South Charlotte

Saving wartime memories

Passers-by would never guess the stories Myra Phifer and Charles Bivens can tell.

They wouldn't presume the demure Phifer, now 84, fled a kamikaze pilot bombing an airstrip on a Pacific island during World War II.

And few would suspect the grandfatherly Bivens, 85 next month, helped liberate Allied military and civilian internees from a Japanese internment camp in a famous rescue operation, “Raid at Los Baños”.

As the nation celebrates Veterans Day on Tuesday, the Union County Public Library and local military historian Jack Clay are working to preserve stories such as these, and of Americans who helped with war efforts at home.

Library staff, Clay and volunteers from the Heritage Room and Wingate University hope to add to their collection of wartime memories during “Save Our Wartime History Weekend” next Saturday and Sunday in the Griffin Room of the Union County Public Library in Monroe.

Volunteers will conduct oral history interviews. They'll also scan photos for a “Local Wartime History” scrapbook, says Patricia Poland, reference librarian. The effort targets veterans of all wars as well as those from the home front.

In the Pacific islands

Phifer, who moved to Monroe after the war, was born Myra Daharsh and raised on a farm in Hickman, Neb. She joined the WACs as a clerk typist and, according to Clay, was one of only 86 WACs to serve at Monroe's Camp Sutton. “I was just an old farm girl … I thought Monroe was beautiful,” particularly when the dogwoods bloomed, she says. “I fell in love with North Carolina.”

It's where she met her future mother-in-law, who worked in her yard in Monroe and chatted with the young WAC. She introduced Phifer to her sailor son, Jimmy Thompson, when he visited from Norfolk. The two hit it off. (Thompson died in 1964, and Myra married Max Phifer a few years later.)

She was at Camp Sutton for several months before she was transferred to Georgia, then overseas. She had requested the overseas transfer, hoping to see a beloved brother stationed in Italy, she says. But she was sent to the Pacific islands instead – first to Australia, then to Biak (an Indonesian island) and then to the Philippines.

She remembers when the Japanese bombed the airstrip near her barracks on Biak.

“They came on the tail of one of our bombers coming to base and escaped detection that way,” she says. “We were sitting ducks.”

It was night, and she and the other WACs fled their barracks to the relative safety of the trees. They got out alive. Her brother in Italy was not so lucky.

Rescue operation

Charles Bivens was a local boy who built tent floors during the early construction phase of Camp Sutton, prior to going into the service.

Bivens adds another duty – “fetch-it boy” – to his early Camp Sutton days.

He was drafted after high school and entered the Army in 1943, at age 19, and eventually became a driver with the 672nd Amphibious Tractor (Amtrac) Battalion. His duties took him to New Guinea, Borneo and Japan. He drove an amphibious tractor during the “Raid at Los Baños.”

Historian Clay points out that the raid on Feb. 23, 1945, was considered one of the most successful rescue operations in modern military history. Bivens remembers 55 Amtracs made the trip into Los Baños, where more than 2,100 civilian and military prisoners – including women and children – were held. The timing had to be perfect to travel in darkness, cross a lake and arrive at the internment camp during the morning calisthenics routine.

“They were scheduled to be killed the morning of the raid,” Bivens recalls. “They already had the trenches dug that they were to be buried in. They had to dig their own.”

If the Japanese had gotten wind of the rescue plan, the prisoners would have been killed earlier.

The carefully planned surprise worked, and “we did not lose an internee and none was injured,” Bivens says. “We (his battalion) had two wounded, and Airborne had two who died.”

In the midst of fear, death and danger, the Amtracs also held hope for the future.

“In one Amtrac, we had a baby born that day,” Bivens says. “They carried the baby out in a steel helmet.”

Another prisoner saved that day was Frank Woodruff Buckles, who was running the Manila office of an American company when the Japanese invaded the Philippines. Buckles, now 107 years old, is the last known living American World War I veteran.

Bivens doesn't know who drove Buckles out, but he likes to think it could have been him.