I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
During World War II, Japanese forces treated prisoners of war, both civilian and military, atrociously. As the war turned against the Japanese and the Allies landed in the Philippines, the plight of those held in prison camps became a major concern. Rescuing the prisoners was a priority.
Los Baños Camp
Women, children, and men were caught up in the thousands when Japan invaded the Philippines in December 1941. Foreign nationals as well as many Filipinos were herded into internment camps.
One of these prisons was Los Baños on Luzon Island, about 40 miles south of Manila. For the first couple of years, the conditions were said to be tolerable but as the war turned against Japan life for the internees became terrible.
Food became scarcer as the brutality was ramped up.
Lieutenant Sadaaki Konishi was second-in-command of the camp and he described himself as the “strongest white race hater in the army.” He told the prisoners “Before I’m done, you’ll be eating dirt.” He seems to have been the villain that ran the place.
His sadism was a reflection of the Japanese military code that people who surrendered were beneath contempt and should be treated accordingly.
Living Conditions in Japanese Camps
Information was getting out through Filipino guerrillas that the conditions in Los Baños were getting dire.
Other camps in the path of advancing American troops had been liberated. The pathetic physical condition of the prisoners had shocked the liberators.
General Douglas MacArthur, who was in command of the U.S. forces, wrote in his memoirs “I knew that many of these half-starved and ill-treated people would die unless we rescued them promptly.”
There was concern that the Japanese soldiers might simply kill all the internees in Los Baños. Prisoners had already been forced to dig trenches outside the camp; they assumed they were going to be used for mass burials.
So, a rescue mission was planned.
On February 12, 1945, MacArthur ordered a raid on the camp that was deep behind Japanese lines.
The people inside the camp knew the Americans had landed on Luzon. The leadership of the prisoners decided on a risky tactic; three volunteers were given permission to make an escape attempt. Previously, escapes were frowned upon because, if detected, the Japanese were likely to bring down violent reprisals on the internees.
The three men crawled under the barbed wire at night and disappeared into the jungle. They soon made contact with Filipino guerrillas who guided them to American forces.
The men carried vital information about the Japanese guards and position of towers and fences. The most crucial nugget was that the 200-man garrison did calisthenics at 6.45 a.m. dressed only in loincloths.
The Attack on Los Baños
Just before 7 a.m. the prisoners saw nine American airplanes flying low just to the east of the camp. Then, they saw paratroopers jumping from the planes. At precisely the same moment, 75 Filipino guerrillas attacked the guard posts.
Meanwhile, soldiers in amphibious vehicles crossed Laguna de Bay, an inland lake close to the camp, and launched an attack. It didn’t take long for the three-pronged assault to overwhelm the guards who were all either killed or fled into the jungle.
The prisoners, although many were walking skeletons, were ecstatic at being rescued, but this caused a problem for the soldiers. More than two thousand happy people were milling about and it became difficult to organize them for an orderly evacuation. And, time was of the essence because about 10,000 Japanese soldiers were within a three-hour truck ride from Los Baños.
Eventually, the crowd was subdued and loaded into the amphibious vehicles to be taken across the lake to safety.
There are conflicting reports of casualties. Some say no prisoners or members of the rescue group was killed or wounded. Other accounts put the death toll at two American soldiers and three Filipinos, with a handful wounded.
The Japanese Reprisal
One of those who escaped into the jungle was Lieutenant Sadaaki Konishi. He made contact with the Japanese Army and returned to retake his prison camp. Angered that the internees had escaped and the camp burned to the ground, the Japanese turned their fury on local villagers.
Families were tied to the stilts that supported their homes, which were then set on fire. It’s estimated that 1,500 Filipinos were slaughtered.
Lieutenant Sadaaki Konishi was later captured and tried for war crimes. Found guilty, he was executed by hanging in 1947.
- The airborne assault on Los Baños was carried out with such precision that many of the techniques used are still taught to people involved in special forces operations.
- Japan had 10 prison camps in the Philippines. Camp O’Donnell was a prewar training depot that the Japanese turned into a prisoner of war facility. Sixty thousand Filipino and 9,000 American soldiers were crowded into the camp, which had no sanitation and little water. Food was scarce and disease rampant. Add to this the brutality of the guards. About 20,000 Filipinos and 1,500 Americans died in the camp before its liberation on January 30, 1945.
- At the Tokyo War Crimes trials, seven top Japanese leaders were condemned to death and hanged. Other countries, such as Australia and China also held war crimes trials that led to 5,000 Japanese being found guilty; of these about 900 were executed.
- The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo honours those who died in service to the Emperor of Japan between 1867 and 1951. Almost two and a half million names are inscribed in the Book of Souls at the shrine, including more than 1,000 convicted of war crimes.
- “Raid on Los Baños – The WW2 Prison Camp Rescue That History Forgot.” Bruce Henderson, Militaryhistorynow.com, April 8, 2015.
- “Raid at Los Banos.” Donald J. Roberts II, Warfarehistorynetwork.com, November 9, 2015.
- “World War II: Liberating Los Baños Internment Camp.” Historynet.com, June 12, 2006.
- “Japanese War Criminals Hanged in Tokyo.” History.com, August 21, 2018.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Liz Westwood from UK on December 05, 2018:
There are so many stories from World War 2 like this one that I have not heard before. The reprisals on locals were so sad.