Grace Triumphant - Chapter 16 - Liberation from Internment

Liberation from Internment

“Come and see the works of God: he is terrible in his doing toward the children of men.” (Psa. 66:5)

One day some duty, which I have now forgotten, took me to the gymnasium in the lower part of the camp.  A large number of men were billeted there and on a cupboard beside one man’s cot these words were written:

“Sept. 20 – Worst slop I ever tasted.
Sept. 21 – Sweetest music I ever heard.”

The sweet music was not the strains of some symphony orchestra nor the march of a military band.  That morning we heard the distant hum of a flight of bombers.  In the clear sky and bright sunshine we spotted them away off in the distance, like a swarm of flies.  Later there was the boom of bombs bursting in the distance.  There was no doubt as to whose side they were on.  To the dismay of the Japanese guards, the internees cheered in the excitement of the first sign of returning Americans.  MacArthur’s famous words were becoming a reality, “I shall return.”

They were just a day late for our 22nd wedding anniversary!  That evening as we sat outside our barracks and talked about the day’s event, there was a brilliant flash of light.  A few seconds later the sound of a terrific explosion reached our ears.  Someone had the presence of mind to count the lapse between the flash and the sound and calculated it would have been somewhere near Manila.  We were not sure whether it was an ammunition ship in the Bay or some large ammunition dump.

Later on whenever American planes were spotted, the internees showed their joy by waving, not handkerchiefs but sheets.  This was very annoying to the guards.  Some internees were slapped for this.  So orders went out that whenever the air-raid alarm sounded, all should go immediately to their barracks and remain there until the “All Clear” sounded.  This didn’t make too much difference because by the time our camp authorities got the official word of an air raid, it was almost over!

The food situation was steadily deteriorating and becoming more critical.  It was learned that the Japanese had a quantity of rice stored in a bodega as a reserve for future emergency.  The Japanese guards had evidently been helping themselves and could not be depended on.  So the Commandant asked the camp committee to provide men to guard the bodega, preferably missionaries.  So there arose the ironical situation of internees guarding the supplies of which they were being deprived!

With blackouts every night, the evenings were spent by groups of people conversing together.  The favorite topic?  Food!  What’s the first thing you want to eat when we are liberated?  All kinds of recipes were concocted and exchanged.  Another topic was the progress of the war.  Where would MacArthur make his first landings?  In Santo Tomas Camp in Manila that was subtly announced over the loudspeaker.  A well known news announcer had evaded the Japanese by using his real name instead of his radio name.  He announced the work details each evening.  One evening he concluded, “Don’t be late!  But better Layte than never.”

What did the future hold for us?  We weren’t even sure what was happening in the present, let alone the future.  Air activity was increasing.  Troop movements in the night were heard.  Our loved ones at home, scanning the newspaper, listening to the radio, probably knew more about the war than we who were right in the midst of it!

Everyone was speculating on the strategy of MacArthur.  Americans had landed on Mindoro and established an airbase at San Jose.  What seemed likely to us was the Luzon landing would be in Batangas to approach Manila from the south.  It seemed the Japanese had the same idea for at night we heard traffic moving south.  If this should be the strategy we might expect an early rescue!

On January 7 in the small hours of the morning we woke up realizing that there seemed to be unusual activity in the building where the Japanese stayed, near the gate.  Some of the American committee were called to hand over records.  The commandant and his staff left before daylight.  They told the committee that we would be on our own.  However, since there were thousands of Japanese troops in the surrounding area, we should stay in the camp.  At daybreak the Stars and Stripes and Union Jack were hoisted on bamboo poles.  Someone borrowed Ken’s trumpet to play the national anthems while everyone stood and saluted.  That evening over the loudspeaker we listed to some news—the Americans had landed at Lingayen Gulf and were pushing south towards Manila.  We even heard President Roosevelt speaking from Washington.

We soon realized that in our excitement we were acting unwisely.  With Japanese troops in the vicinity it would be wise not to attract their attention.  After that, news reports were passed out more discreetly.  The Filipinos around soon learned that the Japanese had left and began bringing in supplies.  Promissory notes to be redeemed after liberation were readily accepted.  Immediately there were three meals a day instead of two, more variety, and more quantity.  There is no doubt that this was of the Lord to strengthen us for days ahead.  With more food we got stronger and instead of struggling around listlessly we felt like putting a little more zip in our step.  The committee opened the bodega and distributed the rice, a quantity to each individual.  There were two purposes for this action.  One, they feared that if the troops heard about that store of rice they would confiscate it.  Second, it was to be kept by each family as a reserve in case of future shortage.  Another life-saving provision for many of us.

After six days, the Japanese staff returned, much to our dismay.  They evidently lost face and were no doubt reprimanded for leaving us.  Their strict and oppressive attitude was an indication of this.  One internee had sneaked out in the night to get food and was crawling back under the fence.  Apparently he misunderstood the signals of his buddy on the inside because he was seen by the guards and shot.  For some hours the committee argued with the Japanese about bringing this man to the hospital for treatment.  When the commandant gave consent it was too late—the  man was dead.  Another man was shot on the suspicion of trying to escape.

The news that had circulated in the camp convinced the Japanese that a radio was hidden in the camp.  They cut off the electricity (that was before transistors and battery operated radios).  Dr. Nance at the hospital demanded that they have electricity there to preserve what few medicines remained.  Actually the radio was there too!  One day we were ordered to leave our barracks and line up on the road.  For hours we stood in the hot sun while the guards began to search our quarters.  The internees remonstrated that they should not search our rooms while we were not there.  Finally, they had to give in because many of us simply returned to our barracks.  The Japanese were told they could go ahead with their search but we would stand outside and watch.  Actually it was a bit amusing to watch.  The partitions were of “sawali” (woven bamboo split very thin).  The guard lifted a homemade paper motto to see what was behind it!  Nothing but the thin partition!

There were further cuts in the rations.  People were dying of starvation.  It was necessary to give some men a bit extra so they would have strength to dig graves.  Twice I served as a pallbearer— the simple coffin was carried to the grave on a small handcart used to haul garbage!  One for whom I thus served was an elderly Presbyterian missionary, Mr. Blair, who had spent many years in Korea and was caught in Manila by the exigency of war.  The other was Dr. MacGill, also a Presbyterian who had served in Lucena and had done a great deal in the revision of the Tagalog Bible.  Another old friend for whom I acted as pallbearer was Leslie Wolfe of the Disciples, Church of Christ.  He was also a Tagalog scholar and died a few days after we were liberated.

Increased war activity all around us convinced us that the situation was very critical.  It was reported that American forces entered Manila on February 3, 1945, and headed directly for Santo Tomas Camp.  Unfortunately, after their liberation, the Japanese shelled those university buildings and some were killed and others wounded.  From our camp we could see towns burning.  The Japanese were furious that after all their propaganda the Filipinos still were welcoming the returning Americans.

Finally, the Japanese said that no more rice was available and we were given a final ration of “palay” (unhusked rice).  Our doctors warned us not to eat it without removing the husks.  With the delicate condition of our stomachs it would probably be fatal.  Was that what our enemies hoped?  There being no rice mill people tried various ways of removing the husks.  We took small blocks of wood and rubbed these vigorously over the “palay” on a rough table and then fanned away the chaff.  It took most of the day to prepare enough rice for the day.  Clearly it was time to begin using the reserves which had previously been issued to us.  One dear sister, an elderly missionary with a small appetite brought some of her rice to us.  She wasn’t so optimistic about the return of the Americans and felt we were unwise in using up our supply.  However, the Lord had showed her she should share with us.

The afternoon of February 22 a number of missionaries felt the emergency called for a special time of prayer.  Food supplies were almost exhausted.  In our family there was just enough for two more meager meals the following day.  After that, what would we do?  Trust the Lord, for our times are in His hands.  Shortly after the prayer meeting, our hearts were cheered by the sight of U.S. bombers attacking places around the camp.  We could actually see the bombs falling from the planes.  Waking up during the night, it seemed quieter than usual—what could that mean?  While we recognized the possibility that we would not get out of that experience alive, we didn’t really think that would happen.  We were confident that the Lord would take care of us, and rested on His promises that He would deliver us.

At dawn on the 23rd of February we were up to get a fire going under a tin can in which was half of our remaining rice.  We could get that going before roll call at seven o’clock when we would all line up on the road to be counted.  However, word came that roll call would be later that morning.  After our rescue we heard that the Japanese had plans to turn machine guns on us when we lined up for roll call.  One or two of the internees had managed to slip out of the camp a day or two before.  Through contact with Filipino guerillas they got in touch with MacArthur’s headquarters about the desperate plight in the camp.

Just about seven o’clock planes flew over the camp and something was falling from them.  First thought—they are dropping food supplies.  But no—those are paratroopers.  Then what excitement!  One of the planes, after dropping his load, swung low over the camp and on the fuselage in big letters we saw “RESCUE.”  A couple of years later when I told this story in the southern U.S. an ex-G.I. came to me after the service and told me he was the one who painted that word.  He was ordered to paint the word but never knew until that evening which rescue it was.

Then everything broke loose!  Excitement made us oblivious of the danger from flying bullets.  Len dashed in and said, “Put the rest of the rice in that pot!”  We crouched low and fanned the little fire.  Being police deputies Ken and I were ordered to go through the barracks and tell people to lie down in their barracks.  It was an exercise in futility—people laughed at us!  Anna and Rose ran hand in hand to the front of the barracks to see an American soldier.  We didn’t know they were called G.I.’s or why.  One of them shouted, “Get in there and lie down, you are flirting with death!”  An old man in a neighboring barracks patted a machine gunner on the back and cheered him on.

Guerillas cut the barbed wire fences and poured in from all sides.  The paratroopers’ jump was their signal for action.  The Japanese were about to take their usual morning physical exercises, arms piled at the side.  They didn’t have a chance to fight nor to escape.  As we hurriedly ate our rice, amphibious tanks were rolling into the camp.  They had come across Lake Laguna de Bay.  They were supposed to evacuate the women and children, but men too climbed aboard.  Our barracks monitor tried to preserve some semblance of order, but that only delayed us from getting on to the tanks.

Grabbing a suitcase each we went to an open area; and I tried to persuade Anna and Rose to climb aboard, but they wanted us to all stay together.  The soldiers shouted “Women and children only!” but when I saw priests in their robes climbing on I was disgusted.  Perhaps their robes qualified them!  A newsman got hold of Ken, got his name, and the name of his grandmother in Buffalo.  She would be notified.  Ken told him about the rest of us, but the news report only mentioned Ken.  So for ten days Anna’s folks thought that only Ken was left alive.

We were told to start walking out of the camp.  A G.I. threw us a chocolate bar which we shared among the five of us.  How good it tasted!  Along the road Filipinos gave us some bananas and raw eggs which we ate as we trudged along.  Some people too tired to carry anything just left suitcases on the side of the road.  There was a typewriter sitting there!  An officer urged us on, “Please try to hurry!”  He took my suitcase and carried it for me to speed up the movement.  Thousands of Japanese troops were in the vicinity and we were miles from the American lines.  At the main Manila south road some soldiers directed us to go on towards the beach.

Later we learned that the original plan was to take out as many as possible in the tanks across the lake.  The rest would march north on the main road and shielded by troops and guerillas would fight their way back through the Japanese lines to the American forces.  However, the amphibs made such good time and met so little resistance, they offered to return to the beach and pick up another load.

As we stood on the beach and waited, Japanese shells were bursting only a short distance away.  One internee had hoarded a jar of brown sugar and he was going down the line offering everyone a spoonful—the first sugar we had tasted in months.  A famous LIFE photographer was taking pictures, but somehow I never made the pages of that magazine.  Later on I tried to obtain some of those pictures from news agencies.  I got some, but none were of ourselves or our friends.  Also, I was able to get an army film of the rescue and for a fleeting moment there we were standing together just before starting off for the beach.  It was only excitement that kept us plodding along on that three-mile hike.

After a while the amphibs returned and we boarded them.  The baggage was left behind—it would be brought later if they had room.  It really wasn’t worth much but we did get it.  Some of the amphibs were fired on as they went across the lake to a point near Calamba which was then behind American lines.  As we waited on the beach a Filipino sold me some cooked rice at an exorbitant price.  But never mind; we were free, safe, well, and all together.  Soon trucks came to take us to Bilibid, a penitentiary at Muntinlupa.  The former occupants had either been released or escaped.  All along the way Filipinos cheered “Mabuhay” and made the victory sign.  By late afternoon of that thrilling day we pulled into another prison, but this one with the Stars and Stripes flying overhead.  Even though I was not then an American citizen, there was a thrill in looking at that flag.

I quote from a news item dated February 24 which appeared in a Buffalo paper: “Striking from the sky, by land, and over water in enemy territory at dawn Friday, American troops and Filipino guerrillas brought freedom to 2146 in the civilian internment camp at Los Banos. . . . Only two of the captives were wounded in the brief battle at the camp and in the running fight with snipers which followed.  Two of the rescuing force were killed and two wounded . . .’Nothing could be more satisfying to a soldier’s heart than this rescue.’ said Gen. Douglas MacArthur.  ‘I am deeply grateful.  God was certainly with us today.’ ”

The military authorities had estimated that rescuing 75% of the internees under those conditions would be considered a successful mission.  The rescue was 100%, and with a very small number of casualties.  Two days later the chaplain conducted a thanksgiving service for both the internees and the rescuing forces.  We certainly had a great deal for which to be thankful to the Lord.  Of course we were thankful to those men who risked their lives to save us.  The chaplain said that when the call was made for a dangerous mission, the whole group volunteered.  But after paying due respect to the bravery of soldiers and guerrillas and the precision of the planning, we have to recognize the truth of MacArthur’s words, “God was certainly with us today.”  One fellow told me that he had never been in action where everything went so much according to plan.

My bed that Friday night was a hard metal bunk—no telling how many criminals had slept there!  I picked up my Bible and read Psalm 66; it seemed as if it had been written for that special occasion!  “He turned the sea into dry land: they went through the flood on foot.”  David never dreamed about amphibs!  “Thou hast caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water: but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.”  Would we ever forget those planes, the paratroopers dropping into our midst?  Yes, I know this is eisegesis and not exegesis, but it was real comfort to me that night.  “Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul. . . Blessed be God, which hath not turned away my prayer, nor his mercy from me.”