“The coordinated strike on the camp by 170 U.S. paratroopers and 75 Filipino guerrillas would use the element of surprise to overwhelm the few guards that remained at their posts.”
By Bruce Henderson
SHORTLY AFTER SUNRISE on Feb. 23, 1945, elements of the U.S. 11th Airborne Division along with Filipino resistance fighters struck the Japanese prisoner of war camp at Los Baños, Luzon, 40 miles south of Manila and deep in enemy-held territory.
It was a daring air, sea and land operation to liberate 2,146 civilian internees — most of them American men, women and children — held captive since the Japanese invaded the Philippines more that three years earlier.
In 1944, with the war going badly for the Japanese, the guards at Los Baños had turned more brutal; prisoners were being starved on orders of the vicious, Western-hating camp commander who had promised the prisoners: “Before I’m done, you’ll be eating dirt.” Those caught escaping — even those returning with food for the starving — were shot. With medical supplies scarce, prisoners were dying of diseases like malaria, dysentery and tuberculosis. Then, in February 1945, the Japanese began digging deep trenches near the prisoners’ barracks. Many in camp feared preparations were being made for mass executions and burials.
Since his return to the Philippines in October 1944, General Douglas MacArthur had been shocked by conditions at a number of POW camps already liberated by his troops. Prisoners were found half-starved and ill treated; at some camps, mass executions had recently taken place. By February, with his ground forces still fighting the bloody Battle of Manila against entrenched Japanese defenders, MacArthur knew it could take his forces weeks or more to reach Los Baños, the last prison camp to be liberated on Luzon.
“The thought of their destruction with deliverance so near,” the general explained, “was deeply repellent to me.” On Feb. 12, he ordered the 11th Airborne to carry out a raid deep behind enemy lines to liberate Los Baños and move the prisoners to safety.
As airborne staff officers went to work planning the raid, the Los Baños internees were desperate to get word to U.S. forces about their worsening situation. They knew from reports on a radio smuggled into the camp that the Americans had already landed in Luzon, and for weeks Allied aircraft had been flying overhead to and from the battle in Manila. While the prisoners cheered the flyovers, prayed for liberation, and spoke excitedly amongst themselves about their impending freedom, they shared the same nightmarish worry: Would the rescuers arrive in time?
By the middle of February, the internees’ own executive committee, which had thus far been reluctant to sanction escapes for fear of further deprivations, authorized the break-out of three young men who chanced execution if caught. Their mission: reach U.S. forces and tell them of the need for the speedy liberation of Los Baños.
Under the cover of darkness, the trio crawled beneath double barbed-wire fences undetected by guards and disappeared into the jungle. They soon came across a band of armed guerrillas who agreed to take them to American forces. It was a perilous journey: several days by native canoes across crocodile-infested waters and on foot through dense jungles and forests. The group travelled mostly at night to avoid enemy patrols.
The detailed information the escapees provided as to the strength of the Japanese garrison and the location of fences, gun towers and other defensive positions proved invaluable to the 11th Airborne planners.
The date of the rescue mission was advanced by several days. H-hour was also changed from 8 a.m. to 7 a.m. once the escapees reported that every morning at 6:45 a.m., the enemy garrison of some 200 soldiers assembled in a large field unarmed and wearing only loincloths for 30 minutes of ritualistic calisthenics. Only a handful of guards were on duty during the morning exercises.
The coordinated strike on the camp by 170 U.S. paratroopers and 75 Filipino guerrillas would use the element of surprise to overwhelm the few guards that remained at their posts. The challenge for the liberators was not only to keep the civilians safe during the assault but also to move them quickly — many were too weak to walk any distance — before a 10,000-man Japanese infantry division lurking nearby could arrive with reinforcements. Planners believed the enemy army could reach the prison camp in as little as three hours. Casualties in the raid were anticipated to be as high as 30 per cent.
A plan to load the prisoners into trucks and move them by armed convoy to U.S. lines was shelved when a reconnaissance flight found that the enemy had blown up bridges along the route to slow the U.S. advance into southern Luzon. There was only one way out: across the largest lake in the Philippines — 25-mile long Laguna de Bay — via amphibious tractors known as amtracs. Each of the tracked vehicles could hold about 30 passengers. Since there were not enough of the machines available to carry everyone across all at once, it would take two round trips by 60 amtracs over a period of about five hours. During that time, the paratroopers would have to hold the camp and protect the prisoners from further harm.
The night before the raid was a hungry one for the internees — the lack of food was compounded by a critical shortage of drinking water. Spigots located outside several barracks ran only briefly before morning and evening roll call. Members of a family would stand in line, hoping to get a jug filled before having to leave for the mandatory headcount.
Shortly before 7 a.m. on Feb. 23, the water was trickling even slower than usual. As the lines of people waited impatiently, a shot rang out from the rear of the camp. Guards could be heard yelling to one another.
No one in the water lines moved. Next came the drone of approaching aircraft. Suddenly, a formation of large planes appeared over the horizon just to the east of the camp. All were flying very low with their doors open. Objects began to stream out the planes and parachutes snapped opened.
“They’re dropping food to us!” someone cried.
The prisoners soon realized that the bundles were not food packages, but paratroopers. The chutes floated quickly to earth, out of sight just beyond the wire. Then the camp exploded in gunfire.
Internees ran for their barracks, and once inside dove to the floor and crawled under beds and tables as machine guns and small arms fired from all sides. Men, women and children huddled together, many crying and praying aloud, as the fierce firefight continued outside and bullets cut through the thin bamboo walls.
The camp became a killing field. The 11th Airborne’s reconnaissance platoon along with the guerrillas had marched all night through the pitch-black jungle to reach the compound in time to hit the guard posts at precisely 7 a.m. One Japanese officer was shot as he dove out through an office window and tried to run away. None of the camp guards were taken alive that day, although many escaped into the jungle where guerrillas armed with razor-sharp machetes lay in wait for them.
The gunfire tapered off to sporadic shooting along the camp perimeter as the prisoners emerged from their hiding places and came face to face with their liberators.
The paratroopers were shocked by the appearance of the men, women and children whom they had come to rescue; the inmates looked more like walking skeletons than people. But the grim spectacle soon turned to a joyous scene of liberation as soldiers and prisoners intermingled in celebration.
After loading up with internees, the first wave of amtracs drove two miles down a dirt road to the lake and began the first round trip across the water. Meanwhile, hundreds of civilians huddled on the beach waiting their ride to freedom. It was here that the combat veterans of the 11th Airborne felt most vulnerable — Japanese reinforcements could attack the beachhead at any time.
Enemy fire from positions in the hills and along the shore was sporadic at first. By the time the second wave of amtracs returned, mortar and artillery rounds were falling closer and small-arms fire was intensifying.
The last of the amtracs departed with their passengers and paratroopers aboard, while a group of guerrillas stayed on shore to cover the withdrawal. Then, they disappeared into the bush.
The Los Baños prison camp raid — a forerunner to today’s special operations — is considered the most successful airborne operation in history, and is still taught at America’s military academies and war colleges. Only three Americans were killed in the operation and two wounded. The Filipinos lost two of their number, while as many as 80 Japanese perished in the assault.
A half century later, General Colin Powell told surviving participants of the mission at their 50th reunion: “I doubt that any airborne unit in the world will ever be able to rival the Los Baños prison raid. It is a textbook operation for all ages and all armies.”
Yet back in February 1945, Americans saw little in their hometown newspapers about the triumph in the Philippines that could count the number of innocents saved rather than the number of enemy killed or ground gained. But the lack of press attention had nothing to do with wartime censorship. For on the same day as the raid – Feb. 23, 1945 — a combat photographer named Joe Rosenthal snapped an image of five soon-to-be-famous U.S. Marines raising the Stars and Stripes atop Mount Suribachi at a place called Iwo Jima.
Bruce Henderson (@BHendersonBooks) is the author of Rescue at Los Baños: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II. It’s published by Harper Collins. Click here to visit the author’s website or order the book (hardcover, paperback, e-book or as an audio book from Amazon).