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Los Baños Internment Camp

 

 

John Montessa, the author of this article, was among the first group dispatched to build Los Baños in 1943.  The dramatic rescue of the prisoners by the 11th Airborne Division is still considered one of the best-planned actions of World War I, with a minimum of casualties to the U.S. forces.  Tragedy struck after the evacuation of the rescued prisoners when the Japanese returned to the town of Los Baños and massacred 1,500 civilians in retaliation for their assistance to the U.S. forces.

 

In the early months of 1943 the Japanese authorities in charge of the internment of American and Allied civilian nationals in the occupied Philippines were confronted with the problem of the ever increasing internee population in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp located in Manila. Their proposal was to create an additional camp on the acreage available at the University of the Philippines Agricultural College adjacent to the town of Los Baños in Laguna province on the shores of Laguna de Bay, a large lake in central Luzon.

 

Accordingly, on May 14, 1943 seven hundred and eighty-six single male internees and twelve U.S. Navy nurses were transported to the site. Arriving at the site, it was immediately apparent that the permanent pre-war buildings could house only the newly arrived seven hundred and ninety-six internees; and then, only in an extremely crowded condition.

 

Early on, the commandant put the internees to work, excavating the gradual slope in order to erect barracks. On the basis that there were insufficient rations to support hard manual labor, the internees’ governing committee protested. The Japanese finally relented and resorted to contracting with outside interests for both the excavations and barrack construction. From photos on file of the housing for military prisoners at Cabanatuan, the construction was similar except that the civilian camp’s barracks had cubicles for two persons each. Thus, the Japanese did make some distinction as between civilian and military POWs. 

 

Before the barracks were ready for occupancy, on December 10, 1943 an additional two hundred and seven internees from Santo Tomas arrived. Between that arrival and the next one, twenty-six barracks with adjoining toilet and washroom facilities were completed, after which, most of the permanent buildings were vacated and occupied by the Japanese garrison. Then, on April 7, 1944, five hundred and thirty men, women and children, again from Santo Tomas arrived. In December, 1944 the last transfer from Santo Tomas took place with the arrival of one hundred and fifty more. The total was now one thousand, six hundred and eighty-five POWs, not counting the religious contingent who were brought in as small groups during this last year. A final count of inmates upon liberation was 2,146.

 

As in Santo Tomas, the internees governed themselves through the Internee Committee, whose governance was subject to approval of the commandant. Teams of workers were assigned to the various details involved running the camp kitchen, collecting firewood, maintaining the truck garden, sanitation work, carpentry and plumbing, public works, etc.; the whole myriad of tasks that a small town of over two thousand would require. The wonder of it all was that it was accomplished with very few resources.

 

In 1944 the United States inflicted great losses upon the Japanese Empire. The effects were immediate upon the Los Baños camp. Extreme restrictions were placed upon movement within the perimeter, diminution of food rations resulted in malnutrition with consequent disease and death. Demoralization set in and lethargy prevailed. The last three weeks of February, 1945 saw the camp in actual starvation mode existing on approximately eight hundred calories per day.

 

Deliverance through an air assault by the 511th Airborne, a U.S. Army Pathfinder team and a guerilla force ultimately freed the 2,146 civilian POWs on the 23rd of February 1945. This exploit received little notice, being overshadowed that same day with the raising of the Stars and Stripes on Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima. However, the survivors have always held their rescuers in the highest regard.

 

 

                      


Amtracs head into the Laguna de Bay carrying the rescued prisoners

from Los Baños to safety at Multinlupa inside the U.S. lines.

 

     

     Freed Prisoners from Los Baños are served a meal by the Army at

the former U.S. Federal penitentiary at Multinlupa where

they were taken after their rescue.

 

 

 

Former prisoners plant a memorial tree at Los Baños to commemorate

the 60th anniversary of the liberation in 2005.

 

 

 

 

 

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