IRONTON -- When World War II started, the Rev. R. Thomas Bousman found himself on the wrong side of the world.
Bousman -- a grandson of the Rev. R.T. Stimmel, who pastored First United Methodist Church from 1924 to 26 -- was the 13-year-old son of missionary parents serving in the Philippines. On Jan. 5, 1942, the Japanese imprisoned him and most of his family in an internment camp at Santo Tomás, and in July 1944, they were transferred to a similar facility at Los Baños, on the grounds of the former University of the Philippines Agricultural School on Leguna de Bay about 40 miles southeast of Manila.
Bousman, pastoral associate of Palm Desert Community Presbyterian Church in Palm Desert, Ariz., speaks during the Methodist congregations homecoming service Sunday morning. He -- and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. commander in the Philippines -- have referred to the liberation of his family and 2,141 other civilian internees on Feb. 23, 1945, as "the Miracle of Los Baños."
"It sounds like this fellow will have a tremendous story to tell," says the Rev. Wayne Young, pastor.
The internees were about to line up for roll call at 7 that morning 56 years ago when they heard the roar of nine Douglas C-47s zooming in over the coconut and palm trees about 500 feet. About 150 paratroopers from the 11th Airborne Division jumped from that dangerously low altitude, which was the signal for a group of Filipino guerrillas to bust into the camp and overpower Japanese guards and the nearby enemy garrison.
"We ran back into the barracks," Bousman recalls "We lay on the dirt floor and pulled our so-called mattresses on top of us."
The fighting lasted less than an hour. It had occurred at precisely the right time -- the Japanese guard was changing, and most of those off duty had come outside without weapons for morning calisthenics.
"Rushing around to welcome our U.S. rescuers, we were ordered to leave our barracks at once, taking nothing but a few personal items," he says. "We went. As each barracks was emptied, it was set afire by our own soldiers."
Why so many fires?
Sam McGowan wrote in the January 1998 issue of World War II magazine that the freed internees were so ecstatic, they were in no mood to fall into a formation and depart in any organized way.
"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," McGowan wrote.
The Bousmans walked down the road, rejoicing with other former internees. Soon, they were ordered to board one of 54 "amtracs" -- military jargon for amphibious tractors -- dispatched for the operation from the 672nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion.
"We climbed in, managing to stay together as a family in the crush of a happy crowd," Bousman says. "Immediately, the amtracs took off, taking us down the main highway, past the railroad station and (at the village of San Antonio) out into the lake itself. When we reached the beach, we kept right on going."
Japanese soldiers on shore kept firing at the strange parade, and the amtracs machine guns answered and U.S. aircraft provided cover as they scooted across the water to Mamatid.
"That was our rescue," Bousman says. "Unable to get through the Japanese lines, our forces had gone around them on the lake, picked us up, and carried us across an arm of the lake to safety."
The original plan had called for a task force from the 188th Glider Regiment to fight their way down Highway 1 and evacuate the internees overland to Manila. The amtracs were supposed to deliver the bulk of the paratrooper battalion and return to Mamatid empty. But Major Henry Burgess, commander of the 11th Airbornes 1st Paratrooper Battalion, knew that thousands of Japanese troops were within striking distance of his location; and he could tell from the sound of firing that the task force was at least three hours away, altered the plan on the spot.
The evacuation required two trips across the lake, with the last amtrac departing the hostile shore at 3 p.m.
"At the end of the journey, we found freedom and food," Bousman says. "Our rehabilitation and relocation center was housed in the New Bilibid Prison at Muntinglupa, where we recuperated for six weeks before we were in physically fit condition for the long voyage home by troop transport."
The former internees were malnourished because the camps second-in-command, Warrant Officer Sadaaki Konishi, routinely withheld food from them. When the paratroopers found them, many were starving and barely weighed 100 pounds.
Bousman has managed to stay in touch with some of the paratroopers who jumped in to rescue him, as well as some of the personnel on the amtrac he rode.
"I have returned twice to the Philippines, and, of course, to Los Baños, to recall with thanksgiving that spectacular military achievement and to express the prayer and hope that the peoples of this world will learn to live together in peace and harmony, where there is freedom for all, and where no one ever need be afraid to speak out for social justice."
Bousman says the liberation never received much press coverage because the U.S. Marines hoisted the American flag on Iwo Jimas Mount Suribachi -- the occasion of the most reproduced photo in history -- the same day.