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Prisoners of Japanese Liberate the Memory of Raid on Los Banos

Times Staff Writer

Amid the outpouring last week of memories of the end of World War II in Europe, a Woodland Hills college professor, an Encino businessman and an old soldier from Thousand Oaks recalled instead a dramatic American victory in the last year of the war on the other side of the world.

In the Philippines in 1945, a raiding force from the 11th Airborne Division struck 15 miles behind Japanese lines and rescued 2,147 civilians, mostly Americans, from a prison camp where, it was feared, they would die of starvation or be massacred.

The paratroopers and Filipino guerrillas surprised and overran the Japanese guards, then shepherded all the civilians to safety, dodging scattered gunfire and evading a Japanese army division poised nearby, with no fatalities and only a handful of minor injuries.

The story of life in the camp and the rescue of the prisoners is told in “Deliverance at Los Banos,” a book by Anthony Arthur that was published last month.

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Arthur, an English professor at California State University, Northridge, said the book had its origins in a short newspaper story he saw several years ago reporting that the ex-prisoners and their rescuers were planning a reunion dinner.

‘Nobody Knew a Thing’

“I was intrigued. Here were hundreds of people involved in one of the most dramatic events of World War II and nobody knew a thing about it--including me,” Arthur said.

Although the rescue was reported at the time, it had strong competition for newspaper space. In Europe, Nazi Germany was on the brink of collapse, and the rescue took place on the same day that the U.S. Marines took Iwo Jima and raised the flag over Mt. Suribachi, which became the subject of the most famous news photo of the war.

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“The symbolic strength of that occasion buried the bloodless success story in the nation’s press,” Arthur said.

He had already begun some research into the rescue, Arthur said, when Iranian militants took the U.S. Embassy staff hostage in Tehran while he was teaching American literature in Budapest as a Fulbright lecturer.

“My Hungarian friends were very sympathetic, but wondered why the U.S. government was so inept and impotent. Their pity for our incompetence when the helicopters went down in the desert was worse than scorn, and I felt miserable.

“It took me a while, but I finally realized that I was drawn to the Los Banos story because it described a time when we did things right. We were ingenious, daring, competent--and above all, successful.”

Arthur and some of the prisoners and their rescuers will appear at a book-signing party Sunday at Dutton’s Books in North Hollywood.

Among them will be Hank Mangels, 65, a former prisoner who operates an export agency in Encino, and Lou Burris of Thousand Oaks, 70, a retired Army officer who commanded the artillery detachment in the rescue force.

Grew Up in Philippines

Like thousands of American children in the 1930s, Mangels grew up in the Philippines, then under U.S. rule. His father, a former customs agent, had a business there.

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After the Japanese occupation of the islands, Mangels, then 23, was interned with his parents, a brother, two sisters and his uncle. With them went other Americans, Australians, Dutch, Canadians, British subjects and citizens of other nations at war with the Japanese.

About 7,000 were jammed into a makeshift prison at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. The Mangels family eventually moved to a satellite camp established in 1943 in an agricultural college at Los Banos, a village about 30 miles south of Manila, which eventually housed more than 2,000.

Unlike the homogeneity of prisoner-of-war camps for captured military men, the civilian camps housed a widely varied group.

There were prostitutes and military wives, diplomats and gamblers. There were corporate executives and airline mechanics, drifters and merchant sailors caught on the wrong side of the Pacific by the attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were families with children, some of them infants born in the camps. Some of the prisoners were teen-agers--"the class of 47" they called themselves--who came of age, attended the camp high school and had their first adolescent crushes behind barbed wire.

Priests, Ministers Interned

There were hundreds of Protestant ministers and Roman Catholic priests and nuns, who lived in an area nicknamed, “Vatican City.”

In 1944, as the war increasingly turned against the Japanese, living conditions at Los Banos worsened.

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Food grew short and diseases spread. By February, 1945, more than a dozen prisoners had died and more were dying of starvation and associated illnesses at a rate of about one a day, Arthur said. The survivors ate rice gruel, grass and insects. One man died after eating his leather belt.

Mangels’ sister and her husband devotedly used some of their own ration to keep alive the family’s black Labrador retriever, “Poochie,” which became the camp mascot. Another prisoner “got hold of the dog and butchered it for the meat,” Mangels said. The outraged men of the family assaulted him, a fistfight followed and the Mangels brothers smeared Poochie’s carcass with poison to keep the body away from the hungry prisoners before burying it.

A new commandant brought harsher rule. Two men were shot after returning from trips outside the camp to barter or beg for food from the Filipino villagers, which was against the rules but had become a common practice.

“The guards beat my father and broke his collarbone,” Mangels recalled. “They left it untreated and the bone punctured his lung. The injury eventually killed him, after the war.”

Early in 1945, after American troops invaded the Philippines and began a fierce battle for Manila, the prisoners could hear the distant gunfire and see the glow of the burning city in the night sky. They knew U.S. troops were getting closer, but many expected they would not live to be freed.

Rumor of Massacre

When it became known that Japanese troops had killed captured American soldiers and were massacring Filipino civilians in Manila, rumors spread that fanatically die-hard officers in the Imperial Army, recognizing that the war was lost, planned to kill the American civilian prisoners rather than allow them to be liberated.

“Thousands of Filipino civilians were massacred in Manila,” Anthony said, by Japanese following “a scorched earth policy.

“They knew they were going down and they decided to take everyone they could with them.”

Several Japanese officers, including one of the Los Banos camp commanders, were hanged as war criminals after the U.S. victory, accused of ordering or tolerating such massacres.

At Los Banos, former prisoners say, machine guns were in position to sweep the roll-call area. A ditch that looked ominously to the prisoners like a mass grave, although it may have been meant as a fortification, was dug outside the main fence.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, worried by reports from escaped prisoners and Filipino guerrillas, ordered rescue attempts. On Feb. 3, “flying columns” of tanks from the 1st Cavalry Division raced into Manila and liberated Santo Tomas.

But Los Banos was 15 miles inside Japanese-held territory, near the shore of the Laguna de Bay, a freshwater lake 25 miles long that became one of the keys to the rescue.

Weapons Left in Shed

At 6:45 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 23, 1945, the Japanese guards began the exercise period that was another key to the operation. During the daily calisthenics, most of the guards left their weapons in a building 60 yards away.

Timed to meet that moment of weakness--revealed to U.S. Army planners by a prisoner who had escaped only three days before--a three-pronged attack was about to be launched on the camp.

Leading the assault was the 11th Division’s 32-man reconnaissance platoon, under Lt. George Skau. It infiltrated the area with a group of guerrillas, paddling along the lake’s shore at night in canoes. As the prisoners began to assemble for roll call, Skau’s platoon and the guerrillas were taking positions in the underbrush outside the wire.

The second wave consisted of 140 paratroopers commanded by Lt. John Ringler, who were bearing down on the camp in nine C-47s that had just taken off from Manila.

The follow-up force of 340 troops was aboard a string of 59 amtracs, or amphibious tractors, which had been wallowing down the lake for three hours from Mamatid on the American-held shore to the north. The amtracs, tracked cargo carriers that looked something like clumsy tanks and could travel on land or water, were nearing a beach two miles from the camp.

To the consternation of Burris, who was in one of the amtracs, Filipinos in villages along the shore lit bonfires and cheered them on as the troops headed for an attack in which their only hope of success lay in surprise.

“I was thinking, ‘Boy, if they know where we’re going, the (Japanese) probably know we’re coming,’ ” Burris recalled recently. “I really started to sweat.

“But they never made a move to warn the Japanese. Nobody tipped them off and the operation came off just as it was supposed to.”

Smoke Marked Drop Zone

From a hiding place in a dry rice paddy alongside the camp, a sergeant in the reconnaissance platoon popped a smoke grenade. The pillar of smoke identified the paddy to the pilot of the lead C-47 as the paratroopers’ drop zone. Another trooper popped a smoke grenade at the beach to signal the amtracs where to put ashore.

The planes thundered over the camp at less than 500 feet, paratroopers crouched in the open doors, their faces clearly visible to the prisoners on the ground. Ringler hurtled from the lead plane, right on schedule at 7 a.m. The sight of his parachute was the signal for the hidden reconnaissance platoon to begin the attack.

As paratroopers spilled out of the planes and thumped into the dry paddy, Skau and his men shot their way into the camp and outraced the startled guards to the building where the Japanese had stored their rifles, leaving many of the guards disarmed. Guerrillas scrambled over the wire, screaming their battle cry, “Mabuhay!

The jumpers shucked their chutes and followed the guerrillas in, hurling grenades. Paratroopers swept into the camp headquarters, shooting a Japanese officer as he crashed through a window to escape.

Brief gunfights erupted as paratroopers and guerrillas chased guards through barracks and between buildings. Prisoners cheered on the hunters as bullets whistled through the flimsy stick walls of the barracks. The steel-hulled parade of amtracs crashed through the main gate and troops poured out the rear hatches.

Japanese Guards Killed

Just 20 minutes after the smoke grenades popped, the camp was under control of more than 500 U.S. troops. Many of the approximately 80 Japanese guards had been killed, and the rest had fled.

“I remember a group of prisoners, some of the missionaries, I think, raising their arms to heaven in gratitude as we came in,” Burris said. “Then they all fell down on their knees to pray.

“It was a very emotional moment.”

Except for a paratrooper who was temporarily knocked out when he landed, and one or two prisoners who suffered minor wounds from stray bullets, there were no American casualties, although some of the guerrillas later reported two of their men died.

One of the first Americans Mangels ran into was his uncle, Francis McCarthy, a war correspondent for United Press who parachuted with Ringler’s company.

“For years, my uncle Floyd used to tell people his brother Francis would come rescue us someday,” Mangels said. When McCarthy actually dropped into the camp with American troops, he said, “Uncle Floyd was amazed.”

However overjoyed the prisoners were, Maj. Henry Burgess, who commanded the rescue force, was facing serious problems.

He was inside Japanese territory, responsible for more than 2,100 civilians, including about 150 who were too young, too old or too sick to walk. Less than four miles away was the elite Japanese 8th, or Tiger Division, which outnumbered his force 20 to 1.

“The important thing was to get the hell out of there,” Burris said, “and the prisoners just weren’t moving fast enough.”

Barracks Set Afire

Impatient at former prisoners who wanted to gather up the possessions they had clung to for years--in some cases no more than crude pots and tattered rags--Burgess ordered his troops to set fire to their barracks to drive them out and get them moving to safety.

About 1,400 were loaded into the amtracs, which headed for the beach. Bullets fired by the untouched Japanese units in the surrounding brush occasionally clanged off the alligators’ thin steel plates, drawing return fire from the amtracs’ machine guns.

Another 700 internees, with about 300 paratroopers, set off down the road on foot, dodging random fire, one burly sergeant carrying a newborn infant.

“I remember this one lady, she was carrying a bundle of music she had written during all those years,” Burris said. “The string around the bundles was cutting into her hands but she wouldn’t leave them behind. There was a burst of machine-gun fire, not anywhere close to us, and she dropped those bundles and hit the dirt like she’d been practicing all her life.”

On the march, another internee suffered a minor wound, and a woman former prisoner was hit in the stomach by a sniper’s bullet, but reportedly recovered. Another woman, who thought she had been shot in the back, discovered when she reached the beach that the burning pain was a hot, spent cartridge from the machine gun the paratrooper standing over her was firing, which had fallen into her shirt.

The only U.S. fatalities were two men killed in a diversionary attack on the Japanese lines to the north to pin down the troops there.

At the beach, where the group had to wait two hours for the amtracs to return, Burris’ men used their small howitzers to fend off Japanese fire. “There was a heavy machine gun at the base of a cliff overlooking the beach,” Burris said. “We couldn’t reach it directly, but we’d fire into the treetops above it,” sending wood splinters from the exploding shells raining onto the gun crew.

“We couldn’t knock it out but we made them lay low until we finally pulled out, when they opened up on us again.”

Mortar Fire Evaded

The last amtrac drivers off the beach weaved erratically to avoid machine gun and mortar fire splashing in the water around them.

“There was a sense of tremendous relief that we had been so lucky,” Burris said. “It could have turned out quite differently.”

Mangels said he bears no grudge against the Japanese, although he knows that some former prisoners do.

“I don’t regret the time I spent in the camp because I learned to appreciate things--little things, like just appreciating the people you know. But I’d sure hate to do it again.”


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