As Allied forces retook territory the Japanese had wrested from them at the beginning of the war in the Pacific, the fate of prisoners of war (POWs) and civilian internees was of major concern to the Allied high command. This was particularly true in the Philippines, where thousands of survivors of the Bataan Death March, as well as American and European civilians, were being held prisoner.
General Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. commander in the Philippines, ordered his subordinates to make every effort to liberate camps in their areas of operation as quickly as possible. Daring raids were organized to free prisoners and internees ahead of the attacking American forces, for it was suspected that the Japanese captors would slaughter their charges before they could be rescued. These fears were not unjustified–on more than one occasion, POWs had been slaughtered by their guards.
The former University of the Philippines Agricultural School at Los Baños, a town on the island of Luzon some 40 miles southeast of Manila, had been converted into an internment camp for more than 2,000 civilians who had had the misfortune of falling into Japanese hands at the beginning of the war. The 2,122 internees who were at the camp in the late winter of 1945 were of many nationalities, though the majority were American, and of every age, including infants. For more than three years, the internees at Los Baños, along with POWs in other camps, had waited patiently for the day when their liberators would arrive. On January 9, 1945, the U.S. Sixth Army waded ashore at Lingayen Gulf and began moving south. Three weeks later the Eighth Army landed at Nasugbu and began moving north. Within a month, the advancing U.S. forces were on the doorstep of Manila. For the occupants of the Los Baños camp, rescue appeared imminent.
As the advancing U.S. forces drew nearer and nearer to Manila, General MacArthur became concerned that the Japanese might decide to slaughter the American POWs and other Allied civilians under their control. During the Sixth Army’s movement south, troops liberated American and other Allied POWs in several camps.
One of the most spectacular liberation efforts was that conducted by the 6th Ranger Battalion at Cabanatuan. A Ranger task force, assisted by Filipino guerrillas, penetrated deep into Japanese territory and, after crawling more than a mile on their bellies, attacked Cabanatuan prison and freed some 500 POWs, bringing them 20 miles to safety. Nearer Manila, elements of the 1st Cavalry assaulted the campus of Santo Tomas University and freed more than 3,500 civilian internees.
Los Baños was some 25 miles southeast of Manila and thus outside the primary line of advance for the American forces. Located on Laguna de Bay, a large freshwater lake, Los Baños was accessible to amphibious and ground forces. Because Los Baños was located in the 11th Airborne Division’s area of operations, a third means of attack was also possible: a paratroop assault from the skies.
The 11th Airborne Division had arrived in the southwest Pacific in mid-1944. Under the command of Maj. Gen. Joe Swing, the 11th had undergone theater training in New Guinea prior to taking part in the invasion of Leyte. The 503rd Regimental Combat Team and the 11th were the only American airborne forces to fight in the Pacific. After Leyte, the parachute elements of the 11th moved to Mindoro, while the glider troops prepared for an amphibious landing at Nasugbu Bay. On January 31 the 188th Glider Regiment landed at Nasugbu with the Eighth Army. Four days later, the airborne infantry of the 511th Airborne Regimental Combat team jumped onto Tagaytay Ridge. Because of a shortage of available transport, the 475th Parachute Field Artillery and other support units jumped in the following day.
Once on the ground on Luzon, the 11th Airborne began working its way toward Manila after the parachute and glider elements had linked up. By mid-February, the 11th was engaged in combat along the so-called Genko Line, a fortified system of interlocking pillboxes running along the south side of Manila. Although the division was already engaged in heavy combat, General Swing and members of his staff were well aware that they were responsible for liberating the Los Baños internees. The problem was that they had not yet determined the best method for carrying out the mission.
The Filipino guerrilla groups operating in the area played a key role in the liberation of the camp. The Hunters-ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) Guerrillas, made up originally of former cadets of the Philippine Military Academy, were one of the most active groups, along with ex-ROTC students and other former college students. Other groups included President Quezon’s Own Guerrillas (the PQOG), the Chinese Guerrillas of Luzon and the Hukbalahaps, a Marxist group with their own agenda for the Philippines. To bring some order to the guerrilla effort, U.S. Army Major Jay D. Vanderpool had formed a combined guerrilla command known as the General Guerrilla Command (GGC) of Luzon. The GGC would coordinate operations against Los Baños.
Inside the camp, there was some dissension as to whether the internees should make any effort to make contact with the Americans and effect a rescue. Los Baños was filled with civilians, with the exception of 12 U.S. Navy nurses. Some of the men were of military age, however, and one or two had tried to enlist in the U.S. forces shortly after Pearl Harbor but had been unsuccessful.
On the night of February 12, 1945, Freddy Zervoulakas, a 19-year-old Greek-Filipino, slipped out of the camp and made contact with the guerrillas. He was sent back into the camp with a copy of a letter from Major Vanderpool instructing the guerrillas to make every effort to free the internees–but the internee committee responsible for governing the camp decided that it would be best for the internees to do nothing. Nevertheless, several male prisoners slipped under the wire in the days before the rescue.
On Sunday, February 18, Major Henry Burgess, commander of the 1st Paratrooper Battalion, was ordered to withdraw his battalion from positions on the Genko Line and proceed to Manila. While the battalion rested, Burgess reported to the 11th Airborne Division headquarters, then located at Paranaque. The 26-year-old major met first with Colonel Douglas Quant, the division G-3 (operations officer), who informed him that his unit was going to be involved in the liberation of 2,000 civilian prisoners from the camp at Los Baños. Burgess spent the remainder of the day at headquarters, meeting with division Intelligence and Operations and planning the mission.
The following day Burgess met Pete Miles, an internee who had escaped from the camp the previous day and been conveyed by guerrillas to the 11th Airborne Division. Miles provided information of the layout of the camp and the schedules of the guards, details that were essential to complete the mission precisely and without needlessly endangering the internees.
The division plan called for a multi-pronged assault on the camp. A parachute company would launch the raid by jumping into a drop zone inside or adjacent to the camp at dawn on the day of the attack. The division recon platoon would cross the bay in advance of the main party, make contact with the guerrillas and organize them to attack the camp sentries exactly at H-hour. Major Burgess’ battalion, minus one company, would proceed across Laguna de Bay aboard amphibious vehicles and provide the main body of the attacking force. A combat team was to attack overland from Manila on Highway 1, with the objective of providing a blocking force to cut off any Japanese reinforcements.
For the parachute assault, the 511th’s regimental commander, Lt. Col. Ed Lahti, selected B Company of the 1st Battalion, commanded by 1st Lt. John M. Ringler, because it was closest to full strength. Heavy combat in recent days had severely depleted the ranks of all the division’s units.
One unique factor in the Los Baños mission was that the planning for the raid itself was generally left up to the men who would do the job. Ringler personally planned the airborne phase of the mission, down to selecting a 500-foot-jump altitude instead of the usual 7001,000 feet, so the men would be exposed for less time. Ringler also determined that the drop formation should fly three V’s-in-trail of three planes each because of the small drop zone. Nine Douglas C-47s from the 65th Troop Carrier Squadron of the 54th Troop Carrier Group were selected to make the drop.
The division reconnaissance platoon under Lieutenant George Skau played a major role in the Los Baños operation. Skau’s 31-man platoon would be responsible for infiltrating into the area around the camp prior to the raid and linking up with the guerrillas, then integrating the indigenous forces into the rescue effort. The soldiers of the platoon were typically of the ‘rugged outdoorsman’ variety, and their familiarity with hiking, camping and hunting especially suited them for missions deep behind enemy lines.
On the evening of February 21, some 36 hours before the planned attack, Lieutenant Skau’s recon platoon moved out by truck for the barrio of Wulilyos, where they met Filipino guides and the crews of three bancas (sailing vessels ordinarily used for fishing and trade in the coastal waters of the Philippines). The first banca moved out at 2000 hours with Skau and his headquarters group aboard. A second, larger banca set sail some 15 minutes later. The third was meant to sail right behind with the bulk of the platoon’s supplies and men, but the Filipino captain discovered that the rudder was broken. Repairs took two hours.
The trip across Laguna de Bay was planned to take two or three hours. But it was not until the wee morning hours that the first banca finally touched shore near Los Baños after an eight-hour journey due to light winds that failed to fill the sails. One of the bancas was still in the middle of the lake at daybreak and making little progress. The Filipino crew spent the rest of the day trying every trick in the book to get the heavily laden vessel to its destination, but it was well into the evening when the banca reached shore. The paratroopers of the recon platoon had spent most of the day crouching uncomfortably beneath the side rails of the ship to avoid being seen by the Japanese patrol boats that still ruled the waters.
After reaching shore with only a portion of his men, Skau began making plans to carry out his mission with the small force that had landed with him. While his men rested out of sight, Skau met with the guerrilla leaders and two escaped internees in a schoolhouse in the barrio of Nanhaya. Ben Edwards, one of the former prisoners, sketched the layout of the camp on the school blackboard for the paratroopers. Assuming that the last banca would arrive in time for the rescue, Skau broke his group into six teams and assigned from eight to 12 guerrillas to each one. Edwards and the other internee, Freddy Zervoulakos, each accompanied one of the teams. Late that evening, the third banca finally reached shore. Shortly after midnight, the recon platoon teams began moving out from their rendezvous point at the schoolhouse for their attack positions.
The amphibious element boarded amtracs and moved out at 0500 on February 23. Fifty-four amtracs from the 672nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion set out across Laguna de Bay from Mamatid, their noisy engines giving notice that the attacking force was on its way. In the pitch-black, pre-dawn darkness, a lack of landmarks forced the tractor drivers to navigate solely by compass.
At Nichols Field outside Manila, the paratroopers boarded nine C-47s at 0530. Half an hour later, the pilots started their engines. After takeoff, each of the jump planes orbited over the field until all nine were airborne and had joined the formation. At 0640 the C-47s headed southeast over Laguna de Bay toward Los Baños. Fifteen minutes later, the pilots signaled a six-minute warning by turning on the red paratrooper jump lights in the cargo compartments of their airplanes. At 0700 Ringler stepped from the door of the lead C-47; the Los Baños raid was in progress.
As the jump planes passed over the camp, the Japanese sentries were in the process of changing the guard, and the internees were lined up for morning roll call. The plan called for the recon platoon to attack the sentry positions and other Japanese strongholds as the troopers were floating to earth, but only two of the five teams were in position at H-hour. At the sight of the drop planes over Los Baños, the other three teams had to abandon stealth and rushed headlong for the camp. Nevertheless, the attack went off more or less as planned. By 0715, when Ringler had finished organizing his men and the first of the jump teams reached the camp perimeter, Los Baños was already under attack from three sides. A number of the guards, most of whom had turned out without weapons for morning calisthenics, were killed, while others fled for the hills.
By the time the amtracs arrived from the shores of Laguna de Bay, the gun battle was practically over. Guards of the overwhelmed Japanese garrison had either been killed, were hiding, or had fled. Among the latter was Warrant Officer Sadaaki Konishi, the tyrannical second-in-command at the camp. Largely because of Konishi’s policy of withholding food, the paratroopers found a starving horde of internees, many of whom weighed barely 100 pounds.
The original evacuation plan had been for a task force made up of men from the 188th Glider Regiment under Colonel Robert Soule to fight their way down National Highway 1 to Los Baños, then evacuate the internees overland to Manila. The amtrac battalion was only to deliver the bulk of Major Burgess’ paratrooper battalion, then return to Mamatid empty while the rescuers returned with the internees. After an hour at the camp, however, Burgess determined from the sound of firing that Soule’s task force was still at least three hours away from Los Baños. At the same time, he was well aware that thousands of Japanese troops were within striking distance of his location.
At the last minute the plans were changed–Burgess decided not to wait for the task force. The internees were to be evacuated by amtrac, and the paratroopers would return to Manila with Soule’s task force. Burgess directed the amtrac commander, Lt. Col. Joe Gibbs, to order his men to load their vehicles with internees, then evacuate them to Mamatid and shuttle back and forth until both the internees and members of the raiding party were all withdrawn to safety.
Organizing the liberated prisoners, most of whom were milling about the camp with little sense of order, was a problem; the internees were ecstatic about being rescued, but were hardly in a mood to fall into any kind of formation. Major Burgess observed that the internees seemed to be drifting in advance of fires that had been started in some of the barracks during the raid, so he ordered his men to set fire to the camp in such a manner that the fires would lead the internees in the direction of the main gate, where the amtracs were waiting.
By 0900, two hours after the commencement of the raid, some order had begun to appear among the internees. Those who could do so had begun the two-mile walk to the beach, while those who were unable to make the hike were loaded aboard amtracs for the journey. After the infirm were evacuated, several amtracs began to aid the walking by providing a lift to the beach.
As the internees moved out of the camp, Major Burgess and his troopers began a systematic search to ensure that all internees were accounted for and that none were still in the camp. The soldiers did as thorough a job as possible. Because many of the Filipino guerrillas disappeared into the jungle after the raid, many Americans liberated at Los Baños never knew to what extent the irregular troops had contributed to their release.
By mid-day, the Soule task force had advanced in the face of enemy resistance to a point just outside Los Baños. By then the evacuation by amtrac was proceeding quite well, as the officers of the task force could see from activities on the lake. Colonel Soule elected to halt his advance at the San Juan River and to maintain a bridgehead in the event the paratroopers had to withdraw by land as planned.
From Los Baños, the internees proceeded to the village of San Antonio, where the head of the marching column arrived at about 1000. From there, the amtracs, filled with evacuees, formed up into columns of three and slid into the waters of the lake for the two-hour journey to Mamatid. While on the lake, several of the amtracs came under fire from Japanese shore positions. Little damage was done, although one amtrac had to offload its cargo of evacuees and be towed to shore by another vessel.
By noon the remainder of the internees and the rear guard of the 1st Battalion had reached San Antonio. Burgess still had not made contact with Soule, nor was he in contact with the 11th Division headquarters. Essentially, he was on his own. Around that time General Swing flew over the beach in a light liaison aircraft. After Burgess advised the general by radio that the raid had been successful and that he planned to evacuate the remainder of the group and his own men with the amtracs that were on their way back to San Antonio, the young major was flabbergasted at his commander’s reply: Could he perhaps liberate the entire town of Los Baños, then move west to link up with the 188th and keep possession of the territory they had gained?
Burgess was in the middle of contested territory with what, for all practical purposes, was a raiding party, and with strong enemy forces within easy striking distance. He did not answer the general’s request, but after carefully considering his situation, he simply switched his radio off and did not acknowledge that he had received the message.
At around 1500 the last amtrac shoved off from San Antonio with the final load of internees and troops. At Mamatid the internees moved to the former New Bilibid prison, where they prepared for the journey to their homes in the United States and elsewhere.
While the liberation of the internees from Los Baños went off without a hitch, there is a dark epilogue to the story. After the 11th Airborne Division paratroopers left the area, the Japanese moved back in. Ironically, the first Americans to re-enter the vicinity of Los Baños were the same paratroopers who had liberated the camp only days before. What they found in the barrios surrounding the camp this time was both nauseating and pitiful. Whole families had been tied to the stilts supporting their houses, then the dwellings had been set ablaze, collapsing around their helpless former inhabitants. Burgess estimated that more than 1,500 Filipinos had been cruelly killed, evidently in retaliation for the rescue of the internees.
There is some question as to the identity of those who did the killing. The Japanese in the area were reinforced by pro-Japanese Filipino units commanded by Japanese officers and NCOs. Many of the villages in the region were pro-Japanese ‘Makapili’ as well–residents at odds with their countrymen who favored a return to American control.
One Japanese soldier later identified as having played a part in the reprisals in the area–including the murder of an American family that had lived near Los Baños and had not been interned–was Warrant Officer Sadaaki Konishi, the sadistic second-in-command of the camp at Los Baños. After the war, Konishi was implicated by certain Filipinos, tried for his crimes, and then executed as a war criminal.
This article was written by Sam McGowan and originally appeared in World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!