POW Survivor Shares Her Story
● By Richard DuPertuis
Bravery, Honor and Respect
Story and Photo By Richard DuPertuis
Redding resident Dorothy Huff carries a special gratitude for her country’s veterans. They saved her life. Captured by Japan months after it entered World War II, she and her family fought starvation in captivity for about three years before U.S. forces liberated the Los Banos internment camp in the Philippines.
Huff, then 11-year-old Dorothy Riffel, had accompanied her College Place, Wash., family to Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines, to serve five years as Seventh-day Adventist missionaries. By 1941, she, two older siblings and their mother and father enjoyed a peaceful life on the coast in Cagayan.
That life was shattered by the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7.
Nearly 75 years later, Huff looks back on the day her family gathered around the radio to hear Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration of war. “I can remember my mother crying, tears just flowing down because we so far away from our homeland,” she says. “We were the only Americans in this little town.”
They fled inland to hide among villagers. Months later, says Huff, leaflets dropped from planes ordered all Americans on the island to turn themselves in. “The Japanese said if we don't surrender by a certain time, ‘We will shoot you when we find you,’” Huff says. Along with two other missionary families, they reported to the new authorities.
They were briefly detained in what Huff describes as a “filthy” native shack, where family members contracted respiratory infections. Next they were trucked to an abandoned cabaret, where they were housed with about 200 other Americans. “Our quarters were chalk lined,” she says. “Ours was about 11 by 14. No curtains. No nothing. This was your spot.”
The family of five lived like this for about a year. Then they were taken in open trucks to Davao, a full day’s ride which left them badly sunburned. There they were loaded into a cargo ship, which took two weeks to reach Manila. “There was almost no water,” Huff recalls. “And my folks got typhus fever from the rats.”
They ended up in a barracks in Los Banos, an agricultural school campus about 40 miles southeast of Manila that the Japanese had converted into an internment camp.
Here they would live with more than 2,000 other Americans until the Allied raid the morning of February 23, 1945.
Huff says their primary daily concern in captivity was food. The Japanese allowed the American Red Cross to distribute boxes filled with such items as peanuts, corned beef and cans of powdered milk. “One box each, only one time,” Huff recalls. She remembers her father rationing food from those five boxes, a little at a time.
Huff calls the nourishment provided by their captors a starvation diet. “They took rice and they put a lot of water with it – real soupy. And then we would have just a little bit,” she says. “The internees would sometimes make this into a stew by adding tripe, tail or hoof discarded by the Japanese. It wasn't enough. Every day there would be people dying of starvation, even my friends,” Huff says.
Huff credits the survival of all her family members to their faith. “We believe in God,” she says. “You have to trust in Him daily, moment by moment. You know they say, live one day at a time. Sometimes it was an hour at a time. You never knew what was going to happen.”
What eventually happened was rescue, as much a surprise to the captives as it was to their captors. “We heard this roar. We didn't know what it was,” Huff says. She remembers during the ensuing gunfire she, then a 14-year-old girl, hid under her bed. She stayed there until she heard American voices.
“Not one of us was killed,” she says. “It’s a miracle.”
A combined effort of U.S. and Filipino forces, the Los Banos raid is touted as one of the most successful rescues of the war. Amphibious tractors roared in after planes dropped paratroopers at precisely 7 am. Informed by a camp escapee, Allied forces knew that was when the enemy guard would be exercising, their weapons set aside.
Fifty years after the liberation of Los Banos, Philippines, survivors gathered to commemorate in Los Banos, Calif. It was here that Huff was thrilled to meet one of the commanders who fine-tuned the rescue plan, then Col. Henry J. Muller, Jr., now retired brigadier general.
Ever since, Huff has phoned this World War II veteran at his home in Santa Barbara every February 23 to thank him for saving her. “He’ll turn 100 next year, and he’s as sharp as he can be,” she says. “I tell him, ‘I’m alive because of what you did.’ And he always says he feels honored that God could use him.”
She says she’s glad he believes in God, too.