James Hill, a former senior editor for The Washington Post News Media Services, now resides in the Phoenix area.
By Bruce Henderson
Morrow. 366 pp. $27.99
Sometimes a footnote reveals itself to be fascinating history. And a footnote is what the U.S.-led mission to rescue civilian captives at a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in the Philippines has largely been, ever since the daring raid was undertaken near the end of World War II and the more than 2,000 internees — men, women and children — were all liberated at the cost of two American lives.
Such an operation, were it to happen today against, say, the Islamic State, would no doubt lead the news for days, even weeks. Yet as Bruce Henderson notes in his riveting “Rescue at Los Banos,” accounts of the raid hardly registered as a blip then (U.S. forces were landing on Iwo Jima at the same time). The lack of media attention doesn’t mean a story was not there, and Henderson puts it together in a way that allows readers to be both shocked by the outlandish conditions that POWs had to endure and appreciative of the bravery and ingenuity of that generation we have come to call the greatest.
Henderson builds his narrative by getting deep into the lives of several participants — nurses, a radio technician and the woman he came to love, the camp physician, along with a host of military figures — and telling the story through their experiences of captivity or via the demanding training regimen that led to the internees’ liberation and, eventually, victory in the Pacific.
Heroes all. But the thing that comes through most clearly is how a military made up largely of average Joes could mount an effort to free starving captives and then return to its day job, which was to fight until the Allies had won the war.
At the time of the raid, the battle for Manila was still raging. Japanese forces were bloodied and desperate. Prisoners were dying from starvation. For such a mission to succeed, there was no room for error. Gen. Douglas MacArthur knew the stakes. If his forces couldn’t get to Los Banos soon, the POWs would not last. And so MacArthur made liberation a priority, and his forces pulled it off, using an airborne drop to liberate the camp and a fleet of amphibious vehicles to get the internees out and across a lake to safety. Henderson’s take on the run-up and then the actual assault is especially revealing.
“Rescue at Los Banos” opens our eyes to a little-noticed episode of amazing bravery and to military chutzpah in the midst of a greater war. Henderson has brought a footnote to life, and those of us who can’t get enough of World War II are richer for it.