“I doubt that any airborne unit in the world will ever be able to rival the Los Baños prison raid. It is the textbook airborne operation for all ages and all armies.” ― General Colin Powell, former chairman, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff
75 years ago two incredible events occurred thousands of miles across the vast Pacific Ocean. The first took place at around noon six United States Marines raised a second, larger American flag atop Mount Suribachi, a moment that was captured in an iconic photograph by Associated Press (AP) photographer Joe Rosenthal. When AP Photograph Editor John Bodkin received the photo on Guam he exclaimed "Here's one for all time!" and immediately transmitted the image to the AP headquarters in New York City. It became one of the most recognized images from the war, indeed in American history.
The prominence of Rosenthal's photo in the press overshadowed, then and now, the accomplishment of another group of fighting men who risked it all to to rescue over 2,100 men, women and children from behind enemy lines over 1,500 miles southwest of Iwo Jima. Theirs was the second incredible event that took place on February 23, 1945 and it is as inspiring as it is impressive.
When Imperial Japanese forces invaded the Philippines in December of 1941 it began a brutal occupation of the archipelago that lasted until 1945 and the Filipino people suffered tremendously at the hands of the invaders during those years. An estimated 500,000 Filipinos were killed before the occupation was broken by Allied forces, with the cooperation of local guerrilla groups, in September of 1945.
One of the main forces battling for the liberation of Luzon in early 1945 was America's 11th Airborne Division, a unique fighting force that landed a portion of their TOE amphibiously at Nasugbu on January 31 and then the remainder on Tagaytay Ridge just south of Manila on February 3. Known as The Angels, the 11th Airborne fought up through southern Manila, breaking through the famous Genko Line, and went on to liberate Nichols Field, Fort William Mckinley, Intramuros, Cavite and several other "battlefields" in vicious engagements and close-quarters fighting that have received far too little attention from historians and both the American and Filipino peoples as a whole (which is one of the main reasons I wrote my highly-acclaimed book, "When Angels Fall: The 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II - Amazon $14.95).
In the midst of all the heavy fighting, the Angels were given another mission, or at least a directive, from General Douglas MacArthur himself who was growing increasingly concerned about the welfare of tens of thousands of POWs and interned civilians on Luzon. With the U.S. Sixth Army pushing southward from the Lingayen Gulf and Eighth Army (i.e the 11th Airborne Division) pressing north from Nasugbu, and after the massacre of 150 Allied POWs on Palawan, the consensus was that the Japanese appeared more ready to kill their prisoners than allow them to be rescued (a fear that was later confirmed with a discovered order from Japan’s Vice-minister of war LTG Kyoji Tominaga).
In his autobiographical book Reminiscences MacArthur noted: “I hoped to proceed as rapidly as possible, especially as time was an element connected with the release of our prisoners.… I knew that many of these half-starved and ill-treated people would die unless we rescued them promptly.”