As dawn broke over the Los Banos Civilian “Internment” Camp at 7 a.m. on Feb. 23, 1945 (1 p.m. Feb. 22, 1945, U.S. Time) about 25 miles south of Manila in the Philippine Islands, it held 2,142 starving Allied civilians who were still alive, living on a diet of a bug-filled, watery rice mush, papaya tree roots, fried banana peels, slugs, rats, edible weeds, dogs and cats.
Unknown to us at the time, the trenches that had been dug by our guards were destined to be our graves, as all of us were scheduled to be executed that very morning. But it was not to be.
As I straggled out the door of our barracks to line up for 7 a.m. roll call, I looked up in the sky and saw several C-47 transport planes over a field adjoining the camp.
Suddenly, the sky filled with the men of B Company, 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division — our “angels” floating down as if from Heaven above in their white parachutes — coming to rescue us.
At the same time, the recon platoon, along with Filipino guerillas, began storming the guard posts, firing at the guards — most of whom were outside in their loincloths doing their early morning exercises.
I ran back into the barracks and dove under my bunk, but not before I grabbed a bowl of buggy, watery rice mush that my dad had prepared. I was so hungry that not even bullets going through our grass mat walls could keep me from that pitiful bowl of bug filled mush.
Soon, a big paratrooper came down our barracks hall shouting, “Grab only what you can carry and get out to the amphibious tractors. We have to get out of here before 10,000 Japs just over the hill find out what’s going on.”
We hurried out to board the AmTracs that had brought the rest of the 1st Battalion across the neighboring big lake, climbed aboard and were soon trundling down toward the lake, entered the water (they floated) and across it to U.S. Territory.
On that glorious day, all of us who were still alive were rescued. Not one of us was lost.
Thanks to the pilots and crews of the 65th Troop Carrier Squadron who dropped our “Angels,” the men of the 672nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion and the paratroopers of the 11th Airborne, I was able to have a wife, a son and daughter, nine grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
Had they not come, what remained of my body would be at the bottom of a former trench at the Agricultural College of the University of the Philippines at Los Banos, and I would not have had 78 more years of life.
Thanks be to God. I will never forget.
Robert A. Wheeler