A Book Review
of Larry Alexander's
Shadows in the Jungle:
The Alamo Scouts Behind Japanese Lines in World War II
By George Eaton
The Alamo Scouts, a special reconnaissance and operations group created by the US Sixth Army in late 1943, conducted over 100 behind the lines missions in 1944 and 1945. Of hundreds trained at the Alamo Scout Training Center only 138 graduates were assigned to Alamo Scout teams; the rest returned to their permanent unit, often assigned there to reconnaissance units. The initial Alamo Scout mission set was to move behind Japanese lines to gather information on enemy unit strength, location, condition and morale, as well as beach conditions, behind the beach obstacles, and road networks. This acquired information was used to finalize plans for 6th Army operations in New Guinea and to the Philippines. Later they were used to free POWs and civilian hostages as well as advise and coordinate guerilla forces in the Philippines. At the end of World War II the Alamo Scouts were told to never talk about their exploits and the missions of the Alamo Scouts remained classified until the early 1980s. The Alamo Scouts, shadows in the jungle, have remained shadows in the history of our Army in World War II.
In Shadows in the Jungle: The Alamo Scouts Behind Japanese Lines in World War II, Larry Alexander, author of Biggest Brother: The Life of Major Dick Winters, brings the Alamo Scouts out of the shadows and into the light of history using mission reports and oral histories collected from remaining Alamo Scouts to describe the unit, its missions, and the men who were involved with the unit. He relates the reasons why the unit was needed, intelligence gathering in the Southwest Pacific Area prior to creating the Alamo Scouts, the training regimen, and then portrays several of the individual Alamo Scouts through retelling of their key missions.
The Alamo Scouts unit was created by then Lieutenant General Walter Krueger in November 1943 in response to his frustration with the lack of cooperation between MacArthur’s GHQ, OSS, and other Army and Navy intelligence gathering bodies. Even when the intelligence community cooperated, they were not providing the right kind of information for Krueger’s staff to properly plan the continuous series of amphibious assaults that made up the move across New Guinea to the Philippines. ULTRA intelligence was too high level; aerial reconnaissance could not penetrate jungle foliage; joint and combined intelligence was consolidated at GHQ and took too long to filter down to 6th Army; and improvised reconnaissance was too often tactically unsound with too high a risk of discovery to maintaining the element of surprise critical to successful amphibious assault. To ensure his own responsive and timely intelligence gathering, Krueger created the Alamo Scouts to work for him and dedicated significant resources to forming a staff, creating a training camp, and providing living and training space to his new elite force.
Alexander recounts the process for creating the Alamo Scouts Training Center and development of the training regimen. One of the first challenges was for the Alamo Scouts first director, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Bradshaw, to develop a proper training course while also sifting through the hundreds of volunteers provided by the subordinate units of 6th Army. Alexander spends some time exploring both the acceptance process and the training course. Volunteers were screened for physical fitness, powers of observation, psychological balance, and teamwork. Those who could not remember items on a table during an interview expressed overly bloodthirsty attitudes, were bullies or egocentric, or who could not work in teams, were removed. That process continued throughout the six-week training cycle with far more trainees removed than finally graduated. The greatest skill and aptitude was the ability to work in a team with other soldiers. Bradshaw implemented the selection process while also assembling a team of trainers and a training doctrine based partially on training regimens that Krueger solicited from other special units, such as Darby’s Rangers, the 1st Special Service Forces, the short-lived Amphibious Scouts, and others. They balanced the proper amount of physical conditioning, marksmanship, hand-to-hand combat, swimming, rubber boat handling, signaling, patrolling, observation, jungle craft, map drawing, and foreign language, to include Japanese, Pidgin English and Tagalog. Students had to excel in all areas to graduate. Not all the men who graduated were incorporated into a team. Enlisted graduates voted in secret ballot by listing the names of the officers and enlisted they felt they could work with. Officers listed the enlisted they would like on their teams. If a man did not garner enough votes, he was returned to his unit or retained as an instructor if needed. Only nine training cycles were started in the life of the Alamo Scouts Training Center, which moved several times to keep up with the advance across the SWPA, and of the hundreds of men who graduated, only 117 enlisted and 21 officers were assigned to teams.
Alexander then recounts many of more than 106 missions executed by the Alamo Scouts. He tells of the first mission to Los Negros Island in the Admiralties that confirmed to 6th Army that the enemy estimates published by MacArthur’s intelligence sections far underestimated the number of enemy on the island. This led General Krueger to beef up the follow-on and reserve forces which eventually turned the tide of battle in taking that island group. He also recounts the freeing of 66 hostages at Cape Oransbari, the insertion of teams in Leyte and Luzon to link up with guerilla forces to better gather intelligence while arming and training the guerillas, and the lead role of the Alamo Scouts in the Cabanatuan POW camp raid, all too often ascribed solely to the 6th Ranger Battalion. He also discusses some successful and less successful direct action missions on Luzon. What is of interest here is that Alexander is able to put his finger on the broad range of missions conducted, and the value of the intelligence or success of the POW/hostage rescue, while also detailing the less “exciting” or less successful missions. Furthermore, he ably recounts the numbing boredom and on-going training between missions typical of the life of most elite Special Operations groups.
If the above was all Alexander presented in his retelling of the life of the Alamo Scouts unit the book would be interesting and important in bringing to the light the still murky experience of Special Operations in World War II; however, Shadows in the Jungle is also important in a broader sense in both our understanding of the Army’s war in the Pacific, still woefully under reported and analyzed, and the human role in intelligence and Special Operations. The story of the Alamo Scouts is one of flexibility and mission expansion. A careful read shows that the Alamo Scouts rapidly expanded from special reconnaissance to conducting most of the missions of modern Special Forces- special reconnaissance, direct action, unconventional warfare, and hostage rescue. One might argue that in dealing with some forces, such as the “police boys” in New Guinea, they were also involved in foreign internal defense, though that might be a mission too far. Still, the Alamo Scouts successfully combined a group of missions that makes them eligible to be considered a true World War II forefather of modern Special Forces. The experience in the Southwest Pacific rather naturally drove the creation and expansion of this unit’s mission sets to meet the special intelligence and growing special forces needs of 6th Army. The Alamo Scouts were increasingly used in operations where technological based intelligence tools were found wanting and the use of direct human observation and interaction was required to accurately complete a full picture of the enemy situation and array of forces, terrain, and weather on the ground. In addition, it should be of interest to modern elite forces to note the handling of the Alamo Scouts by General Krueger and the 6th Army leadership. They steadfastly refused to commit the Alamo Scouts to routine raids or combat missions that would potentially waste this specially trained operational and strategic level asset just to ensure success on tactical level operations. The modern Special Forces community has taken note of the Alamo Scouts granting them a stone at the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Memorial Plaza and induction as a Distinguished Member of the Special Forces Regiment with the granting of Special Forces tabs to all Alamo Scouts. This recognition by modern Special Forces of these original modern special operators further highlights the importance of studying these missions. Finally, Alexander’s use of memoirs and oral history with Alamo Scouts from the last twenty years gives us more insight into the psychology of special operators and the impact of operations on them.
While I admire the men of the Alamo Scouts, and I know many of them and have worked with the Alamo Scouts Association on and off since the early 1990s, there are several aspects of Shadows in the Jungle that give me pause both in accuracy and in organization and presentation. The narrative contains many minor factual errors, such as the ranks of officers, to include mis-identifying Krueger as a Major General, when he was in fact a Lieutenant General when he organized the Alamo Scouts, and calling Krueger a “Texan” when he was actually a German immigrant raised in Missouri and Indiana. Alexander also appears to not have researched or understood the command structure in the Southwest Pacific. He misses that MacArthur created the “Alamo Force” using the 6th Army as the organization in order to create a force that he could directly command and circumvent the Allied command structure. The term “Alamo Scouts”, while coming from Krueger’s recent identification with San Antonio, was a direct reference identifying the unit with the Alamo Force. These shortcomings are both from a lack of due diligence in research which, while not undercutting the story and importance of the Alamo Scouts, causes one to wonder about the accuracy of other less obvious aspects of the war in the Pacific as sketched in the book. Because of my own understanding and contact with the Alamo Scouts over the past twenty years or so, I can attest that the specifics of missions and people are generally correct, but I am concerned that a reader with a general knowledge of the war in the Pacific will throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Alexander also does not seem to completely grasp the training regimen or broader personality of the Alamo Scouts, which are better described in Lance Zedric’s 1995 Silent Warriors of World War II: The Alamo Scouts Behind Enemy Lines. Zedric’s book was able to rely on a larger number of oral history interviews conducted mainly in the early 1990s when many more of the Alamo Scouts were still alive and thus have a greater breadth and depth. Silent Warriors should be read in conjunction with Shadows in the Jungle for a more rounded appreciation.
It is the sources used and the presentation offered that create my larger uneasiness with Shadows in the Jungle and made me once ask, “Is this a book about THE Alamo Scouts or about a very select number of Alamo Scouts?” For example, Alexander recounts the Los Banos POW camp raid which was executed by units from the 11th Airborne Division. This was clearly not an Alamo Scout unit mission, but the lead reconnaissance and execution of the raid was led by SSG Terry Santos who graduated from the Alamo Scout Training Center, and who chose to go back to his parent unit to improve their special reconnaissance abilities. Terry Santos is clearly an Alamo Scout and was an exceptional soldier, but he conducted the mission while serving with the 11th Airborne, not the Alamo Scouts. Given the clear distinction, why was the mission included in the book? In addition, the mission stories at the end of the book are scattered, incomplete, and not well incorporated into the whole of the book. How do we explain this lack of organizational clarity and focus? I believe the root cause of these problems is due to the limited number of interviews Alexander was able to conduct with the handful of remaining Alamo Scouts. What he got was shared corporate remembrance of certain key missions that have become the fabric of the Alamo Scout story and then snippets of everything else. While it appears the author did review many of the mission reports, he was unable to fully integrate the handful of oral histories he collected into the existing documentary history. In short, he wrote a book about the collective memory of the unit and about the remaining Alamo Scouts he was able to contact. This explains the Los Banos Raid, the sketchiness of the last months in Luzon, and the many other missions from New Guinea to Leyte executed by Alamo Scouts that has almost to a man passed on. This also leaves Shadows in the Jungle as a book somewhere between being about the Alamo Scouts as a unit and the individual Alamo Scout graduates who remain.
These shortcomings and concerns aside, Shadows in the Jungle: The Alamo Scouts Behind Japanese Lines in World War II is a valuable book exploring the Alamo Scouts as one specific Special Forces unit in World War II, but also providing glimpses of the developing missions of Special Forces, the psychology of elite units, and the personal exploits and remembrances of an extraordinary group of men who have not been fully recognized in the history of World War II.
George Eaton is the Command Historian for the US Army Sustainment Command headquartered at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. He retired from the active Army in early 2001 after a 21 year career as a logistician that included a tour teaching military history at West Point. He has published articles and longer research pieces on the life of General Walter Krueger and his role in the development of Army doctrine and war planning prior to World War II.