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Muscatine man recalls liberating camp 70 years ago this week

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MUSCATINE, Iowa — If you're lucky enough to reach your 91st birthday, there's no doubt you have plenty of stories to share.

Pfc. Bob Harrison's story, however, isn't one heard often.

Harrison was one of many men who risked their safety to liberate thousands of people in the Japanese internment camp at Santo Tomas, Philippines, during World War II on Feb. 3, 1945. 

Harrison was part of the 1st Cavalry, 8th Regiment, 2nd Recon and was part of the group that followed Gen. Douglas MacArthur's orders to liberate the prisoners. 

His son, Bobby Harrison, of Cedar Rapids, said he'd heard pieces of the story over time, but has begun to extensively research the liberation and put together those pieces. 

"This is a story not many people know about. When people think prison camp, they usually think Nazi Germany and with the Jews. This wasn’t the case at all. These happened to be Americans trapped in Manila (Philippines). They were well treated for a while, but Japanese military took over in 1944 and gradually starved the people," son Bobby said.

About 4,000 people were originally held at the camp in Santo Tomas — 900 of whom were children — but about 500 people died from sickness or starvation. When Gen. MacArthur heard of the Japanese military's plan to kill the prisoners, he organized a flying column to liberate the people. 

"The Japenese had wired it up with 55-gallon oil drums full of gasoline and were going to burn them all," Bobby said. 

Bob was a young man at the time, but realized the gravity of the mission.

"A very important part of the operation in the Philippines was due to the information provided by the Filipino Underground. They kept the high command totally aware of what was going on. They knew what the Japanese were planning to do. They put themselves at risk to do this, and fortunately, we had those extra eyes to know what was to transpire," Bob recalled. 

A flying column is a military term defined as "a small, independent, military land unit capable of rapid mobility and usually composed of all arms. It is often an ad hoc unit, formed during the course of operations." Bob's group was a part of this flying column and traveled 100 miles in three days to liberate the prisoners. 

"The general orders were to drop everything, don’t take much food, take bullets and your guns and get as fast as you can to Manila. They raced as as fast as they could to get to the camp and liberate the prisoners before it could be figured out (by the Japanese) what was going on," Bobby said, learning through his father's stories and his own research. 

About 800 people split in two groups headed to the prisoners' aid. 

"The Japanese found out they were coming and blew all the bridges so the men had to ford every creek and get through every river. They got to the internment camp 9 p.m. on Feb. 3. It surprised everybody. They broke down the concrete gates with tanks, got shot at the whole time, and liberated everybody," Bobby said. 

Survivors of the internment camp are having a reunion in Sacramento, California, in April. According to Bobby, about 80 survivors returned to Manila last week for a special ceremony. 

Following the release of the prisoners, the Battle of Manila took place. 

"By the time the battle was over, the city was pretty much completely destroyed. It was just horrific — street fighting building by building. Many Americans died, the Japanese were completely wiped out," Bobby said. 

For his efforts in the war, Bob received a Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry Badge. He'd spend 370 days in combat. Bob battled with malaria after the war, but traveled to Missouri where he met his wife, Louise.

Louise and Bob have now been married 68 years and raised three children: Bobby, of Cedar Rapids; Michael, of Muscatine, and Cindy, of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The kids grew up hearing bits and pieces of their father's war experiences, but just this week Bob was reminded of an incredible story of courage and chance.

As the Japanese had blown the bridges, a comrade from Bob's group had to swim across the Pasig River and secure a line. 

"As (Dick Williamson) started to swim, the Japanese defenders started to shoot at him. Lots of defenders, lots of machine guns. The water was just frothing. They were shooting at him and he’d dive under the water and everyone would think that he’s gone, then he’d pop up a little bit later and they’d shoot at him again," Bobby said, retelling his father's story. 

Williamson made it through the fire and received a Silver Star for the bravery. A few years after the war, Bob was traveling for work and swapped war stories with a fellow veteran. 

"They went out to lunch and started to compare war stories. My dad was explaining this story and the guy said, 'That was me,'" Bobby said. 

"I was flabbergasted. What a coincidence. I just stopped eating and said, 'Dick, I had a front row seat and saw it all.' I had said to myself, 'He's not going to come up anymore,' the machine gun fire was that horrible. They shot the backpack right off his back, and that probably saved his life," Bob remembered. 

"It was a young man's war, really. I was one of the young ones" said Bob, who was 21 at the time. "Anybody 28-years-old we thought was pretty old. We'd call them 'Pop.' The best friends I've known in my life were the people over there in the military. I owe them so much." 

Unfortunately, not everyone was able to make it back stateside. Those who did still remember the danger. 

"It wasn't long after we were married and we lived in a little apartment. He woke me up in the middle of the night and shouted, 'We have to get out of here, the Japs are coming!' It scared me half to death," his wife, Louise, said. 

His son, Bobby, explained Bob's role in the war.

"My dad was in recon, the people out in front and probably the most in danger and at risk. He saw a lot over there. He still wakes up and think the Japanese are coming. The experience made a real impression on him," Bobby said. 

But Bob remains humble.

"I don't want this to be self serving. I'm not making myself into a hero. I'm just one of a group of people," Bob said. 

While Bob may not think he's a hero, the children liberated from the camp have invited him to the reunion in the spring. 

"He's my hero," Bobby said. 


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