Seventy-five years ago a company of Army Rangers and Filipino guerrilla fighters conducted the most successful rescue mission in U.S. military history, freeing over 500 prisoners of war being held by the Japanese.
The raid took place at Cabanatuan prison camp, located about 65 miles north of Manila, in the Philippines.
Most of the POWs in the camp were survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March, which took place in the spring of 1942.
The Japanese had struck the Philippines only hours after hitting Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and with the same devastating effect, destroying most of the American airpower and naval forces stationed in the U.S. territory.
Shortly thereafter, over 57,000 seasoned Japanese soldiers landed on Luzon and pushed the combined American and Filipino forces under General Douglas MacArthur into retreat to the Bataan Peninsula at the mouth of Manila Harbor, where they awaited American reinforcements and supplies, which never came.
The Americans and Filipinos made a brave stand for four months against the Japanese onslaught until a lack of food and supplies, as well as the spread of disease, made surrender appear inevitable.
As the end drew near, President Franklin Roosevelt directed General MacArthur to relinquish his command and break through the enemy lines to Australia to lead the Allied counteroffensive against the Japanese.
MacArthur, heartsick, obeyed, and upon reaching Australia, resolutely told reporters, “I came through and I shall return.” His promise, “I shall return,” became a rallying cry among Filipinos in the then-occupied American commonwealth.
The Japanese made their final push in the Philippines on Good Friday, April 3, 1942. Six days later, the Americans surrendered. It was the largest surrender of U.S. forces in the nation’s history.
The 65-mile Bataan Death March to a POW camp followed.
Approximately 6,000 of the 78,000 of the combined American and Filipino troops died on the march, due to Japanese brutality, denial of food and water and exhaustion from the months of previous fighting.
Today we mark National Former Prisoners of War Recognition Day, commemorating the April 9, 1942 surrender of approximately 10,000 US military personnel & 65,000 Filipino soldiers on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines to the invading Imperial Japanese Army #WWII #History pic.twitter.com/tnc0iaSEyE
— WWII Memorial Friends (@WWIIMemorial) April 9, 2019
Thousands more died within a month after arriving at the prisoner of war camps from the effects of the march.
On the first anniversary of the fall of Bataan in April 1943, MacArthur issued a communique reminding Americans of the thousands of their countrymen languishing and dying as prisoners of the Japanese.
“I pray that a merciful God may not delay too long their redemption, that the day of salvation be not so far removed that they perish, that it be not again too late,” MacArthur said.
“Until we claim again the ghastly remnants of its last gaunt garrison, we can but stand humble supplicants before Almighty God. There lies our Holy Grail,” the general added in another statement a month later on the anniversary of the surrender of all U.S. forces in the Philippines to Japan.
Dr. Conrad Crane, chief of historical services for the Army Heritage and Education Center, told The Western Journal that fulfilling his pledge to redeem the Philippines was personal to MacArthur.
“There’s a lot of honor and prestige for MacArthur wrapped up in the Philippines and a part of that too is an obligation not just to the Filipinos left behind, but also to those troops left behind,” Crane said.
It would take the general two-and-a-half years to make good on his pledge, as he led the 3,500-mile push from Australia back to the archipelago.
Finally, in October 1944, the war leader could proclaim from a beachhead on Leyte Island, “People of the Philippines, I have returned … The hour of your redemption is here.”
In early January 1945, U.S. forces landed on Luzon island and began the push toward Manila.
By this time, most of the American POWs had been transported back to Japan or Manchuria to work as slave laborers.
However, among those remaining were over 500 being held at Cabanatuan.
When one of MacArthur’s top generals, Sixth Army commander Gen. Walter Krueger, learned of the camp, he green-lit a mission to rescue the POWs, knowing they were in danger of being killed by the Japanese as American forces drew near.
Jim Zobel, the archivist at the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia, told The Western Journal that Krueger was aware of the massacre of about 140 American POWs the previous month on Palawan Island.
Charlie Company of the 6th Ranger Battalion, beefed up with an extra platoon to be 120 strong, was chosen for the perilous mission to slip 30 miles behind enemy lines, undetected, liberate the camp and lead the POWs back to freedom.
They would be supported on the mission by 200 Philippine guerrilla fighters.
Opposing them would be approximately 250 Japanese guards and other troops housed at Cabanatuan, with nearly 1,000 Japanese soldiers positioned less than a mile from the camp.
Only four miles away, at Cabanatuan City, were an additional 9,000 Japanese forces.
Lt. Col. Henry Mucci led the American rescue operation.
After explaining the odds they were up against, Mucci urged any of his Rangers who had doubts not to go on the mission, Hampton Sides recorded in his bestselling 2001 book “Ghost Soldiers.”
“It’s going to be extremely dangerous,” he said. “Some of you might not make it back … I only want men who feel lucky.”
The West Point graduate waited a moment to let his words sink in; not one of his soldiers backed out, according to William Breuer in his 1994 book “The Great Raid.”
“One other thing,” Mucci said. “There’ll be no atheists on this trip.”
“Men, I want all of you to go to church. Get down on your knees and pray. Swear to God that’ll you’ll die if need be rather than let any harm come to our POWs!”
Robert Prince, commander of Charlie Company, confirmed to me during an interview in the late 1990s, Mucci’s remarks.
All the Rangers going on the mission heeded the request and went to chapel services.
Armed with intelligence provided by Filipino guerrillas and the 6th Army’s Alamo Scouts, Mucci and his men crossed into enemy-held territory on the morning of Jan. 28.
They carefully evaded significant numbers of Japanese forces, including a column of tanks that could have ripped their ranks to shreds, and reached the vicinity of Cabanatuan on the 29th.
There they learned more about the Japanese troops in the camp and that thousands of enemy troops were moving through the area.
Mucci and Prince decided to delay their rescue operation a day.
The Rangers launched the raid of Cabanatuan on the evening of Jan. 30.
A P-61 Black Widow fighter plane flew low over the camp creating a diversion, so the U.S. troops could draw in close to the fence-line undetected.
75 years ago first flight Northrop P-61 Black Widow, the first operational U.S. warplane designed as a night fighter, and first aircraft designed to use radar. The prototype was powered by R-2800-25S Double Wasp radials turning 12 ft 2 in diameter Curtiss C5425-A10 4-blade props pic.twitter.com/C7apaFG593
— FAST Museum ✈ (@FASTmuseum) November 20, 2017
Suddenly, at 7:44 p.m. local time, the night sky lit up with a fusillade of gunfire as Rangers took out the Japanese guards in their assigned sectors.
The Americans quickly broke through the front gate and fanned out into the camp.
Many of the POWs were terrified when they heard all the gunfire, thinking the Japanese had decided to kill them rather than let them be liberated.
POW Ralph Hibbs shouted at Rangers bounding by him, “What the hell is going on?”
“Where’d you come from? Are you guerrillas?” the Army physician asked.
Hibbs and the other POWs were confused by the Rangers’ uniforms and weapons, which were all new to them.
“We’re Rangers — General Krueger’s boys” came the response to Hibbs.
“What are Rangers?” the POW wanted to know. The first elite Ranger units were not formed until June 1942. A rescuer finally lost patience with the dialogue as gunfire continued to erupt around the camp and gave Hibbs “a ten-foot kick squarely in the ass” to send the message to get to the front gate.
The frenetic scene during the liberation was depicted in the 2005 film “The Great Raid.”
All the POWs were directed to go to the front gate if they could walk (or Rangers carried them). There, they were met and escorted to a nearby riverbed.
The most fragile among them were then loaded onto caraboa (ox) carts provided by the local Filipinos.
Meanwhile, less than a mile from Cabanatuan, 200 Philippine guerrillas under the leadership of Captain Juan Pajota held off nearly a thousand Japanese soldiers.
Pajota’s men managed to partially blow a bridge over the Cabu River, which ran between Cabanatuan and the Japanese forces, which prevented tanks and other heavy vehicles from crossing.
The guerrillas then mowed down Japanese troops with machine-gun fire as they repeatedly tried to make Bonzai charges over what remained of the bridge.
WWII Picture of the Day – Captain Pajota’s guerrillas at Cabanatuan, 1945. pic.twitter.com/gzDdDSKf3h
— World War II History (@thewaryears) April 13, 2019
The liberated POWs, guarded by the Rangers and guerrillas, marched through the night toward the American lines, only encountering some light Japanese resistance along the way.
Things had come full circle from the spring of 1942. Now instead of being forced to endure a Death March, they willingly marched to life and freedom.
The next morning a powerful moment for Hibbs was the sight of an American flag, flying on top of a U.S. Army tank.
He realized it was the first time he’d seen the Stars and Stripes since being taken captive nearly three years before.
“We wept openly,” fellow POW Abie Abraham recalled, “and we wept without shame.”
Hibbs told me during an interview in 1997 that MacArthur came to visit the liberated POWs days after their rescue, and the general cried when he saw them.
Hibbs felt the tears were a genuine expression of the emotion the general felt at being reunited with his men and regret of the toll the captivity had taken on them.
Zobel said that MacArthur did not stay for minutes, but hours listening to the POWs’ stories of deprivation and abuse, and repeatedly apologized, saying, “I’m too late. I’m too late.”
No precise number exists of the Americans who died while being held as Japanese POWs, but it is likely about 40 percent or just shy 11,000. Of these, 2,656 perished at Cabanatuan.
Two Rangers died during the liberation of the camp and four others were wounded, while the Philippine guerrillas suffered no dead, but over a dozen casualties. One POW died of a heart attack during the raid.
A total of 512 POWs were rescued.
“It was a brilliant operation done with the minimum of casualties and the maximum of result. It was a model for other operations,” Crane said.
— Special Operations (@officialspecops) May 16, 2017
The military historian added that by taking on the mission, America proved its commitment not to forget her soldiers held as POWs.
Both Mucci and Prince were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their leadership during the raid on Cabanatuan. Several other Rangers received Silver or Bronze stars for their heroism.
Prince and some of his fellow Rangers returned to the United States in March of 1945 to a heroes’ welcome, which included a visit with President Roosevelt in the Oval Office.
San Francisco rolled out the red carpet that same month for the returning POWs.
Thousands crowded on the Golden Gate Bridge waving American flags as the POWs’ ship passed through. Huge banners could be seen reading, “Welcome Home Heroes of Bataan and Corregidor” and “God Bless You Heroes.”
— OurPresidents (@OurPresidents) March 10, 2014
“People everywhere try to thank us. I think the thanks should go the other way around,” Prince told reporters at the time of his stateside return.
“I’ll be grateful for the rest of my life that I had a chance to do something in this war that was not destructive,” he explained. “Nothing for me can ever compare with the satisfaction I got from helping free our prisoners.”
Portions of the article first appeared in “We Hold These Truths” by Randall DeSoto.
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