In addition to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp, internees were held at other camps such as Baguio, Davao, Bilibid and the Los Baños Camp. In commemoration of the liberation of the Los Baños Camp on February 23rd, 1945, I dedicate this article and offer these direct quotes from those who were there.
May 1943 – Transfers from Santo Tomas to the Los Baños Camp
On May 8, 1943, the Commandant of the Santo Tomas Internment Camp issued the following statement to the Internee Executive Committee:
I am authorized by the Director-General of the Japanese Military Administration in the Philippines to make a statement regarding the change of location of enemy civilian’s internment camp. As all of you are well aware, released enemy nationals in the city of Manila are more than 2,000. Most of them, being unemployed, are in extreme difficulties in their living, and the number of applicants for internment is daily increasing. It is, however, to be pointed out that the present accommodations available in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp is not sufficient to have all of them interned there, and particularly so from sanitary point of view.
In consideration of these facts, the [Japanese] Military Authorities here have come to a decision, to change the location of the internment camp to a more spacious place where more permanent accommodations can be provided so that you will continue to live there until the time when you will repatriate to your respective countries or peace will be restored.
The new site is in Los Baños, Laguna, an ideal health resort noted for its hot springs, where new buildings will be erected for your housing and where you will enjoy fresh air and find easy access to fresh meat and vegetables, part of which you may be able to cultivate yourselves.
In carrying out the above plan, the first group of about 800 men to be selected from the present internees, which will constitute the core for the new camp, will be dispatched to Los Baños by trains on the 14th of the month. For this first group, the premises of the Agriculture College including its large track field will be available.
It is to be emphasized that this change of location is entirely based upon the humanitarian consideration of your own welfare, and that fairness to the treatment to be accorded to internees shall always be maintained.
Los Baños internee, Bill Detzer recalls, “On May 14,1943, the Japanese moved 786 single men and 12 Navy nurses 70 kilometers away to the Agricultural College at Los Baños. The reasons given for the move didn’t seem valid. Speculation was that so many unattached men posed a threat. The war had definitely turned against the conquerors, and they were jumpy.” [source: The Shoemaker of Los Baños by John Stull]
The Los Baños Camp was located on the grounds of the College of Agriculture and Forestry of the University of the Philippines, a rural facility by Laguna de Bay. A fence of double ring of barbed wire encircled the original 25 acres consisting of faculty housing, scattered cottage type classrooms, and a gymnasium. The first POW’s to arrive moved into the various buildings with the Japanese Garrison troops housed adjacent to the main gate. The “able-bodied” male internees themselves were charged to construct their own barracks, floors and plumbing for showers and drinking water.
Jerry Sams was one of the “able-bodied” men who was transferred from Santo Tomas to Los Baños. He met his future wife, Margaret, during internment. She and her son David were sent to camp as her husband Bob fought the invasion from Bataan. He was captured, forced into the Bataan Death March and later died on a hell ship enroute to Japan. Stranded and alone, Jerry and Margaret formed an intimate bond during internment. Their subsequent marriage after liberation lasted until they both passed away just several years ago.
In Los Baños, the internees were allowed a space of four feet by twelve feet per person, almost twice as many feet as they had in Santo Tomas. The barracks were very long, with a hall down the center of each one, dividing each side. Nipa covered the roof and sawali matting for the sides. Each barracks held approximately one hundred people. The stalls or cubicles were constructed of very rough planks with large cracks between them for flooring, having partitions of sawali 6 feet high. [source: “Forbidden Family”, Margaret Sams]
Oddly, people were allowed to volunteer for a transfer to Los Baños, which my parents did. On April 7, 1944, our family was among 530 internees loaded into trucks for the trip South. At first it was much better. There was a kindly camp commandant, Lt. Col. Kimura, with one leg, who we kids called “Peg Leg”. We got better food and he gave candy to the children. And we could live together as a family. But unfortunately, that didn’t last long as the cruel, evil and sadistic Lieutenant Sadaaki Konishi was installed as the Camp Supply Officer. [source: “My Life as a Child Internee”, Robert A. Wheeler]
Konishi was despised by the internees. A small, arrogant and brutal man with an intense hatred for the white race and the Americans in particular. He vowed at one point that the internees would be “eating dirt before he was through with them”.
This is what the internees would have to contend with for the next year and eight months. For the most part it could be considered a self-governed prison village. Similar to the organization of the Santo Tomas camp, the internees formed an Executive Committee to act as liaison with the Japanese Commandant in charge of the Camp.
In the summer of 1944, three hundred Catholic priests, seminarians and sisters under Bishop Jurgens and clergy of all denominations were rounded up and transferred to the camp. Separated from the more than 1,500 lay internees, their part of the camp was dubbed “Vatican City” while the lower half was “Hell’s Half-Acre.” There were more than 130 Masses offered daily in the makeshift chapel.
Sister Miriam Thomas was among over 50 Maryknoll sisters interned. She was studying for her doctorate as World War II broke out and she and the other Sisters were later brought into the prison camp. Sister Thomas brought along her books and painting materials, and despite the hardships and the weakness she experienced from the starvation diet in the camp, Sister was able to finish writing her doctoral dissertation. She even designed a holy card for others in the camp.
Liberation at hand.
In early January, the internees at Los Baños started seeing a large number of American planes flying overhead. Their Japanese guards seemed listless and anxious and even lax guarding their charges. On January 5th, the Japanese left, leaving the Executive Committee in charge.
The reason for the guards abandoning us soon became apparent. The Japanese had sighted an American convoy off the coast and thought the Americans were going to make a landing in the south, Naturally they went north as fast as they could go. However it wasn’t long before they discovered their mistake. [source: “Forbidden Family”, Margaret Sams]
“Major Iwanaka says I tell you we leave now soon. Executive Committee take charge as of 5:00 this morning. We leave enough food for two months. Keep all internees inside camp. Major Iwanaka says he not responsible for what happen if any people leave camp.” [source: ”Deliverance at Los Baños”, Anthony Arthur]
The whole camp exuded utter elation as their captors left. They renamed it “Camp Freedom” and divided the food supplies amongst everyone. Their elation quickly ended as the Japs returned on January 13th. The Japanese had lost face as a result of their quick departure and now commanded the internees with furious vengeance. Elation was replaced by a state of hopelessness once again. Oddly, the rescue of Santo Tomas internees on February 3rd would not be announced on the Voice of Freedom until the end of the month, leaving the Los Baños camp completely unaware of their fellow internees’ freedom.
In retribution, the Japs became even meaner. We were down to one official meal. Instead of husked rice, we were given a small portion of palay (unhusked rice) that would normally be fed to the pigs. As much as we tried to roll or pound it, the shell remained. If you didn’t hit it hard enough, the husk wouldn’t quite break and it was inedible. If you hit it too hard, you smashed the rice kernel. Conditions were desperate. People were dying so fast that the gravediggers, men who were themselves in miserable condition, could hardly keep up. [source: “My Life as a Child Internee”, Robert A. Wheeler]
The following vivid account of the liberation of camp is told here by Alex Morley USAF Pilot during WWII.
We were to be joined by 150 Paratroopers from the 11th Airborne Division for a surprise rescue raid on the Los Baños concentration camp on the grounds of the former University of the Philippines Agricultural School on Laguna de Bay about 40 miles southeast of Manila.
Joining in the attack would be the 672nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion who would approach the camp across a lake in 54 “Amtracs”—amphibious tractors. The raid had to be precisely timed and coordinated. The Filipino scouts had told us that the Japanese troops guarding the camp always went for morning calisthenics at the same time and at the same place, stacking their rifles together while exercising. We were to drop the Paratroopers at the precise time when the Japanese were disarmed. At the same time the amphibious troops were to attack by water and land.
We hit the drop zone at the exact second scheduled. I could see the Japanese troops in the yard of the camp, exercising. We were at only 400 feet elevation and the Paratroopers barely got their parachutes open before they were on the ground. The Japanese were caught completely by surprise. At the same time the amphibious amtracs approached from the lake shore and the ground troops joined the battle. I broke formation and circled around while the rest of the Squadron left. From the air we could see the Japanese troops in panic, but starting to fight back. We circled around and around the concentration camp and had a perfect view of the fighting that at times seemed very fierce. The Japanese never fired on me that I was aware of; they were too busy with the paratroopers and the amphibious forces.
Everything goes wrong in a war, but this mission was eminently successful. 2,147 prisoners, 1500 of them Americans, were rescued. There were also Canadian, British, Australian, French, Italian, Norwegian, Polish and Nicaraguan civilians. None of them died in the raid. 242 Japanese were killed and two Filipino guerillas. None of the Paratroopers or Amphibious forces were killed. Several were wounded. It was February 23, 1945: “The most important day of my life,” said Kitty Miller, the mother sheltering her baby during the raid. Her husband and parents were also rescued. Her baby, Karen, a mother of five, lives in Chicago. The raid was the most successful liberation operation the U. S. Army has ever had. The details of it are still taught at West Point, said Colonel Stout, who was in charge of logistics for the amphibious forces. It was difficult for the amtracs to operate so far beyond the front lines. The people of Los Baños paid a high price after the raid, with many of them killed in reprisal by the Japanese before the Japanese were forced out of the Philippines. [source: Alex Morley USAF Pilot during WWII]
Yesterday morning, after nights and days of listening to sounds of the battle of Luzon, far and near, we awoke to the beautiful sunrise typical of late Feb. and out of the north came 18 transport planes, ours, and to our amazement, out of the planes poured parachutists; the most beautiful sight ever seen by my gray eyes. Simultaneously firing started all over Camp. Ridiculous as it may sound, I was indulging in my usual morning shave, a practice I have stuck to whether soap was available or not. And I kept right on as if nothing was happening. It was not bravery, nonchalance, coolness, or anything of the kind. Bullets were tearing thru the bamboo walls and open windows of our barracks, – and I finished shaving, washed up, cleaned my tools and put them away. About then the first of our troops, American and Filipino irregulars appeared, and we were ordered to prepare for immediate evacuation. And then occurred one of the most astounding feats of military history. 2200 unprepared civilians were grabbed bodily from the midst of a hostile force, in strongly held territory, with not over a dozen wounded, military and civilian, in 3 hours time, and removed from danger. [source: Letter by S.Davis Winship, courtesy of David Record]
Guerrilla troops were all over the place. They seemed to rise out of the ground and I can vouch for the fact that they showed no mercy. In addition to rifles they all carried bolos (long heavy knives) the beloved weapon of the Filipino, and any Japanese they shot, they made sure with their bolos that he had gone to meet his ancestors.
It was a pretty piece of work and lasted about 15 minutes in which time the entire Commandants Staff, including the Commandant himself, were accounted for and the Barracks set afire over them. No prisoners were taken, and I may say that remark applies to whole operation against the Camp. The Filipino guerrillas don’t take prisoners, not because the Japanese fight to the last man as Japanese propaganda would have us believe, but because they have a long score to settle with the Japanese.The entire Camp was completely evacuated by 8:45 a.m. and the long string of tanks was crashing along to the lake. We were fired on once en route to the lake by a few snipers in the trees on the road side. One internee was wounded but a burst from one of our machine guns and from a couple of tanks immediately ahead, seemed to deal with the situation.
From the beach at Cabuyo we were taken in ambulance and trucks to Muntinlupa, formerly a large prison now used as a base hospital by the American Army. As soon as we arrived we were given hot soup and a light meal. What a joy it was. Our troubles were at an end. [source: Journal by Lewis Thomas Watty, vice president of the POW committee.
The fighting had hardly died down when we saw a long, long line of the most wonderful-looking American boys I have ever seen. They came marching down the path between the garden and our barracks, and they were chanting as they came striding along, “Get ready to move, get ready to move, get ready to move.” [source: “Forbidden Family”, Margaret Sams]
Many of the internees were still in shock, sickly or too weak to move. Some were hesitant to leave without their meager belongings. A few barracks were set ablaze by the Japanese. American Maj. Burgess seized on the burning barracks as the answer to the question of how to hurry the internees to avoid any oncoming Japanese. He told his men to go to the south side of the camp and torch the remaining barracks.Margaret Whitaker was interned at Santo Tomas with her family when they were directed to move to the Los Baños Camp. Here’s a photo of Margaret while at Santo Tomas. She is the young teen on the right with the ladies washing their hair.
After the battle in camp, in which most of the Japanese were killed, with the exception of a few including the hated Konishi who escaped, the Amtracs of the 672nd Amtractor Bn. came charging in through the fence. We were loaded into the Amtracs, left a burning camp behind us and trundled down past the town of Los Baños to the lake, where some of us ran into a skirmish.[ Source: Margaret Squires diary]
Konishi, along with about a hundred other Japanese troops, survived the raid by hiding in the jungle surrounding the camp.
Above, a photo of William H.Donald, famed journalist who wrote anti-Japanese articles while in China and was highly sought after by the Japanese who had unknowingly held him within both the Santo Tomas and Los Baños camps. He is being interviewed at liberation with his secretary Ansi Lee (photo by Jerry Sams).
We plowed right into the lake and chugged across it in a flotilla of 56 Amtracs full of dazed, happy internees. Our water-going metal steeds pulled in and came aground at Cabuyao, where we scrambled out and waited through the noon hour for the Amtracs to return with their second load. During that last phase many internees had to walk to the lake, from the burning camp under sporadic gunfire, protected by GI’s who returned with them in the last Amtrac. We were taken by truck behind enemy lines to the ex-political New Bilibid Prison at Muntinlupa. [source: Margaret Whitaker Squires, diary]
Margaret Whitaker Squires was 18 when she was liberated from Los Baños. Coincidentally, she met her husband Martin Squires, who was one of the camp’s liberators, in Bellingham a few years later. They were married for 52 years before he passed away.
Many prisoners were wounded during the rescue. The dry nipa palm and bamboo barracks were in flames in no time. Prisoners were herded into the amphibious tanks, each holding 30 or more plus the crew. The Amtracs lumbered back to the lake, wallowed slowly across, to waiting US Army trucks, then driven to a Provincial Prison nearby. In comparison to the Los Baños prison camp, the Filipino prison, New Bilibid at Muntinglupa, turned out to be a palace. The double tier pipe framed bunks with blanketed bottoms, what a luxury for the walking skeletons that first night of freedom. [source: To Be Executed, Ed Shakalis]
On to Muntinlupa !
Arriving at Muntinlupa, the internees were registered and billeted. The process of repatriation had begun but first, they needed nourishment. After the long months of internment and near starvation, the Army was careful to provide food that would not be too rich but would adequately provide for regaining their strength.
On reaching the other side I was loaded onto an Army truck and driven to an emergency field hospital at Muntinlupa, just previously captured by the 511th Airborne Paratroopers. After registration, a meal of pea soup greeted all the internees and I was issued with an iron bunk and two blankets. The war, suffering and privation were over for us. [source: “Bends in the Road, Margo Tonkin Shiels]
Hal Bowie was a popular prewar radio announcer on KZRH (later DZRH) known as the “Voice of Sunkist”. Hal is shown below with his wife Paquita and their infant daughter, Lea, who was born premature in camp. It was a miracle she survived without the aid of incubators. She attributes the miracle to the U.S. Navy doctor and navy nurses who were also interned in the camp. Her birth certificate was signed by Dr. Dana Nance, and nurse Laura Cobb. [source: Lea Bowie]
The internees were processed individually. Lea Bowie sent me these rare documents showing the medical clearance documents and ticket stubs indicating which truck on which they would be evacuated.
Our first meal of the day, in fact our first meal under the American flag, our first Freedom meal, was a small plateful of pea soup, and it was good ! In the evening we were served tomato juice, corn beef stewed with diced carrots and peas, and asparagus. Far into the evening the chow line continued. People went several times. [source: “Running With the Tiger”, Ansi Lee Sperry
For the internees that survived, the war was finally over. They would be going home to pick up their lives and surround themselves with family. While the liberation of the internees from Los Baños went off without a hitch, there was a dark epilogue to the story. After the 11th Airborne Division paratroopers left the area, the Japanese moved back in. Ironically, the first Americans to re-enter the vicinity of Los Baños were the same paratroopers who had liberated the camp only days before. What they found in the barrios surrounding the camp this time was both nauseating and pitiful. Whole families had been tied to the stilts supporting their houses, then the dwellings had been set ablaze, collapsing around their helpless former inhabitants. Maj. Burgess estimated that more than 1,400 Filipinos had been cruelly killed, evidently in retaliation for the rescue of the internees. – [source: Deliverance at Los Baños, Anthony Arthur]
After the rescue of the prisoners the massacre of the College Community began. The Japanese came about midnight and started to burn homes and kill civilians of all ages. Some civilians were caught in a Roman Catholic Church, where they were killed (about 70) and burned inside the church. The night of the massacre, we had a “Vacuet”, Tagalog slang for evacuate. Every child in the family had his or her bundle to pickup and carry. The entire width of the road from the College of Forestry was full of civilian refugees heading southeast, under escort of Filipino Guerrillas, toward a Guerrilla Camp. We walked all night until we reached the safety of the “Barrios.” After resting during the day, we continued walking at night along rice paddies toward the town of Santa Cruz, a Guerrilla stronghold. Finally, the Guerrillas commandeered a sailboat for the refuges and we sailed across Laguna De Bay to Binan, an area that had been earlier liberated by the Americans. [source: Los Baños Memoirs WWII, Dr. Jorge P. Juliano, Sr.]
Then on February 26, the reign of terror began! The Japanese soldiers reappeared. They burned houses and massacred men, women, elders and children alike on sight. Mike Elayda was cycling to town when he passed three Japanese soldiers. “Kura!” The soldiers shouted to him, their blood-stained bayonets gleaming. He saved his life by stammering in fright that he was delivering a package to a Japanese officer. It turned out that on the 24th and 25th of February, Colonel Fujishige ordered his officers and men to kill all guerillas, men, women and children in Los Baños…..”to kill 100,000 or 70 for each Japanese soldier killed. Each man must destroy one tank before he dies.” [source: After Pain and Death, A Journey Through War”, St. Therese of the Child Jesus Parish, 1999]
Note: Sadaaki Konishi was eventually captured and assigned to a group of POWs to clean up rubble around Manila. As luck would have it, he was recognized by one of the Los Baños internees at the Wack Wack Golf Club in Manila in July 1945. Konishi was tried as a Class C war criminal for the offenses of violating the laws of war. He fully admitted to the massacre of thousands of civilians and added that “he had been conducting a war and left such mere details to his staff.” He was hanged in Sugamo Prison April 30, 1949. A Maryknoll nun, Sister Theresa, later reported that shortly before his death, Konishi became a convert to Christianity.
My respect and compassion goes out to the internees and the Filipinos who suffered great loss during this horrible ordeal. Thanks to Margaret and Jerry Sams, Margaret Whitaker Squires, Ansi Lee Sperry, the many other internees, Lea Bowie and John Tewell who were so generous in sharing their stories and photos.
I hope you found this article of interest and share it with your friends. This period is not well known in the annals of American and Philippine history yet it is so important for our younger generation to understand what happened seventy years ago and hopefully, prevent it from happening again.