Show me a hero

- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - October 3, 2015 - 10:00am

Rescue at Los Banos

By Bruce Henderson

366 pages

Available at National Book Store

We all read about the heroic actions of three American tourists who recently subdued a would-be terrorist carrying an AK-47 rifle aboard a Paris train. It’s the kind of incident that still makes you believe in acts of courage, and that such actions are — more than ever — demanded of the human race.

Journalist Bruce Henderson captures one such courageous episode in his nonfiction account, Rescue at Los Baños, in which over 2,000 American civilians were liberated from a Japanese-run prison camp during the Occupation. It’s actually a convergence of many people’s courage, their good sense, a lot of help from guerrillas, and a certain degree of luck that pulled off what’s called “The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II.”

As Henderson lays it out, Los Baños was the end of the road, in more ways than one. Situated relatively close to Manila, which was still a Japanese stronghold in February 1945, the Los Baños camp (a converted agricultural college) was much more difficult to get inside than other Japanese-run prison camps. After US Gen. MacArthur returned to the Philippines in Leyte, October of 1944, the reports of cruelty to American soldiers and Filipino civilians made the liberation scenario more and more urgent: it was clear that the Japanese, sensing retreat was imminent, were getting rid of as much evidence as possible — often digging trenches into which hundreds prisoners were burned alive, then machine-gunned if they tried to crawl away.

MacArthur marshaled troops to free a prison camp at McKinley, and prison raids at Santo Tomas and Cabanatuan (the one depicted in the 2006 movie The Great Raid) were successful; but Los Baños wouldn’t have even been known about, if not for the information gathered by local guerrillas known as Hunters ROTC — military cadets who took to the hills when the Japanese arrived, and spent years gathering data, moving materiel and food around the countryside, and staging roadside attacks on the Japanese soldiers. They spread news of the Los Baños camp to US military, and men like Lt. Col. Henry Muller of the 11th Airborne and his commander, Gen. Joseph Swing, put a very risky plan into action.

It was a plan that involved several maneuvers at once — by air, by land, and by amphibious vehicle — to catch Japanese camp soldiers off-guard at a very crucial moment in the war: when they were likely to kill every prisoner before their liberators could get to them.

If the stories sound too amazing to be true, well, history is often more remarkable than fiction. Henderson sets his tale up like a Hollywood thriller, and it helps that he has so much great material to work with: a love affair between a married nurse (Margaret Sherk) and a civilian radio engineer (Jerry Sams) that results in her pregnancy in the camp; and possibly the most sinister, cruel and inhumane Japanese camp villain seen since JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, or Angelina Jolie’s war epic Unbroken. Prison quartermaster Sadaaki Konishi was directly in charge of deciding how much food soldiers and prisoners received daily, and as the war ground on, it became clear that Konishi was systematically starving the Americans to death. Their rations were cut down by Konishi from 500 calories per day to 150, even as Japanese soldiers ate heartily and abundant fruits and vegetables grew right outside the camp walls. Local Filipino vendors even tried to bring food to the 2,000-plus emaciated prisoners, but Konishi forbade any buying or bartering for extra food. Most prisoners lost 40-60 pounds, cases of beri beri that threatened internal organs mounted, and malnutrition led many prisoners to die (but before that, in many cases, they tried to eat their own clothes, such as the prisoner who consumed his leather belt before succumbing to gastrointestinal disorder).

The only solution, Swing and Muller decide, is a daring early morning drop by 11th Airborne parachutists next to the prison camp from a height of 400 feet (it was learned that most Japanese guards did 7 A.M. calisthenics out on the camp parade grounds, so the drop was timed for then, when they would have no time to get dressed or grab weapons). This assault by air was preceded by a sneak attack led by 11th Airborne scout Terry Santos, a Fil-Am who used his familiarity with local guerrillas and his lethal skills to slip inside the camp moments before with his platoon, machine-gunning the guard towers and any Japanese still doing jumping jacks. US amtracs — amphibious transports — meanwhile maneuvered across Laguna de Bay to help load the weakened prisoners in batches to safety.

It seems a shame to give away the attack plan, but Henderson lays out the whole assault with such nail-biting flair that the last 70 pages of Rescue at Los Baños fly by like an action thriller. And it all depended on everything going absolutely right. The skilled reporter picks up on details that lift black-and-white history into HD quality, such as the Filipino guerrilla who, after bursting through the door of a newly liberated prison camp barracks, hands the startled American Nurse Sherk a single unbroken egg: he’d been carrying it through the jungle, through firefights and bolo attacks, knowing that the Los Baños prisoners would be hungry.

Now, that’s heroic.




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