By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Burial of First Cavalry troops at Santo Tomas

In February 1945, over 3700 Allied civilians were held captive by the Japanese in the Santo Tomas prison camp in Manila, Philippines.  General MacArthur knew of their existence and feared that the Japanese would execute them, as they had other prisoners under their control.  MacArthur faced multiple obstacles in attempting a rescue: the Japanese had a stranglehold on the city, the monsoons had brought drenching rain to the area, and his troops were unfamiliar with the territory.  Still, he devised a plan to rescue the civilians and charged the First Cavalry to carry it out.  Just 66 hours after landing in the Philippines, the First Cav tanks broke through the gates of Santo Tomas and liberated the prisoners.  Once the civilians were safe, the military fought the Japanese for over a month, before securing the city.  I am very familiar with this piece of military history, as my husband and his family were among the 3700 who were saved.

The line-up in Kabul, August 21

It was impossible to watch the events in Afghanistan last week without wondering, “where is our modern-day MacArthur?”.  Our exit from Afghanistan has been a debacle, seemingly without intelligence or a plan.  It was always going to be messy, and we were never going to be able to extricate all of the Afghan people who helped us, but it didn’t have to be this bad.  As I write this on Sunday there are still thousands of U.S. citizens trapped by the Taliban, along with untold numbers of Afghani people who helped us and were promised safe passage out of the country.  The President’s message on Friday was filled with untruths.  One only had to juxtapose his comment about Americans’ ability to get out of Kabul with the live reporting by CNN’s Clarissa Ward, who reported that same hour that it was almost impossible to safely get inside the airport. Biden also claimed that there was no rift with our allies over our exit from Afghanistan.  Earlier that same day the Germans, French and British had blistered the U.S. for the way in which we were exiting, exposing not only our own citizens to harm, but those of our allies.  Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Biden’s plan “imbecilic”.   To be sure, there is plenty of blame to be placed on all three of Biden’s predecessors for the problems of the past 20 years, but the way in which we leave Afghanistan is squarely on his shoulders.

We are used to politicians covering their backsides, so Biden’s remarks weren’t that surprising.  What was striking were the actions of Secretary of Defense Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Milley.   Or more precisely, their inaction.  There are a lot of people calling for their resignations over the fiasco in Kabul, but under the Constitution, they answer to the Commander-in-Chief, and must carry out his orders.  At their press conference last week they exhibited the same enthusiasm for their mission as would a private ordered to empty latrines.  Assuming they disagree with the strategy and are just following orders, I don’t believe they should be fired.  I think they should resign.  When General “Mad Dog” Mattis disagreed with Trump’s policy on Syria, he resigned rather than carry out orders with which he vehemently disagreed.   That’s what people with principles do.  Instead, Austin was asked a question about rescuing all of the Americans and his response was, “we do not have the capability to go in (to Kabul) and get large numbers of people”.  Yes, General, we do.  In fact we have one of the most capable armies in the history of the world.  So clearly t’s not a matter of capabilities, it’s a matter of will.  Can you imagine any of the great U.S. Generals – Grant, Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton – making that statement?  Had MacArthur taken that approach, my husband might very well have died in the prison camp.  There is a report that a U.S. Army general called his counterpart in Britain, asking him to stop the rescue missions for their citizens because it was making the U.S. look bad.  The Pentagon denies that report; the British are standing by it.  My fervent hope is that this blog is rendered obsolete by Tuesday and that the generals have Special Ops teams at work getting people out.

             Women in Kabul, 2001

No matter the events of the next few weeks, we are a long way from knowing how all of this will play out.  In the short term, it’s safe to say that women and girls will have a very difficult time under the Taliban.   There are already reports of women who were turned away from their places of work and young girls denied entrance to their schools.  Young girls are being “married” to Taliban members.  God help them.  In the long run, we can only hope that Afghanistan does not once again become a safe haven for terrorists bent on destroying us.

Ultimately, the fate of the Afghanistan lies with its people.  Perhaps the younger generation, more educated and aware of the broader world than their counterparts 20 years ago, will spark a rebellion against the barbarians now in charge.  Only time will tell.

Afghanistan has long been known as “the country where empires go to die”.  We are now one of them.  The shame lies not in our exit, but that the manner of it was not befitting the brave people who fought there.






By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

My husband and his mother,  1941

My husband and his mother, 1941

Seventy years ago next week, on February 3, 1945, members of the First Cavalry burst through the gates of the prison camp of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philipines to rescue over 3700 Allied civilians held captive by the Japanese.  I am very familiar with this story, as my husband and his family were among those rescued.  My mother-in-law, Kathleen, kept a diary during their years of imprisonment that became the basis for my book, “In The Enemy’s Camp”.  Most of the internees were British and American businessmen and their families who were caught up in the war, unable to repatriate back to their home countries before Manila was bombed on December 8, 1941.  But this blog is not about them, it is about the brave soldiers who risked their lives, racing 100 miles to Manila to liberate the camp.  But first, a bit of background.


Men in Santo Tomas, 1945

Men in Santo Tomas, 1945

The First Cavalry had already taken part in the liberation of Cabanatuan, the prison camp containing the survivors of the Bataan Death March.  Once the military POW’s were safely in American protection, General Douglas MacArthur ordered his troops to do whatever was necessary to get to Manila quickly and save the civilian prisoners.  The Japanese had made their intentions clear in August 1944 that all prisoners, military and civilian, were to be eradicated before the territory was overtaken by the Allies.  On Peleliu Island, Allied POW’s had been herded into an underground bunker and burned to death.  So no time was to be wasted in getting to Santo Tomas.  The prisoners were already dying at alarming rates from malnutrition and tropical diseases.  Each internee was allocated just 900 calories a day of rotting and insect-infested food.  Their fortitude was at a breaking point.  When the First Cavalry broke through the gates of the camp on the night of February 3, many of them fainted purely from mental and physical exhaustion.

Bob Holland - 2003

Bob Holland – 2003

There are many great source materials from and about the internees’ experience.  Several people wrote books after the war and my in-laws owned most of them.  When I set about writing my book I was interested in learning about the rescue from the perspective of the men who did the rescuing.  So I placed an ad in “The Saber”, the newsletter of the First Cavalry Division, seeking anyone who had either participated in the rescue or knew something about it.  I was lucky enough to find five men who took part in the mission – Chelly Mendoza, Claude Walker, John Yunker, Walter Pike and Bob Holland.   In a twist of fate, Bob Holland was also in the process of writing a book about the rescue and lived just 10 miles from me.  We were able to meet often and had the privilege of introducing him to my mother-in-law in 2003, their first meeting since he had crashed through the gates 58 years prior!


1st Cav tanks inside Santo Tomas

1st Cav tanks inside Santo Tomas

To a man they were typical of the WWII generation – none of them had spoken about the rescue since it occurred, not even to their families.  But in their letters to me it was evident that they were very proud of their mission and the happy end result.   Most said that the rescue was the first time the war had made sense for them since they had begun serving in the Pacific Theater.  They had rescued Allied prisoners who, without their efforts, would surely have succumbed to either disease, starvation or worse.  In the movie, “The Great Raid”, Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, told his men that the pride they would feel if it was successful would not be just for that day, but something they would carry inside them for the rest of their lives.  I don’t know whether he really said that or it was the result of a screenwriter’s imagination.  But I do know that the sentiment was certainly evident in the five men I interviewed.  Regardless of what happened the rest of their lives, they all said that rescuing the prisoners at Santo Tomas was one of the proudest moments of their lives.

So next Tuesday, please raise a glass to the wonderful men, most now departed, who were the saviors of so many people.  I can say from first-hand experience that they were heroes in every sense of the word.