In the early months of 1945, Douglas MacArthur’s forces worked to reclaim Philippino territory from the Japanese that they had captured back in those “dark” months of 1941 and early 1942. And as the Japanese retreated, their death-before-capture philosophy took a more sinister turn. News filtered back to Allied lines that the Japanese were killing POWs and captured civilians being held in prison camps all throughout Luzon.
Allied leadership, starting with MacArthur, realized that something should be done to try to save as many prisoners as possible, so numerous missions were carried out in an effort to prevent a potential slaughter.
One of the larger internment camps was located near Los Banos, roughly 40 miles south of Manila, at what is today the University of the Philippines at Los Banos. It mid-February of 1945, it sat about 25 miles behind enemy lines, which meant two things. First, any rescue mission would require stealth, daring, and intricate planning. Second, with the Americans advancing every day, a possible liquidation of the camp (and the death of more than 2,100 occupants) might not be far away.
A rather complex 4-phase plan was laid out and handed to the 1st Battalion, 511th Airborne Regimental Combat Team tasked with ultimately entering the camp and conducting the rescue. It involved reconaissance by Alamo Scout teams with local guerrilla forces and a drop of paratroops to link up with the guerrillas to assault the camp. Another group of soldiers driving the rescue vehicles were tasked with carrying the prisoners out and transporting them to Amtracs. And finally, additional forces would move along Highway 1 to act as a diversion and protect the flanks of the main operation.
The mission was carried out on February 23, 1945, and was a stunning success. Despite the prediction of heavy casualties, the liberators suffered just 6 killed and 4 wounded from a force of nearly 950 men. The assualt lasted mere minutes before the Japanese defenders were either killed or run off.
As quickly as possible, the internees were loaded into the rescue vehicles. When some delayed, wanting to go back and grab their possessions, Lt. Hettlinger ordered the huts torched to speed the evacuation. They exited the smouldering camp and hurried down the road. They met the Amtracs, who had not only arrived right on time, but hadn’t alerted the local Japanese to their presence.
A total of 2,147 men, women, and children (including Lois Kathleen McCoy, just 3 days old) boarded the Amtracs and crossed Laguna de Bay to safety.
It’s rather sad that this fantastic rescue garnered so little print space in the newspapers. As one of the most daring rescue mission of the war (and one that was so tremendously successful), it deserved a better publicity fate than it received. But February 23, 1945 was the day that 5 Marines and a Navy corpsman raised that immortal flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. And AP photographer Joe Rosenthal’s immortal photo so captivated the public that all other stories faded in its presence.
But the Los Banos rescue mission stands as an incredible achievement of planning, execution, and mercy.
Recommended Reading: Shadows in the Jungle – More detail on Los Banos, and a great book about the Alamo Scouts, relatively unknown heroes of WWII.