Remembering a World War II Death Trap — and a Miraculous Rescue

Seventy years ago today, U.S. Marines iconically raised the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. And 70 years ago today, hundreds of miles to the south, my aunt walked to freedom.

Editor's Note: This is an update of a story that previously ran on Feb. 23, 2010.


Seventy years ago today, U.S. Marines iconically raised the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

And 70 years ago today, hundreds of miles to the south, my aunt walked to freedom.

Sister Mary Beata Mackie spent more than three years in a Japanese internment camp in the Philippines during World War II. Like most of the more than 2,100 others in the camp, she was malnourished and emaciated in the end.

Sister Mary Beata was one of 53 Maryknoll Missionary Sisters caught in the 1941 invasion of the Philippines after Pearl Harbor.

Most of the internees had to be carried out of the camp they were so weak.

Their liberation was possibly the most incredible airborne rescue behind enemy lines ever devised. It was initiated by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and recognized by all as miraculously maneuvered.

What gave my aunt the strength?

A clue lay in two Mass cards found in a small bag after her death in 2006 at nearly 105 years old.  

Sister Mary Beata was a woman who had no possessions and made it perfectly clear that she wanted nothing; when she was given anything, she just gave it away.  

She kept not a scrap or a photo. So, for her, to have saved these two Mass cards was significant.

One was of a Gothic church interior; the other was a hand-painted, simple watercolor of a makeshift chapel.

Rosaries, Eucharistic adoration, prayers for a heavenly redemption and the novena to Our Lady of Lourdes — all of these are part of the story of my aunt during some pretty harrowing days in a Japanese death trap in the Philippines.

Sister Mary Beata was a teacher and principal at Maryknoll Normal College. After December 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Maryknoll Sisters’ lives changed drastically.  They were imprisoned by the Japanese with other religious under house arrest, suffering countless deprivations. They were given asylum in Manila’s Assumption College. A cloistered life became the norm for these formerly active sisters, now with a gift of daily Eucharistic adoration.

The first prayer card kept by Sister Mary Beata had a photo of the church, labeled simply, “Assumption Chapel, 1942.”


‘Vatican City’

Then, in the summer of 1944, hundreds of priests, seminarians, sisters and clergy of all denominations were rounded up and transferred to the dreaded Japanese internment camp called Los Baños, across a 20-mile lake south of Manila.

Separated from the more than 1,500 lay internees, their part of the camp was dubbed “Vatican City,” while the lower half was jokingly called “Hell’s Half-Acre.”   

Daily, there were more than 130 Masses offered in the makeshift chapel.

A lay nurse, Dorothy Still Danner, remembered in a 1992 article in Navy Medicine magazine, “It looked like Christmas 1944 would be very gloomy, but a songfest by the priests and sisters livened things up. On Christmas Eve, they had a midnight Mass, and practically the whole camp turned out. It was the most spectacular Mass I’ve ever seen.”

The second prayer card in my aunt’s possession has the Scripture from Luke 21:28: “Lift up your heads: Behold, your redemption is at hand,” with a hand-drawn watercolor of an altar.  It is labeled “Los Baños Chapel, Christmas 1944.” On the other side of the card is printed the praise to the heavenly hosts to be recalled throughout the Christmas nocturnal adoration hours. My aunt wrote her name on the card: “Sister M. Beata.”

Prayers to the angels on high, lifting the head to the skies, looking expectantly for rescue from the Lord: hour upon hour, day after day and year after year.  Fighting against depression, all the sisters fought the enemy in the battlefield of the mind.

The internees were being systematically deprived of nourishment, especially after the Americans landed in the Philippines, and the war turned against the Japanese. Sister Mary Beata would joke that she was assigned to kitchen duty — this aunt who, the family laughed, couldn’t even boil water. But, she told us, it didn’t matter, because there was no food anyway.

All good humor was set aside, after seeing people reduced to eating grass. When Sister Mary Beata returned to her family, she asked for small portions on her plate. It would be against all that lay within her to be served more than she could eat and to see food go to waste.

Since October 1944, the American forces had landed in the Philippines and were fighting their way through each city, pushing the Japanese farther back.

At the Los Baños internee camp on Jan. 9, the Japanese guards suddenly abandoned their posts. The American flag was raised by the jubilant prisoners and all sang the national anthem, with tears streaming down their cheeks.

“It was a very emotional moment,” recalled nurse Danner. The internees were warned not to leave the camp, but to wait for the liberating forces to arrive for them. They found the storehouse full of rice and other food.

Living with hope for the first time in more than 38 months, they found out that this was a false reprieve.  For whatever reason, a week later, the Japanese guards returned.

The Japanese knew they were losing the war. Lt. Konishi reduced the already scant rations to a handful of unhulled rice and, finally, to nothing at all.

There was an older bishop among the clergy who was most mindful of the power of prayer. Bishop Constans Jurgens from the Netherlands instituted the novena to Our Lady of Lourdes beginning Feb. 3.

Importuning the Blessed Mother with continuous Rosaries, the Los Baños internees would live to hear that orders for their deliverance had been given on that very feast day, Feb. 11.  Bishop Jurgens was a man of hope who imparted that same grace to his flock. Even though no answer to prayers appeared to have arrived, the bishop and many religious were sure the Lord was listening.


And indeed he was.

The American forces had been given secret information about the daily routine of the Japanese guards by three selfless and brave inmates of Los Baños.  These men were able to escape through a hole in the fence, rendezvous with the Americans and the Filipino guerillas at night, and then sneak back into the camp undetected.

While most prison camps are liberated as the army slowly fights its way through enemy ranks, this camp was well behind the Japanese line. MacArthur knew that all the civilians were in danger of being annihilated any day. He could not risk the time. Immediate action was of the essence. The unit who rescued them was the Army’s 11th Airborne; the Recon Platoon, 1st Battalion of the 511 Parachute Infantry Regiment, with the help of the 45th Hunter Regiment of the Philippines Resistance Forces. 

The rescue was brilliantly executed in three ways simultaneously at 7am by:

— ground forces surrounding the camp;
— 54 amphibious vehicles ready to help ferry survivors across the huge lake; and
— paratroopers landing exactly at that same hour.

On Feb. 22, the air was tense, as Manila had fallen to the Americans. Three hundred Catholic priests, seminarians and sisters, as well as internees under Bishop Jurgens, realized that death by starvation (or worse) was imminent. The bishop thought to intensify the Rosary novena to Our Lady with three extra days of exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The adorations of the first day were assigned to the Maryknoll Sisters.

The second day of exposition came. There was no breakfast line that morning. Well-founded rumor had it that the usual roll call would end in the annihilation of all internees.

John Fulton of Kinnelon, N.J., a staff sergeant and radio operator, headed one of the six American ground forces and Filipino guerrillas surrounding the camp.

“We’d crept up all around the perimeter of the camp for three hours, waiting for the planes to appear,” he told me. “As soon as that chute opened up, we attacked the camp. The point is: We weren’t sure that the Japanese wouldn’t be right around the corner attacking us.”

Another Maryknoller, Sister Miriam Louise Kroeger from Missouri, recalled in The Los Baños Raid: The 11th Airborne Jumps at Dawn, by Lt. Gen. Edward Flanagan Jr., that Bishop Jurgens had just approached the altar when the heavy drone of planes was heard overhead.  “What a vision!” she said. “Our own American men dangling in midair from their parachutes, which had opened a few moments earlier.”

‘Your Redemption Is at Hand’
It all went off like clockwork. The Japanese were caught with their pants down, literally, in their skivvies for morning calisthenics, obviously unarmed.

A 1945 Maryknoll newsletter summed up the scene: “A rustling of wings overhead — a hundred angels, garbed in the uniform of U.S. paratroopers — dropped from the skies. Golden chariots — or were they amphibious tanks? — clanked into camp.”

Sister Maria del Rey Danforth, a Maryknoller originally from Pittsburgh, ducked under her bed, as many others did, the minute gunfire commenced.

“In the middle of it, the swinging doors on the front of the barracks swung open, and there was a huge American,” she wrote, as quoted in Flanagan’s book. “The expression on his face when he saw the place full of nuns! ‘Won’t my mother be proud when I tell her that I rescued the sisters,’ to which the sisters shouted back, ‘Welcome!’”

Fulton continued, “The people were so confused as to what to do. And a few of them were just adamant. It was amazing — they just simply did not want to leave their stuff there. So finally we had to set fire to the camp; we torched it. That encouraged them. But those were a distinct minority.  The great majority were blissfully happy to go.”

One small baby was carried out to the beach by a hulking soldier, a former football player, teased by his buddies along the way.

“It was the most heartwarming experience I think I ever had. Seeing all of those internees unload out of those amtracs, hugging together, talking and laughing,” Fulton said.

“But even more striking, I think, to most of us, were the gentleness and courtesy of the [U.S.] soldiers,” according to Jesuit Father George Willmann, quoted in the Flanagan book.  “They distributed their own small rations with lavish prodigality. They tumbled over each other to carry the stretcher cases. They offered helping hands to all with such kindness and sympathy that we could hardly believe these were tough, courageous troops in the midst of an operation that one veteran told me he considered the most hazardous in his experience.”

Maryknoll’s founder, Mother Mary Joseph, worried all during those war years for the safety of her sisters. Amazingly, all of the sisters did return. “The USA looks grand,” Sister Beata Mackie wrote to her father upon her arrival stateside.

Sister Mary Beata was sent back to the States in the first wave of those who needed medical care. Always self-effacing, she didn’t let on to her family that she was one of a handful who needed to stay longer at the motherhouse in Ossining, New York, in order to recuperate, lest they shock their parents by their wan appearances.

In researching the incredible rescue at Los Baños, I asked my aunt one question, “Did you walk or ride to the lake?”  

She never talked about her days in the internment camp unless asked a direct question. “I walked,” is all she said.

What gave her the strength?

“Lift up your heads: Behold, your redemption is at hand.”


Christine Snyder writes from Marlborough, Massachusetts.