Japan was in an increasingly desperate situation as World War II in the Pacific theater entered the climactic years of 1945. On Feb. 19, the Marines landed on Iwo Jima and the struggle for that pork chop-shaped island of Japanese territory would result in an epic of Marine determination and valor. In the Philippines, Douglas MacArthur, recently promoted to the new rank of five-star general of the Army, and his troops were making good on his 1942 vow, “I shall return.”
Continuing his island-hopping strategy, MacArthur had advanced from the December 1944 landings at the central Philippine island of Leyte north to Mindoro Island, and then, in January 1945, to the northernmost island of Luzon.
At the Los Baños internment camp, events in Luzon were monitored with apprehension by the Japanese guards and with growing optimism by the internees. Los Baños, “the Baths,” so-named for the hot springs health spas built in the area, was located about 40 miles southeast of Manila near the southern shores of Laguna de Bay, a large freshwater lake. One of several camps in the Philippines housing internees and POWs, Los Baños contained about 2,130 prisoners from 15 nations, all civilian except for 12 U.S. Navy nurses. It was the second-largest camp of its kind in the Philippines.
Conditions at Los Baños, never good, had rapidly deteriorated as Japanese fortunes turned for the worst. Most importantly, food rations had been cut back to below subsistence levels. The Rev. William R. McCarthy, one of a number of Catholic clergy that included an order of nuns interned at the camp, later wrote, “The struggle for survival [during the last month of imprisonment] forced us to eat weeds, flowers, vines, salamanders, the pulpy insides of banana trees, and juicy black bugs. … Deaths mounted to two a day in January 1945.”
Though diary-keeping was forbidden by the Japanese guards, with the diarist suffering severe punishment if discovered, teenaged internee Margaret Whittaker secretly kept one, and a 1945 entry noted, “I weigh 83 pounds. … Another man died this a.m., two yesterday. … The gravediggers are working overtime. The Army must come soon.”
The Army was coming. MacArthur had made the rescue of POWs and internees one of the top priorities of his campaign in the Philippines. The 11th Airborne Division, the “Angels,” had been specifically tasked with the liberation of Los Baños. Commanding the 11th Airborne was Maj. Gen. Joseph M. Swing. Hollywood casting could not have come up with a better image of a general: handsome, tall, slender, prematurely white-haired, eagle-eyed, sharp-featured. Swing backed up this image with a brilliant and flexible mind. A graduate of the West Point Class of 1915, the famous “class the stars fell on,” Swing was a firm believer of the maxim, “Give a man a job and let him do it.” Those officers who met Swing’s expectations remained, those found wanting did not.
During the battle for Leyte, Swing had proved himself a flexible and exceptional commander who utilized innovative solutions and tactics to outflank and overwhelm the enemy. These traits, and the talents of his staff, were put to the test in planning the Los Baños raid. In January and February 1945, the 11th Airborne was part of the attack on the Japanese defensive Genko Line south of Manila. While the 11th Airborne was conducting operations against the Genko Line, part of its staff was developing plans for a battalion-sized liberation of Los Baños.
The plan they prepared was a three-pronged, “three-dimensional” assault, all scheduled to strike at dawn: on land by recon units supported by Philippine guerrillas positioned around the camp; from the air by a company-sized (approximately 125 men) parachute drop near the camp; and from the sea with the balance of the battalion crossing Laguna de Bay on Amtracs that would carry both the assault force and liberated internees back to American lines.
Though the rescue operation would involve only a battalion – and, as it turned out, a small one with less than 450 officers and men – coordinating a simultaneous land, sea, and air assault was, by definition, complex.