As American troops retook the Philippine Islands, retreating Japanese forces carried out several massacres of civilians and Allied prisoners. Gen. Douglas MacArthur became increasingly concerned that the Japanese would slaughter the more than 2,000 prisoners held at the Los Banos internment camp, 20 miles south of Manila. So, in February 1945 he told Gen. Joe Swing, commander of the 11th Airborne Division, to rescue the civilian prisoners as soon as possible.
Swing assigned the mission to Col. Robert Soule and his 188th Glider Infantry Regiment. Soule picked Maj. Henry Burgess and the 1st Battalion of the 511th Parachute Inf. Regt. to conduct the actual prisoner-liberation raid. As late as Feb. 18, Burgess and his 412 men were still involved in heavy fighting and did not even know Los Banos existed. Within five days they would be in and out of the objective after executing one of the most successful raids of the Pacific war.
Burgess' summary of the available intelligence on Los Banos was simply that "there wasn't much" to go on. Lt. George Skau and the division reconnaissance platoon had been operating behind the Japanese lines for four days and had gathered some information but simply not enough. On Feb. 19, however, the raid's planners received an unexpected windfall when Pete Miles, a civilian engineer who had previously worked for the Army, reported to division headquarters after having escaped from Los Banos the day before.
Miles had a wealth of information about the camp's routine, including the revelation that only those Japanese actually on guard duty were armed.
With this key bit of information, the rescue plan was finalized by Feb. 21. To catch the off-duty guards in the middle of their exercise period, the mission would begin at 0700 on Feb. 23 with Skau's platoon and a group of Filipino guerillas killing the guards on duty. At the same time, Lt. John Ringler's Co. B and Lt. Bill Hettinger's machine-gun platoon would land on a small drop zone next to the compound. Once on the ground, the paratroopers would race across the camp to the weapons rack hoping to arrive before the off-duty guards could react.
Earlier, at 0400, the rest of the battalion would board 54 amphibious tractors or "amtracs," slip into Laguna de Bay and head for Maycndon Point, two miles north of the prison camp. The force would reach the landing point at 0700, secure a beachhead, and continue to the prison in the amtracs.
On top of all this, Soule would lead a diversionary attack consisting of the 118th GIR's HHC and 1st Bn., Co. B of the 637th Tank Destroyer Bn. and elements of the 472nd and 675th Field Artillery Bns. This force would move from Manila toward Mamatid to hold the Japanese 8th Div. in its positions.
On the morning of Feb. 23, the raid got off to a good start. Skau's platoon had marked the DZ with colored smoke, and the jump was nearly perfect. As the paratroopers descended, Skau's men neutralized the perimeter guards. Caught completely by surprise, the off-duty guards milled around in confusion. By the time they realized what was happening, it was too late. Ringler's men had already beaten them to the weapons rack.
Burgess' amtrac force was also having success. On reaching the compound, the lead vehicle smashed through the gate and the others followed. Lt. Tom Mesereau positioned his Co. C to block any Japanese reinforcements. All was going according to plan.
The only snag in the operation was convincing the internees that the rescue was real. Ringler reported to Burgess, "My men can't get the people to head for the loading area. Most of them are cowering in their shacks and barracks. ... It's chaos!"
Burgess had the answer. The fire that had been started in the initial firefight was spreading toward the amtracs parked near the guards' barracks and camp headquarters; internees were rushing to the amtracs ahead of the flames. Burgess told Ringler to go to the south side of the camp, upwind, and torch the other barracks with the hopes of having a similar effect.
Burgess later said the results were "spectacular. Internees poured ... into the loading area. Troops started clearing the barracks in advance of the fire and carried out ... over 130 people who were too weak or too sick to walk." By 1130 the camp was in flames, but the evacuation was complete.
However, time was still critical. Mesereau and his company had made contact with an enemy company, and there were indications that a much larger Japanese force was close behind. The first shuttle of about 1,500 internees and accompanying guards had left the beach at about 1000.
Burgess had the rest of his battalion and the reconnaissance platoon in a defensive perimeter on the beachhead and about 700 internees still waiting for evacuation. After completing their first round trip, the amtracs returned to the beachhead, and by about 1500 all personnel were on board and underway. By this time, the Japanese had closed in and were beginning to find their range, but the amtracs had the head start they needed and escaped in the nick of time.
The raid had been a tremendous success. To reach their objective the 11th Abn. Div. had moved some 25 miles behind enemy lines by air, sea and land. In the process they had rescued 2,122 prisoners, destroyed a Japanese camp, and killed at least 70 enemy troops. Only three 11th Abn. Div. soldiers and two guerrillas were killed. The only casualty among the inmates was one woman, who was grazed by a bullet.
Jack Dempsey Crouse CPL HQ CO 187 GLI INF RECT WWII BSM-PH was in the 511th Parachute and part of this astonisingly succesfull war mission.