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.