OSSINING, N.Y. — The 60th anniversary of the end of World War II is being celebrated this year with commemorations of key events such as the liberation of Auschwitz, the planting of the American flag on Iwo Jima and the surrenders of Germany and Japan.
Until now, a daring rescue of more than 2,100 civilians and religious being held captive by Japanese forces in the Philippines has not received the attention other events have been given. The liberation of the Los Banos camp on Feb. 23, 1945, was overshadowed by the Iwo Jima flag-raising the same day.
The Los Banos internment camp was 45 miles behind enemy lines. Yet not one of the prisoners was lost in the three-pronged attack by U.S. and Filipino forces.
Among those interned were more than 50 Maryknoll sisters, four of whom are still living.
Members of the 11th Airborne who took part in the rescue have a reunion each year on the Saturday before the anniversary and have visited the surviving sisters at Maryknoll’s motherhouse in Ossining, N.Y., several times in recent years. About 50 people are expected at Forlini’s Restaurant in New York on Feb. 19, said Frank Forlini, the owner, who was a member of the 11th Airborne and attends St. John’s Church in Yonkers, N.Y.
Maryknoll Sister Mary McCormick, 90, recalled the events in an interview.
“I wasn’t looking up at the paratroopers because I was getting everything I possessed together so I could carry it on my shoulder,” she said. “It was a lovely experience. The American soldiers were healthy, fearless men.”
Before the war Maryknoll Sisters served as missionaries, teachers and hospital nurses. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese placed them and other religious under house arrest. 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 south of Manila. Separated from lay internees, their part of the camp was dubbed “Vatican City,” while the lower half was “Hell’s Half-Acre.” According to retired Army Lt. Gen. Edward Flanagan Jr., writing in the 1986 book The Los Banos Raid: The 11th Airborne Jumps at Dawn, there were more than 140 priests with as many Masses offered daily in the makeshift chapel.
But the lives of the prisoners did take a serious turn after Gen. Douglas MacArthur made good on his vow to return to the Philippines in 1944. Under the direction of Los Banos’ sadistic second-in-command, Sadaaki Konishi, inmates’ rations were now eliminated, reducing the internees to eating weeds. Early in 1945, MacArthur alerted the 11th Airborne of imminent danger for the civilian internees. On Feb. 21, a coded message was sent: “Have received reliable information that Japs have Los Banos scheduled for massacre.”
Novena and Eucharist
Meanwhile, an older Dutch bishop, Constans Jurgens, asked that the Catholics in the camp make a public novena to Our Lady of Lourdes, hoping for a rescue.
Behind the scenes the American forces were given secret information about the daily routine of the Japanese guards by three inmates of Los Banos. These men were able to escape through a hole in the fence, rendezvous with the Americans and the Filipino guerillas at night, then sneak back into the camp undetected.
At 7 a.m. on Feb. 23, with U.S. ground forces and Filipino guerrillas surrounding the camp, paratroopers of the 11th Airborne started falling from the sky as amphibious vehicles got ready to help ferry survivors across 15-mile-wide Laguna de Bay lake.
The day before, it happened that Bishop Jurgens had exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and public recitation of the rosary said throughout the day. As quoted in the Flanagan book, Maryknoll Sister Miriam Louise Kroeger, from Missouri, recalled: “On the second day of exposition, Bishop Jurgens had just approached the altar when the heavy drone of planes was heard overhead. … What a vision! Our own American men dangling in midair from their parachutes, which had opened a few moments earlier.”
The Japanese — in their skivvies for morning calisthenics — were unarmed.
“We’d crept up all around the perimeter of the camp for three hours waiting for the planes to appear,” John Fulton of Kinnelon, N.J., a staff sergeant heading up the American ground forces and Filipino guerrillas, told the Register. “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.”
One hulking American soldier was said to have burst into the Maryknoll Sisters’ barracks with quite an 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!” he exclaimed.
The detainees were bewildered and jubilant, but they had to be encouraged to leave quickly, so the soldiers began torching the barracks. “That encouraged them,” Fulton recalled.
Most internees weighed less than 100 pounds. Many were so weak they had to be driven the two miles to the beach on the 54 amphibious tractors, or amtracs.
“It was the most heartwarming experience I think I ever had,” Fulton said. “Seeing all of those internees unload out of those amtracs, hugging together, talking and laughing.”
Jesuit Father George Willmann, an internee, wrote that the GIs had “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 Rogers, worried all during the war for the safety of her sisters. Amazingly all the sisters did return.
“The U.S.A. looks grand,” Maryknoll Sister Beata Mackie, who turns 104 next month, wrote to her father upon her arrival stateside.
The story doesn’t end there, though. The cruel Japanese second-in-command, Konishi, was captured and tried for his war crimes. While awaiting execution, he had a change of heart and was instructed in the Catholic faith by an American priest.
Father John Wallace wrote about Konishi: “His embracing the Catholic faith was genuine and sincere. He told me that he had been impressed by the example of Catholic sisters and priests whom he had encountered during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.”
When read the account recently of Konishi’s conversion, Sister Mary McCormick teared up, grateful that the Christian witness of the internees had borne fruit.
Christine A. Snyder writes from