Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, September 4, 1998


WWII novel
resonates in isles

A chance meeting
led to its creation

By Burl Burlingame


The luck of the draw continues to haunt veterans of combat. Flying shrapnel cuts down lives indiscriminately, a random puff of wind causes a bomb to drift off target, a break in the clouds allows air cover to protect your position, in the wide expanse of the sea, ships manage to find each other with deadly consequence. It's a matter of seconds, of inches, of timing.

And so when writer Steve Goldsberry bumped into an elderly gentleman in Oakland in 1984, he had no idea the short chat that followed would lead anywhere. "His name was Malcolm Champlin, and he said something like, 'Oh yeah, I was in the war. I could tell you a load of stories about Gen. Wainwright.' "

Goldsberry was intrigued. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, left behind to command the doomed Philippines detachment of the U.S. Army in 1942, is the only American general to surrender to a foreign army. Champlin had been considering writing a novel about the Philippines in World War II, and thought Goldsberry might be a good resource.

"He didn't call for 18 months, but when he did, I was fascinated with what he had to tell me," said Goldsberry.

Goldsberry convinced Champlin that an auto-biographic novel might be the best way to impart the dramatic reality of this largely overlooked conflict. The completed book, "Luzon," is currently a local bestseller for Mutual Publishing, surprising for locally published hardcover fiction.

The book has become a touchstone for Filipino veterans as well, who were denied war benefits by Congress just after the war ended. There is a move afoot to reinstate the benefits, and Rep. Neil Abercrombie makes it a point to pass copies of "Luzon" to anyone who needs convincing, including the President.

"This is such an important issue, and it's the only honorable thing to do," said Abercrombie. "Anything that makes this issue come alive -- which 'Luzon' does with great style and artistry -- can only help these brave veterans."

"Except for a very few, most of our legislators are entirely ignorant of the war (in the Philippines)," said Goldsberry.

Goldsberry interviewed Champlin at length, and did "a ton of research; we supplied lots of references to each other," and then started the work of crafting the work.

The hero of the novel is nicknamed "Champ," and like Champlin, is a naval officer assigned as an Army liaison during the crucial battles of Cavite, Bataan and Corregidor. It takes place primarily in early 1942.

While it's largely true, the novel does have flights of fiction. For example, the primary female character is based on a real woman, but Champlin lost touch with her in the press of war.

"I wanted her to die," said Goldsberry. "It's the dramatic thing to do. But he fell in love with the character, and so did I. So we scrapped the death scene, and the book became a fully realized love story."

This raised another problem. How would Champlin's real-life wife react? Those reading the book would assume it was her, which it was not. They even named the character after her -- Virginia. Luckily, "Champ's wife read it and liked the character, and let it go."

Even stickier was the notion of sex, and this is the only territory the two writers couldn't navigate together. "I really wanted to go deeper, wanted to make their love scenes very erotic, and Champ was horrified. He said NO!"

Manuscript completed -- with most of the offending sex stuff bluelined out -- the authors made the rounds of New York publishers. "It took a long time hear back, but the word generally was that military fiction is slow. And it sat there."

Then Mutual publisher Bennett Hymer took a copy on a trip to Asia. "He finished reading it in only a couple of days, and said, if you want to publish it in Hawaii, I can get it out in four months. Well, the best our agent was getting out of New York was maybe a mass-market paperback. We not only said yes, we said hell yes!"

The rest is history, and we don't mean fictionalized history.

The book was completed and advance copies shipped from the printer. Goldsberry took a photo of Champlin holding the novel and toasting its completion.

A few weeks later, Champlain died just as the book was reaching stores. Like everything else touched by the war, even this was a matter of timing and luck.

Novel brings wartime
vividly to life

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin


Luzon: By Malcolm Champlin and Steven Goldsberry, Mutual Publishing, $22.95

GOOD historical fiction vividly recreates the experience of living in another era. Malcolm Champlin and Steven Goldsberry accomplish that with "Luzon," their sprawling account of Japan's victory in the Philippines in World War II.

The mind-numbing impact of the Japanese attack hits home in the first paragraphs. The horror grows exponentially thereafter. War is hell when the enemy has total aerial superiority and you're losing the battle.

It isn't until the first air raid is over that we learn much about the protagonist. Champlin's observations sound like those of a grizzled semi-educated Chief Petty Officer, but he is fact an Annapolis graduate, an attorney, and a former FBI agent. Like "Pug" Henry in "The Winds of War," he's on hand for many historical events.

The authors accurately reflect American attitudes during the debacle, including the incessant use of a four-letter expletive when referring to Japanese forces.

Their portrayal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur is generally unflattering but it omits mention of the $500,000 he illegally accepted from Philippine President Manuel Quezon in 1942 and pass over his involvement in the legally problematical postwar executions of Japanese generals Honma Masaharu and Yamashita Tomoyuki (who wounded his pride during the war.)

"Luzon" at its best is an entertaining, lightly fictionalized eye-witness account of the fall of the Philippines. It would be a solid -- though rambling -- adventure if it ended there, or with the chapter that recounts the destruction of Manila in 1945. However, several chapters carry on through 1991 with a change of protagonists along the way.

A tremendous amount of back story narrative adds bulk and slows the pace. Detours include sordid details of Champlin's girlfriend's parents' marriage and a pre-war episode in China that never becomes significant.

"Luzon" reads like one man's wartime experiences "as told to" another. It would work better as literature if the authors limited the stream-of-consciousness style to Champlin's observations.

The book stands as a well-researched memorial to the Americans and Filipinos who fought in the campaign or experienced its aftermath.

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