A true-life account of a spectacular World War II prison camp rescue

This scene captured most of the public attention about WWII in the Philippines. But what went on on the ground was far, far more consequential. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Early in 1945, as the Nazi regime began to crumble and American soldiers, marines, and sailors relentlessly pushed ever closer toward the Japanese home islands, two thousand civilian prisoners of war, mostly Americans, suffered indescribable deprivation at the hands of a sadistic prison camp commander, deep in a Philippine jungle. Their story — and that of their liberators — is brilliantly told in Bruce Henderson‘s Rescue at Los Baños. It’s a tale of courage and resourcefulness that illuminates one of the most revealing chapters in the history of World War II.

Rescue at Los Baños: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II by Bruce Henderson (2015) 389 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)

A disturbing account of an episode in a war so many ignore

As best I can tell, the overwhelming majority of books in English about World War II center on the conflict in Europe. This seems to be the case even though the war in the Pacific was more protracted — starting in 1937 rather than 1939 — and was arguably more consequential geopolitically than the European war. The map in Asia was massively changed, with three of the world’s most populous countries — China, India, and Indonesia — gaining their independence from European colonialists in the war’s aftermath.

Of course, it’s true that casualties were far lighter in the Pacific, perhaps totaling twenty to twenty-five million on all sides compared to as many as one hundred million or more in Europe. But there’s no denying the ferocity of the fighting between the Japanese and the Allies. Nor did Imperial Japan take a back seat to Nazi Germany in the fanaticism and cruelty of its fighting men. And that cruelty is reflected in high relief in Bruce Henderson’s terrific account of “the most daring prison camp raid of World War II.”

A military enterprise of staggering complexity

I’m not aware that any film has been produced about the Los Baños prison camp rescue. If so, it must have proven to be a monumental challenge to the producers and scriptwriters. Henderson’s story of the raid reveals it in all its staggering complexity, highlighting the role played by its planners in US Army intelligence. Still, Rescue at Los Baños reads much like a novel, featuring the experiences of a dozen key figures in the raid, including Army soldiers and paratroopers, prisoners, and Philippine guerrillas. This is a story of ordinary people rising to extraordinary heights of performance.

I have no idea whether the raid on Los Baños was indeed the most daring of World War II. But it was surely the most spectacular, involving near-simultaneous attacks by at least half a dozen different units coming at the camp from every conceivable angle. And it was spectacularly successful. Just three US combatants and two Philippine guerrillas died in the operation. The Japanese lost hundreds of soldiers to death or capture. There were “no civilian fatalities.”

The raid was spectacular. So, why wasn’t it famous?

Those Army intelligence planners couldn’t possibly have come up with a better subject for a book. It should not be surprising that, as the author discloses in the book’s appendix that lists the Dramatis Personae, “the Los Baños rescue mission became a legendary benchmark for military intelligence, planning, and execution of a raid behind enemy lines, and has been studied at military staff and command schools in the United States and elsewhere.”

So, why did the Los Baños prison camp rescue receive so little attention at the time? Henderson explains that it “was not a case of wartime censorship. For on February 23, 1945, the same day as the raid, a combat photographer named Joe Rosenthal snapped an image of five soon-to-be-famous U. S. Marines raising the Stars and Stripes atop Mount Suribachi at a place called Iwo Jima.”

For further reading

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Mal Warwick

Mal Warwick

Author, book reviewer, serial entrepreneur, board member

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