FRANKEL-Y SPEAKING ABOUT WORLD WAR II IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC by Stanley A. Frankel
CHAPTER 13 - THE RESCUE OF BILIBID PRISON
In a few native canoes and over a flimsy bridge constructed by GIs who were riflemen, not engineers, the 148th Infantry Regiment crossed the Tulihan River, the last water barrier before Manila, at dusk on the fifth of February 1945. The first foot troops entered the city in the evening as Captain Sidney Goodkin and Captain Lawrence H. Homan led their Companies F and E, respectively, down Rizal Avenue. Cheering crowds with flashlights, lanterns and burning candles broke the terrible tension of the men, a tension engendered by a grueling 150 mile march from Lingayen and those sporadic, bloody little scraps with the bewildered fragments of a withdrawing Nip army. The cheers and kisses and free drinks, and loud Veek- torie, Joe, and the apparent absence of the enemy compensated for the dust, the blisters, the aches and the sunburn. The liberation of Bilibid Prison was the highlight of the first night and ensuing day.
The liberation of Bilibid Prison itself was prosaic and undramatic. An advance element of the regiment entered the prison and found 1200 of their fellow- citizens. The rescue was accomplished in the face of an intelligence report that the Japanese had an ammunition dump at Bilibid which they planned to blow up when the American soldiers arrived. Here are the details: That first night, the troops, in route column, had moved about three miles into Manila. As they approached the corner of Espana and Rizal, the lead scouts of Company F were fired on by a Japanese machine gun in a well constructed pillbox that dominated the street. These were the real opening shots in the bitter battle for Manila, and they temporarily stopped the advance. The number of Japanese was unknown as were their intentions. Our supporting weapons wouldnt be up for a day and time was not short, yet. Japanese riflemen began potting at the troops, now sitting along the street on the curb, as the ecstatic crowds brought them water, rum, eggs, cigars, and open hearts.
Goodkin, who had won the Distinguished Service Cross for leading his cited- by- the- President company against the Japanese on Bougainville, sent his third platoon to the left, to bypass the Japanese resistance and to find out what the hell there was on his exposed left flank. When they hadnt reported back after an hour, he became worried and wanted to go out by himself looking for them, but Colonel Radcliffe told him to keep his combat boots on and to dispatch a patrol instead. Goodkin picked Technical Sergeant Rayford Anderson of the second platoon and nine men. Anderson, whose wrinkled face and bald head belied his twentysix years-- he was a dead- ringer for Ernie Pyle-- was briefed and started out with his men. His mission: to locate the platoon, presumed lost.
He skirted the machine gun cleverly. He had learned both caution and small unit tactics in the jungles of New Georgia and Bougainville; street fighting was similar. He advanced a half mile on the left flank and still couldnt locate his objective. He queried numerous Filipinos who told him everything else except where his buddies were. They told him about the damn Japanese, about their three year vigil, and about their love for the Americans. Anderson looked at his nine men and wondered how many would survive the patrol. He wasnt sent out to win a Medal of Honor, just to locate thirty men. He thought of returning with this information, but asked his men what they thought and they unenthusiastically voted to keep trying to find the platoon.
Indian- fashion, the ten men kept close to the buildings, followed the shadows, and moved toward Bilibid. They finally reached a position opposite the main entrance of the large prison and didnt like the silence or the absence of cheering crowds . . . presaged bad things to come. As they slowly approached the prison gate, they noticed two Japanese sentries lolling about, talking monkey- fashion, probably asking each other where was the Japanese airforce, where was the Japanese navy, where was General Yamashita and when were they going to be rotated. Ten men drew ten beads and, on Andersons command, fired. Two of our little yellow brothers were rotated to Shinto Heaven. The firing awakened a Japanese machine gunner up ahead whom Anderson couldnt locate, and who evidently couldnt locate Anderson, for the gun fired straight down the middle of the street, hitting only a few lamp posts.
Anderson figured that the other way around the prison was now more inviting, and he again asked the men whether they wanted to continue. None of them was so damn keen about this exploration, but they felt morally obliged to keep on until their mission was accomplished. As Anderson remarked, We didnt want to be chicken.
The patrol backed up a little, went to the rear of the prison. Anderson noticed a side door and he told Staff Sergeant John Smith, his second in command, to take Private First Class Ray Henry (a company clerk who had gotten bored with paper work) and Private First Class Joseph M. Dilks, and form a covering force around the door while he and the six remaining men forced an entrance. Sergeant Billy Fox, winner of the Silver Star and Purple Heart for Bougainville, was ordered to open the door gently. Gently didnt do the trick and Fox drawled that he might as well shoot the goddamn thing. So without asking questions, he pumped two M1 shots into the lock and smashed the door open with the butt of his rifle. He popped inside ahead of the rest and the other six followed him cautiously. The seven men found themselves in a large storage room, running about 200 yards alongside the prison, separated from the prison by a thick wall. A bit of reconnoitering and the GIs found only darkness, one big rat and the uncovered dung of the Japanese sentry (probably), which reassured them that this was the same filthy animal whom they had burnt out of the jungles.
The wall of the corridor separating it from the prison was made of stone and had barred windows, rather low, spaced about ten yards apart. There was also a gate which was locked and couldnt be budged. The windows were boarded up so that no one in the corridor could look into the prison. Anderson told Private First Class Donald Ammon, to pry a board loose from the window and Ammon took out his bayonet and began prying quietly. The prying didnt do much so Ammon, muttering to himself about the sonofabitch better give, pried not so quietly, and he was able to pull a board back so that a man could look through and see five yards in either direction. The left and right five yards revealed nothing. Anderson peered further into the prison and saw an open courtyard in the center of which were fifty people huddled together. They were conspicuously silent; Anderson learned later that they feared these rescuers were really Japanese who had returned to finish them off.
Private First Class Robert Cernoch and Private First Class Marvin Fraikes (killed two months later at Baguio) called out loudly for someone to let them in. The fifty people didnt move and as the men could see more clearly, they were certain now that these 50 people were white. The whole patrol then tried to persuade someone to open the gate and Private First Class John Lamb even sang out a few bars of God Bless America, but to no avail. The people inside could make out only the silhouette of these jabbering men, and they didnt know about the new American helmet. They expected World War I models, and they had concluded that this was just a ruse used by the Japanese to gain entrance.
Fox thought of this, had the men remove their helmets, told them to stop squawking and began to talk quietly and earnestly to the people inside. Sergeant Smith tossed some Philip Morris cigarettes into the courtyard, and one brave old man moved forward, picked up the cigarette, stared anxiously and fearfully into the faces ten yards from him and then hollered, By Jesus, its the Yanks! The others closed in, took a few skeptical looks, then began laughing and cheering, and finally opened the gates. The American internees deluged the men with sobs, hugs and a multitude of questions, but the breathtaking occasion didnt make Anderson neglect self- preservation. He told Private Ammon to go like hell back to Goodkin with full details and to ask for further instructions. Meanwhile, the rest of them would stay at Bilibid.
Ammon reached Goodkin and Lieutenant Colonel Radcliffe, told his story, and Radcliffe immediately started his troops moving forward. The machine gun obstacle had been cleared, and Radcliffe had planned to keep his lines right there. Now, he was extending those lines to include the prison proper, so that the people inside would be under full protection of the American troops.
The battalion moved in and around the prison, relieved the patrol and discovered there were over 1200 military prisoners and civilian internees waiting desperately for the Americans. The full Japanese garrison had pulled out early that morning, warning the prisoners they would soon be back when the Japanese counterattacked and annihilated General MacArthurs bastards. The military prisoners were in pitiable condition; almost 200 of them were in the dingy hospital, many without arms, without legs, all without an ounce of surplus flesh. The civilian prisoners were lean also, but they were in much better nourished physical condition than the military, a premeditated Japanese policy.
Colonel Radcliffe talked to some of the leaders, pieced their stories together and called back to Regimental Headquarters by the phone which had followed him up the line. He told Colonel White, Weve got a city of white people on our hands. Please send us food, trucks to get them out of here and medical supplies and doctors. Food, medical supplies and doctors were sent and more came the next day, but the present motorized equipment of the 148th flying columns were three jeeps, one ambulance and a few caribou carts. The foot bridge over the Tulihan had served the infantry well, but the motorized columns had to wait for the overworked engineers and their Bailey bridges.
Anderson told his Company Executive Officer, First Lieutenant Oliver Draine, holder of two Silver Stars from New Georgia and Bougainville, That 125 mile march down from Lingayen was awful tough, but by God, lieutenant, the look on the faces of these people paid me back for every damn blister. Ill never forget that look in their eyes. Did you locate the lost platoon? They had.
The second phase of Bilibids liberation, just getting out the 1200 American prisoners, was more ticklish, though also without much danger.
The prisons southern extremity was within 200 yards of the Pasig River. The Japanese across the Pasig River, in great strength (15,000 soldiers and sailors), had begun their demolition tactics on the fourth of February. The heart of Manila was going up in flames and explosions. Japanese rearguard troops on the American side of the Pasig slowed our troops, and blown bridges delayed the supporting armor and equipment. On the next day, with the Japanese torching gasoline drums and blowing up buildings as fast as their little brown hands could push detonating buttons, the situation darkened. The fires, fanned by a strong wind, began to jump the Pasig at a point near the prison. Great amounts of debris started dropping onto the prison grounds, thrown up by the explosions across the river, and several of the leaders of the prisoners excitedly informed Colonel Radcliffe that a Japanese storehouse of ammunition and fuel, located near the prison would probably be set off by the Japanese if the flames did not blow up the dump first. Higher headquarters were notified of the imminent danger.
At 6: 00 P. M., General Charles Craig, Assistant Division Commander of the 37th Division, came down to inspect the predicament. He quickly grasped the growing hazards and possible consequences to those now at the prison. He ordered Colonel White to begin evacuating the prisoners and he promised that he would dig up trucks for those unable to walk. He returned to Division Headquarters where he began to work his magic. Every unit within driving radius was summoned, and he was told that enough transportation would get to Bilibid . . . given enough time. However, the fire and the Japanese ammunition dump might be a bit reluctant to wait for the trucks.
Colonel White detailed three of his staff to supervise the evacuation and arrange the details. In charge was Lieutenant Colonel Delbert E. Schultz, Major John J. Gallen, the regimental surgeon, and the adjutant. Colonel Radcliffe was responsible for the overall security of the evacuation, and he deployed his battalion around the prison in blunt disregard of the dangers of Japanese and flames. Hundreds of Japanese, caught in their own handiwork, were being driven back toward our lines and in the direction of Bilibid. Their scorched pants didnt cool their fanaticism, and they fought bitterly, if in vain. Radcliffe was unable to spare personnel to help in the evacuation since his lines were already thin.
Colonel Schultz and his two assistants, together with a motley assortment of trucks, medical aid men, litter bearers, clerks, communications personnel and any strays who were not committed to the fighting arrived at Bilibid at 7: 00 P. M. The trucks now on hand would haul about 100 ambulance cases. At least three times as many were required. The flames began licking at the gasoline storehouse on Ascarraga Street, immediately south of Bilibid, and the rescuers were frantically organizing a speedy system of evacuation. Colonel Schultz divided the internees into the walking and non- walking, being assisted by Doc Gallen, who had to be ruthless in his sorting. All who could walk, must walk. The adjutant was detailed to organize the evacuation of the 300 non- walking cases, and he tore his already sparse hair trying to figure out how to get the hospitalized onto the waiting trucks. Utilizing Filipino sightseers, the strong walking internees with more guts than muscle, truck drivers, litter bearers, and even a platoon of infantry from Colonel Radcliffes hard pressed men, he got the loading underway.
The walking internees, once oriented and shoved, began moving fast up Rizal Avenue. Crowds cheered these men, women and kids; snipers took a few shots at them. Driven inexorably by crimson faced Colonel Schultz, the nine hundred walking prisoners toddled slowly toward safety. The litter cases were still being carried carefully through the one small doorway and loaded exasperatingly slowly. There werent enough litter bearers and the patients didnt seem to realize the urgency. They bitterly resented being hurried. One woman insisted on taking her mattress with her and wouldnt leave without it. Another old man who tottered pitiably, refused to be assisted, saying he walked into the prison, and he would, by God, walk out. Their spirit was inspiring, but it was hard on the blood pressure of the American troops. Trucks finally began to roll in from all units, and the 1st Cavalry Division radioed that it was sending a large fleet of six- by- sixes.
In the meantime, the Second Battalion was engaging in a dozen little fire fights as Japanese would pop up inside buildings, behind our own emplacements and from nearby sewers. The Japanese were a heterogeneous, ragged, confused crew, but they died hard. The infantrymen sensed the greater danger of the oncoming fires and took on the Japanese in a business- like, casual manner. Not one GI was panicked by the potential destruction advancing toward them. They realized that they were holding the line to protect 1200 men, women and children. It would have been senseless to maintain this front otherwise. Now, it was unthinkable to do anything else.
Company E had an observation post in a small tower in the middle of the prison. The soldier at his post spotted Japanese movements and using a sound power phone, called down locations to a mortar crew who kept a barrage of 60 millimeter mortar shells dropping on unwary enemy in any group larger than one. At 10 P. M., the observer in the tower was located by the Japanese, and they directed devastating machine gun fire at the tower. The observer was badly hit, and he called out on his phone that they had got him. Private First Class Elmer Russell, an aid man, and impish- looking Chaplain Elmer Heindl, didnt wait to volunteer but just started up the wooden stairs to the tower.
Another long burst of machine gun fire ripped the tower and the wounded man was hit again. He had only a few minutes to live. Russell and Heindl ran into the tower and began aiding the dying soldier, Russell binding his wounds and the chaplain giving him last rites. Russell lit his flashlight for an instant to determine where the man was hit most severely, and when the light was flashed on, the Japanese again opened up but miraculously missed the three men. When the observer died, the Chaplain and the aid man carried his body down the steps to the prison yard. For this heroism, both men received the Distinguished Service Cross, Russells arriving posthumously since he was killed a week later while engaged in a similar mission.
Two- and one half hours later more trucks arrived, and the truck drivers were mobilized as litter bearers. The desperate speed with which all of the litter bearers now worked was inspired by their desire to get the job done and get the hell out of there. The last 100 patients were finally loaded and an inspection was made of the hospital to make sure none had been overlooked. Satisfied, the adjutant plopped himself on the front end of a jeep and led the convoy up Rizal Avenue. Crouching low and emulating a radiator cap statue, he proceeded by Rizal, acknowledging neither the wild bullets nor the wild cheers.
The trucks were still pouring in, and they now (like Fifth Avenue buses) began to pick up the walking internees. In another half hour, all of the civilians had been entrucked and were on their way to safety. Only then did the GIs begin to grumble; Colonel Schultz was a bit uneasy himself. He made a flying trip around the prison and found only soldiers with long faces. He had several of the empty trucks back up against the warehouse behind the prison to pick up cots and foot lockers belonging to the prisoners, a bit of foresight which endeared him to the internees but which met with little acclamation from the impatient GIs. Finally, when the cracking of gasoline drums and exploding of small arms ammunition warned the group that it was past time to depart, Colonel Schultz ordered the troops to withdraw, which they did in a hasty though orderly manner. As the rearguard pulled out, the Japanese riflemen and snipers fired wildly at the withdrawing targets, but the G. I. s escaped with only a few minor casualties.
Satisfied that none remained between him and the Pasig except Japanese with hot britches, Colonel Schultz got into his jeep and told his driver, Whitey Henderson to take off. A couple of farewell shots zipped by the windshield, one bullet knicking the rear vision mirror, but Schultz, in a final measure of disdain, turned around, thumbed his nose at the prison area and then asked Henderson if he were driving a carabou cart or an automobile and to step on it.
The internees were deposited at a shoe factory six miles away from the prison, and they were feted with K rations and eager listeners. The wind changed later on and the fire didnt engulf the prison as expected. Only a small section of the northern part was singed, and contrary to reports, no ammunition dumps were discovered.
Two days later, when the fire had completely subsided and the prison was safely behind our lines instead of in the middle of them, the internees were taken back there to await transportation to the United States. In a few more days, the first of many prisoners said goodbye to Bilibid for the second and last time and were homeward bound.
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Second Edition Dec. 1, 1994