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Posts Tagged ‘Alamo Scouts’

Christmas.

The holiday of good cheer and lights.  The morning of presents under a tree, wrapped and ready to be opened.  It’s the one day when most everything business-related comes to a screeching halt and people can just relax.  For millions of people, it’s the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who is easily the most influential person that ever walked the planet.  We sing Silent Night and, for a day (and night), many folks actually do sleep in heavenly peace.

For the Alamo Scouts, December 25, 1944 was a day of peace.  The Scouts had been formed in November of the previous year and operated in the Southwest Pacific Theater, primarily around the Philippines.  As you might expect from the group’s name, their job involved reconnaissance and occasional raider activity.  And since that first scouting mission to Los Negros, teams had been sent out forty-nine times.  And forty-nine times the teams had come back intact – not a single man killed.  The most recent mission, conducted by the Sumner Team, had returned on the 21st after forty-seven days in the field.

The men were treated to a lavish meal with all the fixings.  Next Christmas, with the war over, the Alamo Scouts would be just a recent memory.  But on this day, it was time for thanks and celebration.

Merry Christmas everyone!!  Be safe and joyful.

Recommended Reading: Shadows in the Jungle

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Los Negros Island is another one of those places that probably doesn’t ring a bell with too many people.  I’ve never been there, but part of its obscurity might have to do with its location – far, far away from the United States and pretty close to Australia.  Or maybe it’s the island’s size – pretty small.  Or maybe because it’s somewhat misnamed – according to Google’s maps (and depending on the tides), it’s not really an island at all.

Los Negros is part of the U-shaped hook off the eastern end of Manus Island, the largest of the Admiralty Islands that lie northeast of Australia.  And on February 27, 1944, it was the scene of the first Alamo Scouts mission.

We mentioned the Alamo Scouts in our discussion of the Los Banos rescue mission, but didn’t really go into much detail.  Officially called the U.S. 6th Army Special Reconnaissance Unit, they operated in the Pacific Theater and served as deep-penetration reconaissance units and did a bit of raiding and rescue on the side.  They were nicknamed Alamo Scouts because they fell, ultimately, under the command of General William Kreuger, who hailed from Texas and greatly admired the men who died defending the Alamo.

Formed in November of 1943, the first teams of this all-volunteer force finished their grueling training in early February of 1944.  This worked out well with Douglas MacArthur’s timetable, as he was preparing to complete the isolation of the huge Japanese airbase at Rabaul.  This could only be done with the retaking of the Bismarck Archipelago, accompanied with Kreuger’s capture of the Admiralty Islands.

Reconaissance aircraft seemed to indicate that Los Negros didn’t have any Japanese soldiers on the ground.  But aircraft could only see so much, so the job of the Scout team, led by Lt. John McGowen (and whose team was selected by a flip of the coin), was to get in there and determine the truth of the matter without stirring up a hornet’s nest should the enemy be discovered.

The mission lasted just two days, and the Alamo Scouts found that Los Negros was, as McGowen reported, “lousy with Japs.”  They extracted and reported back.  Though MacArthur initially poo-pooed the McGowen’s findings, Kreuger fully trusted his charges.  And good thing he did.  Operation Brewer, which began two days later, eventually ran into heavy Japanese resistance.  The fact that General Kreuger allocated reserve forces to the assault (based on the Alamo Scout report) made the difference between victory and a much different outcome.

The small mission was the first of more than 100 missions that Alamo Scout teams would conduct over the next 20 months, and it’s a small miracle that, in all those missions, not a single Scout was killed in action.

Los Negros Island (as well as Manus Island) were captured by the Americans.  That U-shaped area in between the two islands became Seeadler Harbor, one of the finest harbors in all the Pacific…and site of the Mount Hood’s titanic demise several months later.

This won’t be the last time we visit the Alamo Scouts.

Recommended Reading: Shadows in the Jungle

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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.

Mission Accomplished.

Recommended Reading:  Shadows in the Jungle – More detail on Los Banos, and a great book about the Alamo Scouts, relatively unknown heroes of WWII.

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