Charles Sass is a former platoon sergeant with the 511th Paratrooper Regiment. He made three combat jumps on Luzon Island in the Philippines during World War II.
On Feb. 21, 1945 his unit jumped into Los Banos, a Japanese prison camp to liberate 2,300 POWs who were to be executed two days later. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of Allied forces in the Philippines, ordered the rescue attempt after receiving word of the prisoners’ fate.
“Our captain and Company B were appointed to lead a parachute assault on the camp located 35 miles south of Manila. We were to jump at sunup from 400 feet, hit the ground two second later, destroy the Japanese garrison and rescue the prisoners,” he recalled matter-of-factly.
“It was probably the most near-perfect airborne jump in history. We landed 100 yards from the perimeter fence. The first of our guys on the ground took out the guard towers with their BARs (Browning Automatic Rifles),” the Nokomis, Fla. resident said. “We caught almost all of the 240 Japanese camp guards doing calisthenics. Half of them escaped and the other half we killed or captured. What a piece of luck.”
Most of the prisoners were American, British or French civil servants and their families who had been rounded up by the Japanese when they invaded the Philippines almost three years earlier. All of them were starving, docile and confused.
Sass and the 120 paratroopers of Company B had a half hour to gather up the detainees, get them aboard amphibious vehicles and flee the area. A half-hour away by truck were 150,000 Japanese soldiers.
“If their radio communications hadn’t fallen apart when we landed the Japanese would have been there in the snap of a finger,” he said. The day before some 50 of our amphibious vehicle snuck across a nearby lake and waited until we jumped then they raced to the camp two miles inland. They ringed the inside of the compound like a bunch of Conestoga wagons.”
The prisoners had no idea who the paratroopers were. When they figured out they were there to rescue them, the starving civilians eagerly climbed aboard the amphibious vehicles for the ride across the lake to the safety of the American forces.
“They were taken to Bilibid Prison on the far shore. It had been turned into a hospital for the sick and the dying,” Sass recalled. “A dozen of us were told to stay behind as a rear guard until they came back and took us off. Trouble was they never came back,” he said.
Sass and his buddies made a two mile dash to the shore just as the last two amphibious landing craft were pulling away. As he and the other paratroopers climbed aboard, incoming fire from the Japanese on shore started hitting nearby as the amphibious craft pulled out of range.
“When we reached the former captives at Bilibid Prison they recognized us and screamed, ‘Those are the guys who took us out of the camp!’”
For the rest of the time the 511th remained at the prison recuperating from their latest jump into enemy territory, the former POWs waited on their liberators hand and foot.
Sass’ first jump atop Tagaytay Ridge in the Philippines on June 21, 1944 was not nearly as perfect as his second try. Their regiment provided immediate strength to Allied forces on their way to Manila.
“Our first jump was too high, too fast, too heavy and six miles in the wrong place,” he explained. “Other than that it was a pretty good jump.
For the next three days the 511th battled enemy forces every step of their 30 mile trek to Manila. During the conflict Sass was wounded.
“I took a Japanese grenade. It was six or eight feet away when it exploded. I was knocked unconscious and filled full of shrapnel.”
He spent a few days recovering.
“The battle for Manila was a bitter, bitter battle. The Japanese admiral holding the city decided to fight to the end and reduce the city to rubble. They murdered 100,000 civilian men, women and children by the time we forced them out.”
A couple of days before the Japanese surrendered at war’s end, 250 soldiers in Sass’ regiment were sent into Yokahama, Japan to disable heavy artillery and airplanes.
“It was a nervous time to be on enemy territory. Two days later we were working side-by-side with officers and men in the Japanese air force,” he said. “We couldn’t have done our job without the full cooperation of the Japanese.”
Originally Sass and his regiment were to parachute into the southernmost Japanese island in November 1945. Col. Paul Tibbets and a B-29 bomber named “Enola Gay” solved that problem by dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on June 6 that ended the war.
“If we had invaded Japan according to our plans it would have been a disaster for the landing party because the Japanese were waiting for us. Our regiment would have been a wipe out.”
Name: Charles Sass
Age: 87 at time of interview
Currently: Nokomis, Fla.
Discharged: January 1946
Commendations: Two Purple Hearts; 3 Battle Stars, for action in three major battles; 2 Presidential Unit Citations; Bronze Star; Combat Infantry Badge; Asiatic-Pacific Service Medal; Philippines Liberation Ribbon and an American Service Medal.
Married: Marion Jake
Children: Linda Shore, Nancy Millar, Jeff, David and Jim Sass.
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla., Feb. 23, 2009. It is republished with permission.