Skip to comments.The FReeper Foxhole Remembers The Los Banos Raid - 1945 - Feb. 23rd, 2003
Posted on 02/23/2003 12:02:12 AM PST by SAMWolf
are acknowledged, affirmed and commemorated.
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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 700-1,000 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.