The bold raid that freed 500 prisoners of war.
The airshow that rescued 500 POWs.
When the Japanese captured the Philippines, over 70,000 American and Filipino soldiers were taken prisoner and placed in POW camps alongside civilians and a few soldiers from other Allied nations. The largest of these camps was near Cabanatuan City on Luzon, holding 8,000 prisoners at its peak. Many of these men were survivors of the Bataan Death March and also had to survive disease, torture and severe malnourishment over their years of captivity.
By late 1944, when the U.S. began the campaign to liberate the Philippines, the camp only held 500 sick and weakened POWs, the rest having been taken to labor camps elsewhere. With American forces making progress, the lives of the prisoners were in peril. Both American military planners and the prisoners themselves were concerned that the Japanese might kill the POWs rather than let them be freed, both to prevent them from fighting again and to make sure they couldn’t testify about Japanese atrocities. Such fears were not unfounded, since 150 POWs in another camp were herded into bomb shelters, doused with gasoline and burned alive in December 1944.
The task of rescuing the POWs fell to the 6th Ranger Battalion of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci. The Japanese garrison and other nearby forces were thought to be over 6,000 men. Having no time to meticulously plan the operation, Mucci decided to bring 120 Rangers, two teams of Alamo and 80 Filipino guerillas under the command of Captain Juan Pajota.
The scouts moved out on January 27, 1945 followed by the rest of the force the next day under the command of Mucci and Captain Robert Prince. Guided by guerillas, they marched 30 miles behind Japanese lines, narrowly avoiding a Japanese tank on the highway on one occasion. Other guerillas went ahead of them from village to village, muzzling dogs and putting chicken in cages so they couldn’t alert Japanese forces with their racket.
The group reached the vicinity of the camp the next morning but the scouts had bad news. The ground around the camp was cut clear for over half a mile, so anyone approaching would need to crawl across open space. Even worse, an entire Japanese division was in the area retreating. The rescue was planned for January 29 but Mucci decided to wait for the retreating Japanese division to pass through and attack the following day.
Even without that force, there were many Japanese in the area. The camp garrison was about 220 men. To the northeast, across the Cabu River and within earshot, camped another 1,000. To the west, a few miles away, 7,000 troops were deployed around Cabanatuan City. The Filipino guerilla force swelled to over 250 by now and Mucci gave them the task of stopping any Japanese reinforcements. One part of the force set up an ambush along the road from Cabanatuan and the other dug in at a wooden bridge across the Cabu. Both forces were given 25 landmines and a bazooka; while the western group was also reinforced by a Ranger bazooka team.
Pajota suggested a distraction to allow the Rangers crawl up to the camp perimeter. Acting on Mucci’s radio request, the P-61 Black Widow Hard to Get appeared above the camp on the night of the attack. Its pilot, Kenneth Schreiber, cut power to one engine and restarted it with a loud backfire, then repeated this twice more while sinking from 1,500ft to 200ft. He then headed for the nearby hills, clearing them by 30ft. To the guards and prisoners on the ground it looked like the plane was having an engine failure and was about to crash just out of sight. For the next 20 minutes, the plane repeated the act several times and also performed other maneuvers, attracting the full attention of the garrison and allowing the Rangers to creep up on the camp from several directions.
Once the shooting started, all guard towers and pillboxes were taken out in the first 15 seconds and the rest of the surprised garrison was overcome in 15 minutes. The prisoners were taken just as unawares. The previous day, Filipino boys had thrown them rocks with notes attached saying “Be ready to go out,” but they thought it was either a prank or a Japanese ruse to lure them into an escape attempt and kill them all. They were further confused by the Ranger uniforms, which they didn’t recognize after three years of captivity. When the shooting started, many POWs thought it was the Japanese commencing a massacre and hid in latrine and drainage ditches. The Rangers had to round them up one by one; many were so emaciated that a single Ranger could carry two prisoners.
Meanwhile, Pajota and his men engaged the Japanese force across the river. A timed charge blew a large enough hole through the bridge to prevent tanks and other vehicles from crossing and the stream of infantry was cut down by fire. A guerilla who had only learned how to use a bazooka a few hours earlier single-handedly dispatched four tanks hiding behind a cluster of trees. Thanks to Rangers cutting telephone cables, the western approach from the city remained peaceful.
Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 Japanese troops were killed and all but two POWs rescued. One was so weak he died from a heart attack while being carried out of the camp. The other, a deaf British soldier, fell asleep in a latrine before the attack and didn’t wake up until the next day. He put on his best clothes, walked out of the camp and was shortly picked up by guerillas. Of the Rangers executing the daring mission, two died in action. The surgeon of the force was lethally wounded by shrapnel when a Japanese soldier fired off three mortar rounds and another man was hit in the back by friendly fire. Despite these losses, the returning task force and the rescued prisoners received a hero’s greeting and the operation is considered possibly the greatest rescue of the war.
You can learn more about the battles of World War II on our various historical tours scheduled for 2019.