lt Dial’s grieving wife. It was then lost again, and they are still looking for it today.
A hardback edition of The Last Ring Home will be available on Nov. 5.