The Angels Came at Dawn
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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 A. Wheeler, Los
606 Leann Place
Yakima, WA 98908
509-577-8801 days; 509-965-4839 evenings