US ARMY Airborne troops and Philippine guerillas kicked Japanese ass. ---------------------------------------------------------------------- The Angels Came at Dawn* by Robert A. Wheeler, Los Banos Internee On February 23, 1945, the Marines raised the flag on Mt. Suribachi, on the island of Iwo Jima. On that same morning, about 25 miles south of Manila in the Philippine Islands, the 11th Airborne Division began an operation about which Army Chief of Staff Colin Powell proclaimed, “I doubt that any airborne unit in the world will be able to rival the Los Banos prison raid. It is the textbook airborne operation for all ages and all armies.” As that day dawned at Los Banos Civilian Internment Camp, it held two thousand one hundred and forty-six US, British, Canadian, French and other Allied civilian prisoners of the Imperial Japanese Forces. After several years of imprisonment, they were the remaining survivors, who were slowly but surely going to join their predecessors in starving to death. Among the remaining survivors were my father, mother, younger brother and myself. We were down to one official meal a day; living on a bug-filled rice mush (mostly water) called lugau, banana tree stalks, papaya tree roots, slugs and in some cases, dogs and cats. My father, who was almost six foot tall, weighed about 90 pounds, and my mother as she recalled said, “I stopped weighing myself when I weighed 80 pounds”. I myself weighed about seventy-nine pounds. As we went to bed the night before, little did we know that as we slept, the men of the Recon Platoon of the 511th were sneaking up to their positions at key points outside the camp – the men of the 187th and 188th Regiments were busy keeping the Japanese troops occupied in a diversionary operation. The Men of the 672nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion were making their way in the dark with hand-held compasses across Laguna de Bay transporting the balance of the First Battalion of the 511th Regiment, and that “B” Company 511th was getting a little sleep at Nichols Field under the wings of the 65th Troop Carrier Squadron’s C-47s that were to carry them to their moment of history. That morning, as I walked out of the barracks with my family to line up for 7:00 AM roll call, I looked up into the sky over a field near our camp and saw several C47 transport planes. Suddenly, the sky filled with the “Angels”; the men of “B” Company of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, floating down as if from heaven in their white parachutes. At that same moment, the Recon Platoon, which as I mentioned previously had infiltrated in during the night, hit the guard posts and began the race to the guard room where the off-duty guards had their rifles stored. Those guards were outside doing their regular 7:00 AM morning exercises. By the way, the troopers won the race. We all ran back into the barracks. With bullets flying just over my head through the grass mat walls, I lay on the floor under my bunk, eating my breakfast. I was so hungry that not even bullets could keep me form that pitifully meager portion of watery, buggy rice mush. Soon one of the “Angels” came into our barracks shouting, “Grab only what you can carry and hurry outside to the Amtracs”. Those Amtracs were manned by the men of the 672nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion which had brought the balance of the attacking force across Lake Laguna de Bay. They had to get us back safely across the lake to US lines, before two thousand crack Japanese troops of the infamous Tiger Division, just over the hill, found out what was going on. On that day, all 2,146 of us, including a newly born baby girl who was carried out in a helmet liner, were saved. All of us were rescued!* Not one of us was lost! Some time later, I read that they had come to get us because General Douglas MacArthur had received information, from three men who had escaped from our camp, that our guards had been making preparations to dispose of us – digging trenches for our graves and placing oil barrels which could be rolled down the hillside onto the barracks to set them afire – then machine-gunning any of us who ran outside. I also read that this execution had been scheduled for that very morning of February 23, 1945. To this day, fifty-seven years later, this singular event of history, this magnificent military operation, this unmatched rescue of starving civilian prisoners of war from behind enemy lines, has been overshadowed by a flag raising; which although meaningful and representing a terrible battle was, as has been reported – the replacement of a previously placed flag by a larger one. They were and are a special breed, those men who came that day. Superbly trained, thank God – men who went home after they served – going on with their lives – not complaining, humble, proud that they served. When I meet one of my “Angels” for the first time, I take his hand and say, “Thank you for my life”. To a man, they immediately insist, “I was just doing my job. You guys were the heroes”. But for the pilots and crews of the 65th Troop Carrier Squadron, the troopers of the 11th Airborne and the men of the 672nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion, I would not have survived Los Banos Internment Camp. There would have been no opportunity for me to have a wife, son, daughter and nine wonderful grandchildren. The Wheeler family – as it exists today – would never have been. I WILL NEVER FORGET. Robert Wheeler ------------------------------------------------------------------------ THE LOS BANOS RAID by John M. Ringler The Mission The Company "B" mission was only one part of the over-all operation. I was in command of Company "B" since mid-January, 1945, which gave minimum time to become acquainted with all the personnel in a new unit in combat. We were pulled off the front line on 21 February, 1945 for the Los Banos mission on the 23rd of February. Prior to this operation, it was the battalion commander who assigned the day's operation or mission to his company commanders. For this operation, Lt. Col. Edward H. Lahti, the Regimental Commander, arrived at my company CP, as we were fighting for Fort McKinley. He stated, "You will report to the Division Commanding General and I will take you there." A thousand things can race through your mind as to what I or the company did since our 3 Feb. 511th RCT jump on Tagaytay Ridge that the Div. CG is directing my presence. At this time, I had not heard anything about Los Banos. The Regt. CO stated that he didn't know why the CG wanted me. Upon arrival at the Div CP, the G-2 and G-3 met Lt. Col. Lahti and myself. They directed us to Major General Swing's office, where I reported as directed. It was at this time that the CG informed me that "B" Company would jump on Los Banos to rescue the internees from the Japanese prison camp. He commented that we could take heavy losses of troops and internees if we were not successful. After discussing the major points of the operation, the CG asked if there were any questions. I had none at the time and was unaware that other units would have a major role in the operation. The Briefing The CG then directed the G-2 and G-3 to provide a complete briefing on the information they had available to them. It was at this time that I was informed of the other elements that would make up the task force to accomplish the mission. As the air- borne commander, I was permitted to select my own drop zone from the photos that the G-2 and G-3 provided. They also provided a very detailed and complete intelligence summary on the enemy gun positions, diagrams of the camp facilities and a daily routine of activities of the Japanese guards. This information, which was very vital, was provided by Peter Miles, an American internee who escaped from the prison camp a few days earlier. After many hours of briefing and planning, I returned to my unit, which had already been relieved from the front line action. After discussions with the Ist Bn. CO Major Henry Burgess, he attached the Hq. Co. Light Machine Gun platoon, under the command of Lt. Walter Hettlinger, to "B" Company to provide extra manpower and fire power. The company only had a strength of 80 plus personnel prior to the reinforcement. I was briefed that the Ist Bn., (minus "B" Company), with attached units, would travel by Amtrac across the lake (Laguna de Bay). The 88th Glider Infantry Regiment (minus its 2nd Bn) would establish the diversionary force to hold the enemy in their positions. The Filipino guerrilla force would outpost the outer edge of the prison camp to prevent any possible escape of the Japanese force. "B" Company, plus the LMG platoon, would revert to control of the 1st Bn. CO, upon their arrival at the camp. The Division Reconnaissance Platoon would complete all prior reconnaissance of the camp area and be in position to attack the enemy positions upon the opening of the first parachute at 0700. Lack of sufficient winds on the Laguna de Bay caused considerable problems for the Recon platoon in their water crossing, which delayed, but did not prevent, their movement to their objective areas. My plan was to drop at a low altitude, and as close as possible outside the camp to surprise the Japanese garrison, and to avoid a concentration of enemy ground fire. The three rifle platoons would assemble on their own leaders and move directly to their objective areas to engage the enemy. The platoon leaders were briefed on their area of responsibility, and they in turn briefed their men. On the afternoon of 21 Feb., I assigned Lt. Roger Miller, with two enlisted men, to make a reconnaissance of the drop zone with the Recon Platoon and then return to the unit for debriefing and to jump with the company. The Jump We spent the night of 22 Feb. at Nichols Field. There was no moon. The sky was clear in the predawn, as we put on full combat equipment, then our parachutes, and loaded with our crew served weapon bundles into nine C-47s, under the command of Major Don Anderson, 75th Troop Carrier Squadron. The short flight in tight formation was unopposed by Japanese fighter planes or antiaircraft fire. As we approached the drop zone, smoke was visible. I was jumpmaster of the lead aircraft. At dawn, 0700 hours, we jumped and all landed on the DZ without casualties. Due to weather conditions, Lt. Miller and the men were not able to return for the jump. They rejoined the company at the drop zone. It was our own "B" Company men who released the smoke grenades as the planes approached the DZ. The Recon Platoon, although encountering difficulty, was able to arrive at their assigned target areas to engage the enemy gun positions. The enemy was initiany concentrating on the action from the Recon. Platoon, which permitted "B" Company to assemble and rapidly move into the prison camp. After a rapid assembly, there was only minor enemy resistance, which was eliminated. Upon our arrival inside the camp, the internees were very jubilant and excited as to the events taking place. After a rapid survey of the situation, our company started to assemble the internees for a rapid movement out of the camp. With over two thousand individuals, this became a turbulent mass of human beings. Trying to control them and keeping them in one place was almost impossible. It was at this time that some yelled, "Enemy tanks." We had to react to the alert to defend against possible attack. The noise that the individual heard was the Amtracs headed to our positions. Another problem occurred. Many of the internees did not want to leave their huts, or were returning to retrieve items left behind. To overcome this problem, I had Lt. Hettlinger take a detail and torch all of the huts. The arrival of the Amtracs again caused mass confusion in trying to control the internees. The Liberation After the first Amtracs were loaded with the disabled, along with women and children, we were able to assemble all the remaining internees into a walking column, and head for the Mayondon beach area. As our unit guarded the moving internee column, we heard distant firing, indicating the enemy was probably sending elements to engage our troops. The battalion commander was successful in his decisive action to evacuate all of the internees and troops via the lake; thereby, saving the possibility of receiving heavy casualties, if we had attempted to fight our way through the enemy lines, All troops and the 2,147 men, women, children internee prisoners, including a few U.S. Navy nurses POW, arrived safely near Mamatid village, the original embarkation point for the Amtracs on the shore of Laguna de Bay. For this mission, I made a decision to jump at a much lower altitude than the normal 1,000 feet. This low altitude gave us less exposure to enemy fire and permitted a rapid assembly. Prior to this mission, each of the platoons had a Filipino lad with them for carrying ammunition, and they wanted to make the jump. After approving this request of the NCOs, they gave the three lads a quick course in proper parachute landing positions. I was not worried about them getting out of the C-47 aircraft, for I knew the NCOs would take care of it. If I had to make that decision other than during combat condition, I would not have given approval. This operation was successful due to the efforts of all units that participated. Failure on any one unit's part could have meant serious loss of lives for the internees, the guerrilla force and our own troops. This entire operation was completed on verbal orders. The written orders came after completion of the mission. One point of the operation that I have never understood is how could you have over two thousand persons in the target area and live fire coming in from four sides and yet not have a casualty within the camp. It is actions like this that makes us think of Who controls our destiny.