When It Comes to Rescue Efforts, the Philippines Holds a Place in History

Stories of international cooperation, bravery, and nationalism
IMAGE Wikimedia Commons - LIFE Images / U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The rescue of the Thailand soccer team boys trapped in a cave has captured the imagination of people worldwide. The Philippines is no stranger to rescue missions, especially during times of natural disasters and war. these astounding moments of bravery and compassion have existed for centuries and some of the most documented rescue operations in the country were towards the end of World War II.

In the Philippines, internment and prison camps were witness to many of the war's horrors. These camps was where POWs, foreigners, and some Filipinos were kept by Japanese soldiers during the war for fear that they might collaborate with enemy governments or with resistance groups. One of the biggest internment camps was at the University of Sto. Tomas. Another one was in Los Baños, where some Americans from UST were transferred. Another camp was in Cabanatuan, where the survivors of the Bataan Death March were held under atrocious conditions.

The Sto. Tomas camp was liberated on February 11, 1945; over 3,700 internees were freed, 2,870 of whom were Americans. The internees had been kept there for three years, and over 600 were either killed or died from sickness or starvation.

The University of Santo Tomas internment camp the Philippines on the day it was liberated from Japanese control, in February 1945. This photo shows hundreds of freed prisoners cheering in front of the UST Main Building. IMAGE: Carl Mydans/LIFE Images (Wikimedia Commons

Despite living in makeshift shanties and cramped quarters inside the school grounds, their conditions at UST better compared to other camps. In the prison camp in Palawan, for example, 150 American soldiers were rounded and herded into air raid shelters, which were then doused with airplane fuel and set on fire. Those who tried to escape their fiery cages were machine-gunned, bayoneted, or clubbed. Only 11 fortunate soldiers managed to escape.

The Cabanatuan camp was called the “Zero Ward,” because they prisoners that there was zero percent chance of getting out alive. The soldiers kept in this camp were afflicted with deadly diseases like dysentery and malaria. In a lesser known camp, in Los Baños, 2,147 Americans, British, Australians, Dutch, Norwegians, Poles, Italians, and Canadians were kept by an abusive Japanese officer, Sadaaki Konishi.

These internment and prison camps were also liberated, but not without sacrifice. The siege of the Santo Tomas camp waged for days, and ended the help of successful negotiations. The business of freeing the internees and POWs from the other camps was bloodier. These events were chronicled by books, documentaries, and movies. 

The Raid of Cabanatuan lasted for only thirty minutes, but the preparations for this rescue mission had been grueling. After the massacre at Palawan, the American forces feared that more of their soldiers would be heartlessly disposed of the same way. They asked the help of the USAFFE guerillas, lead by Captain Juan Pajota, a native of Nueva Ecija. The young captain ordered his men to gather information about where the prisoners were being kept, enemy movements, as well as gain the trust of the people who lived in the nearby barrios.

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This sketch by artist Benjamin Charles Steele depicts the conditions inside the prison camp in Cabanatuan. IMAGE: Benjamin Charles Steele (Library of Congress/ Wikimedia Commons)

Together with his men, Captain Pajota met with 127 Alamo Scouts from the U.S. Army's 6th Ranger Battalion and they sneaked towards the camp. Slowly but very surely, they made their way into enemy lines, using back roads and hiding in the houses of the villagers. It was also Pajota’s idea to muzzle the village dogs with bamboo strips so they won’t bark at the passing soldiers. This could have alerted the Japanese soldiers in the camp that strangers were approaching. Finally, on January 30, 1945, they were at striking distance.

The plan was to distract the Japanese with some US planes, which was a suggestion of Pajota. Then two teams of American rangers infiltrated the camp from two strategic directions. Another problem awaited them. Around 8,000 Japanese soldiers were stationed nearby the camp, just on the other side of the river. Pajota and the guerillas volunteered to hold them off while the Americans brought the prisoners out.


They tried to blow the bridge with some explosives and while it got damaged so that no tanks could cross, the Japanese could still attack them by foot. Still, Pajota and his men were able to hold off as many Japanese soldiers as they could while the team of rangers rescued 513 prisoners of war who were too weak and too thin to walk. Rangers could carry as many as two men on their backs, given the prisoners’ weight. At the end of the fighting, 21 Filipinos were wounded and four Americans were killed, while 523 Japanese soldiers were killed or wounded.

At the meetup point, Pajota prepared their escape transports26 wooden carts that were pulled by carabaos, which were owned by locals. Villagers in the roads they passed generously volunteered their own carts and by the end of the journey, as many as 106 carts were being used.  

This extraordinary feat was written about in newspapers and books, such Hampton Sides’ Ghost Soldiers and William B. Breuer’s The Great Raid on Cabanatuan. Directors even made movies about the rescue, the most recent of which was the 2005 film entitled The Great Raid directed by John Dahl. It starred James Franco as Captain Robert Prince and Cesar Montano as Captain Juan Pajota. As expected of Hollywood films, this story is told from the American point of view. Though it acknowledges the role of the Filipino guerillas, it paints the US rangers as the saviors of the prisoners.

American prisoners of war, liberated from the Cabanatuan prison camp wait in an emergency hospital. IMAGE: War Department. Army War College. Historical Section. World War I Branch. ca. 1918 -ca. 1948 (Wikimedia Commons)

Aside from the rescue at Cabanatuan, the raid in Los Baños also captured the imagination of Western writers, including New York Times bestselling author Bruce Henderson. In his book, Rescue at Los Baños: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II, he tells the story of both rescuers and internees. It's a story that seems to have been made for Hollywood, especially considering that it's the world’s largest civilian internee rescue in modern military history. It trumps the number of rescued people from UST and Cabanatuan since 2,122 to 2,147 allied civilians were among the liberated internees in Los Baños.

This mission was the joint effort of several groups, including the US Army’s 11th Airborne Division, Bolomen Guerrillas, Markings Guerrillas, the Hukbalahap resistance, the Chinese Wha-Chi guerrillas and more. Col. Honorio K. Guerrero was the Unified Ground Commander who led the Hunters-ROTC guerilla forces that joined in liberating the camp.

The mission had four phases that involved a coordinated attack on land, sea, and air on that fateful day in February 1945. From dawn until about three in the afternoon, the raid and rescue ensued. Among the liberated internees were a three-day-old baby girl named Lois Kathleen McCoy, and the last surviving American veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, who had been captured as a civilian in Manila. The rescuers also urged the people in nearby villages to flee with them, but some did not heed this warning.


Here is an image that made its way out of the prison camp in Casisange, Malaybalay. This shows American POWs secretly celebrating the 4th of July. Discovery would have meant death. IMAGE: War Department. Army War College. Historical Section. World War I Branch. ca. 1918-ca. 1948 (Wikimedia Commons)

This success came at a price, however. When the hot-tempered Konishi learned about the escape of the prisoners, he took his anger out on the people who refused to evacuate. Upon his order, 1,500 men, women, and children were killed, and their homes burned. Even the townsfolk in nearby villages were massacred because they were suspected of collaborating with the rescuers. Konishi would later be caught, tried, and hanged for his war crimes.

Sadly, not many people remember the heroism of the soldiers and civilians involved in this story. And while Western writers and filmmakers made books and films out of these events, we're still waiting for a homegrown version that will put the spotlight on the heroes of that time. It may just be the reminder that we need of the Filipinos' inherent courage and patriotism.



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Nicai de Guzman
Nicai de Guzman is the Head of Marketing of Rising Tide, one of the fastest-growing mobile and digital advertising technology companies in the Philippines. She also writes for and
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