Drop in for tea at Los Banos

13 Jan

Dropping in for a nice cup of tea
during the rescue operations
at Los Banos Internment Camp. 1945

This story was told to me as if it came from a verifiable source. May I elaborate? First: the operation went well, the timing was flawless. 2300 people were saved from certain death and the injuries on our side were minor. Good planning, good leadership and good luck prevailed against the likelihood of calamity. Chaplain Walker gave us the Universal last rites of the Church. It was not encouraging. Second: I will not apologize for my uncivil behavior toward a small group of Britishers who declined my efforts to save their bloomin(?) raggedy asses.

Third: I’d had enough and chose to not take any more of it which led to some inappropriate bellowing. Mine, not the Brits who are known for their agonizing forbearance.

To illustrate … we’d lifted off before sunup after no sleep at all, I’d hit the ground hard after having noted three whistling bullet holes in my parachute. Then came a sprint across the lower field. We hit the barracks on the run minutes before the amphibians arrived. It was like being dropped on the edge of a small city, which it was. The noise of firing came from all directions. Then, to get the people moving toward the circling amphibians, we scoured the buildings. A Japanese officer tried to shoot me. The rest, you’ve heard before. I charged out the back door. He was gone. Many Japanese guards, including the Camp Commander escaped to the hills and through the drainage tunnels despite a ring of guerrillas around the compound.

I was hailed by a serene group of elderly gentlemen, dressed nattily in the remains of what may have been Colonial Civil Services uniforms. They appeared as if on the movie set at River Kwai. They bore themselves like Her Majesty’s Best or Most something or other. They were not to be bothered by a bunch of hip shooting, air-jumping American Colonials and would have preferred the First Fusiliers or a Royal Brit Commando unit … something more traditional and history worthy. Brits are high on tradition, you know. They were squatting by a stone fire pit, boiling water over a twiggy fire for alfalfa tea and chatting up the day’s events. They stead fastly refused to accept what was happening. Brits do things steadfastly. It was all nice as a country lane in the Cotswolds except that gunfire whistled around us. “Bamboo burning,” I was told. Bamboo does not whistle past one’s head, that I know. In the opening scenes, each of us may have chucked a full bandolier at the bandits. One or a dozen of our people had set the far barracks on fire and the Brits did not take notice. They are not noted for noticing anything. The Scotsman might as well have been tuning his pipes.

“Since you’re here anyway, and created quite a disturbance, you may as well join us for a nice cup of tea; we have plenty in the pot.” The tallest, skinniest one offered me a flat rock to sit on. What I was trying to do … was to get them off their bony behinds, regardless of and with great regard for tea and get them headed toward the amphibians which would race them to safety thirty miles away while we waited for the arrival of the Japanese Army. “It was like a Western roundup,” someone observed, “with people chasing people in all directions and the Army blokes trying to corral them and head them home.” We had a short time (less than we realized) before the Japanese discovered the fakery we had done so well But that did not come across to them. The idea that they’d just had their last nice cup of tea, before being shot or hung by their jailors did not occur nor did the further fact that if we failed, by nightfall we would all be buried in those large holes that were dug during recent days. So, I yelled at these stately, tottery old folks, who had just endured years of brutality, humiliation and starvation and needed no nastiness from me. They sipped their tea and with deliberate slowness, assembled their properties as I ran down the main street to roust those pitiable guys in the bachelors’ quarters. Some were crawling about. My tea party would move on when it felt like it. Our company people were herding and hustling the confused, laughing, crying mass to the tractors. Those able to do so walked down to the shore. Surprise was on our side, but time was not. So we joked, prodded and jostled them along, the young and old, weak and strong. When the tide seemed to be moving well toward the clanking machines, I circled back behind the Bachelor’s Barracks. The Brits saw me and nodded, though still miffed, as they lurched on their way. They steadied each other arm in arm, the frail leading the breakable and the last man carried the blackened tin pail, the tea pot, to be ready for another time. I was told later that night, “We British, you must understand, when we have nothing left, we have our traditions.” Yes, long may they wave.

Side notes: when the last of the internees had safely crossed Laguna De Bay, on their way to New Bilibid for processing, a dozen of us were still in Los Banos guarding the piles of luggage. A tractor would come for us. There was no tractor. It was scary quiet and it occurred that we had been abandoned or forgotten. We sprinted to the shore and found one tractor hauling another while a third was firing into the shoreline. I don’t recall how we got on board. An hour later, we, the chosen few, stared at an empty beach. Where had everyone gone? Our support was back at Bilibid celebrating, flirting with the skinny girls and eating like heroes.

At the beach, the company piled into a lone DUKW, a big amphibian. We drove fast and tried to pass a caribou cart. The whole thing dove off the road and flipped, another miracle. Ringler was furious. What else? A couple of trucks hauled us to Bilibid where we entered the courtyard unnoticed. Someone called out that the rescuers had returned. The bony crowd cheered. The soldiers seemed aggravated. We threw our gear onto the ground and tried to sleep. The people we had saved wouldn’t allow that. We talked until nightfall.

About Tea:
The British have an umbilical cord which has never been cut and through which tea flows constantly. It is curious to watch them in time of sudden horror, tragedy or disaster. The pulse stops apparently and nothing can be done and no move made, until a “nice cup of tea” is quickly made. There is no question that it brings solace and does steady the mind. What a pity all countries are not so tea conscious. World peace conferences would run more smoothly if a “nice cup of tea” or indeed, a samovar were available at the proper time. Marlene Dietrich

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