Drama is plentiful in WWII camp escape story


Sometimes, people find themselves thrown together and have to try to make the best of a bad situation.

Such was the case in the true story told in "Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II," a 300-page account published in 2015 by William Morrow press and written by Menlo Park resident Bruce Henderson.

It's the story of a group of American civilians captured and imprisoned on the Philippine island of Luzon in 1942 by the invading forces of Imperial Japan. Their treatment by their captors ranged from neglectful to cruel to inhumane.

At their first internment camp in Santo Tomas, one prisoner set up housekeeping for himself, complete with a refrigerator he sneaked in and that he shared with some 40 other prisoners. He met a woman prisoner at a basketball game, ran into her again while in line for a sliver of soap, and invited her to his place for dinner. They fell in love and their story, and others, wind through the rest of the narrative.

Neglect by captors was common practice, Mr. Henderson told the Almanac. "Quite simply, the captors didn't want to be bothered with cooking their prisoners' food, keeping the sanitation system running, burying the trash, etc.," he said. "Thankfully, Americans are organizers by nature."

The prisoners established rules requiring everyone to work several hours a day for the benefit of the whole, according to Mr. Henderson. The captive population included a cross section of talent that fit the situation. There were engineers, carpenters and plumbers, businessmen and cooks. There were bankers, lawyers, judges, nurses and a surgeon.

The mix was one that could be found in just about any American small town, Mr. Henderson said. People without valued skills or trades could fulfill their obligations with other work, such as planting or weeding in the garden.

At the second camp at Los Banos, things took a dark turn toward malnutrition and increasing vulnerability to the region's tropical diseases. An inattentive camp commandant who occupied himself with potting geraniums and painting watercolors created a vacuum for a subordinate to step in and institute privations, according to the book.

The subordinate cut rations, then cut them again specifically for babies and children, forbade locals from selling food to prisoners, and required prisoners to bow in the proper fashion -- from the waist with the back stiff -- or be slapped hard across the face, an act of "ultimate disdain," according to the book.

There were heroes among the captives. Three men eventually escaped, knowing the risks of doing so, and contacted U.S. forces with information about the camp and the forces guarding it; they then returned with liberating U.S. forces. "(They) could have kept running right into the mountains to save themselves. But they didn't," Mr. Henderson said.

A military commission convicted the subordinate who ran the camp on charges that included ordering a prisoner's death, allowing Japanese soldiers to kill civilians, and aiding and abetting policies that caused the death by starvation of prisoners.

"At Los Banos, the situation involved the purposeful withholding of food, which caused more than 2,000 people to suffer mightily and unnecessarily, with many starving to death before they could be rescued," Mr. Henderson said.

He wrote the book in eight months after a year of research, including visits to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and a U.S. Army historical archive. The accounts in the book are based on oral histories, written communications, personal memoirs and archival materials, he said.

What attracted him was the absence of stories about American civilians in war zones during World War II, he said. "It showed people in the face of danger and adversity while in a position of weakness displaying great courage and self-sacrifice for the greater good," he said.

Mr. Henderson served in the U.S. Navy on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, and is the author of more than 20 nonfiction books, including two bestsellers. His work includes "Down to the Sea: An Epic Story of Naval Disaster and Heroism in World War II," and "Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War."

Mr. Henderson has taught writing and reporting at the University of Southern California and at Stanford University, and his writing has appeared in Esquire and Playboy.

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