Bill Johnson – Philippines POW Rescue | World War II
Kids of my generation — maybe yours, too — should have been accustomed to growing up surrounded by heroes.
Any trip to the comic books store, any guitar lesson, any after-school detention, any spirited soccer practice, any average hello-and-smile from the dude with the cane who liked to watch the pigeons — we were mostly unaware of how many people in our communities had contributed to sustaining our country’s freedoms, had fought for liberty in places far from home.
Of course, any average family reunion would be full of those ex-soldiers, now fathers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins-such-and-such removed.
My Great-Uncle Bill Johnson was one of those. A genuine hero.
Bill was one of my grandma Erma (Johnson) Foutz’s younger brothers, born in November 1924, eighth in a family of 10 kids.
That Viola (Palmer) and Charles Johnson’s family had been unfairly decimated by tragedy in the 1930s — three brothers on either side of my grandma and Bill died in separate water-related accidents — may have made Bill’s enlistment when he was just out of his teens particularly harrowing for his parents. But then, it was duty. He went.
And returned to New Philadelphia as one of 140 men in the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment credited with rescuing 2,170 internees from a Japanese prison.
Airborne-Led Escape from Luzon, Philippines Prison
On Feb. 23, 1945, same day as the famous Iwo Jima flag-planting photograph on Mount Suribachi, Bill Johnson and 139 others parachuted 25 miles behind enemy lines. Their destination was Los Banos prison, where more than 2,000 POWs had been held the last 3.5 years.
According to an article in the Dover-New Philadelphia, Ohio Times-Reporter, it was the first time in military history that airborne parachute units rescued U.S. citizens behind enemy lines.
In early February 1945, Bill Johnson and his cousin Ken Weber, both of New Philadelphia, and Eugene Brady of Columbia were with U.S. troops as they assaulted Ft. McKinley outside Manila in the Philippines.
One night the units were recalled from that action and told they were to participate in the rescue operation. Johnson and Brady were two of the 140 parachutists who dropped at a low altitude from nine planes in effort to surprise the Japanese.
Weber was a sergeant in the communications section who drove an Amtrac that fateful night.
“We will always remember it as something good we did during the war,” Weber said. “Instead of killing people, we saved people. You cannot imagine the good feeling it gave us all.”
The surprised Japanese guarding the prisoners offered “minimal resistance,” according to Johnson and “were eliminated.” The most trouble came from the internees themselves.
Most were missionaries and businessmen, but not all were Americans and British. There were Australians, Canadians, Netherlanders, Norwegians, Polish, Italians, Nicaraguans and French. The non-Americans and “neutrals” believed the war was the Americans’ and not theirs.
“We were told the reason for the raid was that the prisoners were scheduled to be lined up and shot very soon,” Johnson said. “Later the prisoners told us the Japs had been getting more severe as they realized the Americans were getting closer.”
As Johnson and the other parachutists dropped, arms fire broke out, and most of the POWs headed for the barracks. “The non-Americans either refused to leave or spent valuable time searching for things to take with them,” he said.
The Americans knew speed was essential. Some 9,000 Japanese troops were in the hills nearby, and the evacuation had to be accomplished before they returned. There was very little allied air cover.
In order to get the evacuees moving, Johnson and other paratroopers — using only Zippo cigarette lighters in some cases — deliberately set fire to the barracks, which forced the allied prisoners back out on the parade grounds.
There they anxiously awaited the arrival of the 54 (Allied landing craft)… usually used to assault enemy beachheads. The prisoners were loaded onto the Amtracs and left the prison camp under enemy fire. Three trips back and forth had to be made.
The convoy sped through the middle of Lake Taal as the Japanese chased them from either shore. Four people wrote books about the rescue.
You can read the full account of the Philippines prison escape and see a picture of World War II veterans Bill Johnson and Ken Weber by checking out the Times-Reporter article (by Ed DeGraw, I’m grateful to add).
As for Uncle Bill, he returned home after the war and worked in manufacturing for 35 years. He enjoyed golf, and spending time with his large family — wife Jeanne; kids Rae Anne, Guy, Allan and April; and all the in-laws and grandkids attendant a long life of peace. He passed away in August 1995 at age 70.
For my part, I’ll remember Uncle Bill for the gruff, almost-Dirty-Harry-dry sense of humor characteristic of the final quote in DeGraw’s article.
Noting that Bill Johnson had brought back a Japanese .25-.25 carbine from the war, and Weber a Japanese sword, DeGraw noted that other than photographs, neither man had kept mementos from the historic raid.
“We didn’t have time,” on that day, Uncle Bill said, smiling, “to collect souvenirs.”