There’s a famous picture taken during the Second World War, in which a group of six Marines raise a flag atop Mount Suribachi.
It ran in magazines and papers across the world, announcing news of American victory in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
That news, however, knocked another amazing story off the front pages that day. It involved a military mission that against all odds saved two thousand civilians from a concentration camp 30 miles behind enemy lines.
Military teachers still use the raid on Los Banos as an example of how to execute a successful rescue.
Memories of that raid are fading as participants grow older. But as Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, an Oregon filmmaker and local survivors are working hard to preserve them for posterity.
If you remember your history lessons, the Philippines was a U.S. Territory before the Second World War.
But General Douglas McArthur and 80,000 troops were driven out by the Japanese.
About 15,000 U.S. citizens were left behind, however. They were missionaries, nuns, sugar company workers, bankers and children.
John Wightman was one of those kids and now lives in Milton-Freewater.
John Wightman: “My grandparents had us a nice house. It was all furnished, had dishes and pots and pans, groceries and servants. I had an 'Amah,' I think they call it, which was a baby sitter, to take care of me. They had a gardener and a housekeeper and it was normal life.”
But things changed after the Japanese took control of Manila. Wightman says vehicles with loudspeakers drove around their neighborhood repeating the phrase: ‘Turn Yourself In.’
His family ignored the demand, but then his mother was picked up by a patrol while out shopping.
John Wightman: “She begged and pleaded to get her kids. So the Japanese were kind enough to go and pick up my grandmother, myself and my little sister.”
They were taken to Santa Tomas University, where thousands of other U.S. citizens were being held.
Southwest Washington resident, Robert Wheeler, now 74, remembers it was extremely crowded. And everything from food to paper was in short supply.
Robert Wheeler: “This fellow was assigned to hand out toilet paper and he happened to be a prominent banker in the Philippines and he would hand out the sheets of paper and call them deposit slips. He’d say, how many deposit slips do you want.”
As the university became increasingly overcrowded, the Japanese decided to build a new camp, 30 miles outside Manila.
They called it Los Banos, and filled it with missionaries, nurses and couples who had small children. Wightman remembers that food was his main concern.
John Wightman: “When we were liberated there was no vegetation inside the compound. We’d eaten everything, including the banana trees and any vegetation that was in there. We did catch a cat and cooked it and put it in the pot and ate it, for a little bit of meat, protein. They had Lu-gow, basically was rice and soupy consistency with water, and that’s a main staple of what we had and as time went on it got less and less. Now we could look past the fences and see mangos, papayas, coconuts and bananas hanging on the trees, but we couldn’t go over there and get them. Sometimes some people would and there’d be a feast for a few minutes. Sometimes they’d be caught and they’d be shot.”
As the years passed, Wightman and Wheeler grew up. Everyday, they asked themselves the same question: When is General McArthur coming to get us? Then, on the morning of February 23rd 1945, Wheeler says the parachutes of the 11th Airborne Division filled the sky.
Robert Wheeler: “We knew something was going on so we ran into the barracks, and I dove under my bunk and grabbed this bowl of Lugow mush and was eating under the beds. Bullets were fling through the barracks, because they were just matt walls. And after a few minutes I heard this noise in the hallway. There’s a great big paratrooper came into the hall and said, grab what you can carry, let's get out of here. There’s 10,000 more Japanese over that hill and if they figure out what’s going on, because there were only about three or four hundred of them, we’re going to be in trouble.”
It was one of the most difficult — and successful — rescues of World War II. Using amphibious tanks, parachutes and small teams of infantry, U.S. forces rescued 2,142 civilians.
Henry Kolasinski: “We hit that at 7 in the morning.”
Sergeant Henry Kolasinski of Wyoming is one of the few members of the 11th Airborne Division still around to tell the tale.
Henry Kolasinski: “The thing to that mission was surprise and we caught the Japanese when they were doing their exercises and they didn’t have their guns or anything else. So we caught them at the right time.”
Only about three members of the 11th Airborne Division remain in the Oregon and Washington area. Some are sick, others are suffering from post traumatic stress.
So the job of remembering and recording the raid is falling increasingly to the children who were rescued, like Robert Wheeler of Centralia and John Wightman of Milton-Freewater.
Stories like theirs inspired Laura Vineyard, a Portland area screenwriter, to start a new film project.
Laura Vineyard: “As a child I was very interested in reading the Anne Frank books and seeing the movies and the plays and so when I first heard about it, this wasn’t a European girl, these were American families and that really hit home because if I was interested in European families, I was certainly going to be very very interested in American families.”
Not one U.S. soldier was killed during the raid on Los Banos. Five prisoners died, but not from the raid, they died from starvation.
Laura Vineyard is in he process of pitching her screenplay to Paramount.
OPB is among the participants of a national project to collect stories from the World War Two generation. You can link to that effort from our website, opbnews.org .