This discussion deals about the raid in Cabanatuan where a joint operation by the American Forces took place to rescue the POWs among vast number of civilians who struggled during the Bataan Death March. There were thousands of American Troops who surrendered during the infamous battle which took place in Bataan. Many prisoners were detained at Cabanatuan prison camp and some were transferred to other places. There were about 500 American soldiers alongside Allied POW and Filipino civilians who were imprisoned. The POWs experienced the atrocities of the Japanese; they faced different kinds of torture which no one can imagine including the health condition and malnourishment they had experienced. When the Japanese heard about the return of Gen. Douglas MacArthur together with his forces, the prisoners feared for their life as there was a plan for mass execution.
Sometime in January 27, 1945, the Sixth Army with its leaders set a plan with the Filipino guerillas to save the prisoners. The plan was to travel behind Japanese lines. More than a hundred Ranger and Scouts as well as Filipino guerillas traveled for 30 miles just to reach the place without being noticed. It was nightfall when the group made a surprise attack with P-61 Black Widow as their back-up to distract the Japanese. It only took 30 minutes to topple down the camp where vast number of Japanese troops got killed with only minimal casualties on the side of the penetrators.
The POWs were rescued and sent back to their lines. The brutal and bitter experience of the prisoners in the hands of the Japanese were exposed which prompted Americans to fight back and end the Japanese brutality. Because of the heroic deeds of rescuers were given commendations by Gen. Douglas MacArthur duly recognized and honored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As a memoriam, a memorial was set right at the site where the event took to depict that memorable day in the lives of the prisoners. The event was portrayed in various films for the world to know of such tragic event.
Had the operation failed, the Prisoners Of War in Cabanatuan Camp would have met a tragic death and more prisoners would have suffered in the hands of the Japanese.
It was during early month of December 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese forces when the United States entered WWII and joined their Allied forces to combat the fury of Axis powers. Few hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the Philippines were also attacked by the Japanese force. During that time, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was already based in Philippine Islands as a camouflage against the Japanese invasion. On March 12, 1942, General Douglas MacArthur with his selected officers was summoned by President Roosevelt on March 12, 1942. Leaving his men behind, he left in compliance to the president’s order with a promise to come back with reinforcements. About 72,000 soldiers consisting American and Filipino fought against the Japanese with obsolete weapon. Due to lack of supplies and afflicted with skin disease and malnutrition, they eventually renounced their defeat on April 9, 1942 to Japanese force during the Battle of Corregidor. These 72,000 soldiers among hundreds of civilians became captives and were forced to walk 60 miles going to Camp O’Donnel now known at the death march. There were approximately 20,000 prisoners who died due to illness, starvation, torture or execution. Only 52,000 survived when they reached the camp. The Japanese basically planned for lesser number of prisoners ranging from 10,000-25,000 but there were a devastating number of more than 72,000 prisoners with only two hospitals to accommodate them. Some were transferred to Cabanatuan prison camp.
The POW camp was named Cabanatuan prison or Camp Pangatian derived from the nearby village with 50,000 locals. The camp was previously used by the Americans as Agricultural Station Department then it was converted to a training ground for Filipino army. When the Philippines were invaded by the Japanese, the camp was reconverted to accommodate the American POWs purposely to house the sick detainees.
To give a bird’s-eye view, the camp was rectangular-shaped occupied 25 acres and separated by a roadway at the middle part. The other side was for the Japanese guards and the opposite side was barracks for prisoners and another section as their hospital. The hospital was named “Zero Ward” whereby the prisoners who are in their worst condition await on their death bed. Serious illnesses during that time were severe diarrhea and malaria. The camp was surrounded with 8 ft. high out of barbed wire and many pillbox bunkers. Overlooking the camp were 4-story towers for the guards.
At the peak were 8,000 soldiers most of whom were American soldiers and other soldiers from other counties and civilians from UK, Norway and Netherlands which made it the Philippines’ biggest concentration camp. The number of prisoners dropped considerably when those were still fit and able to work where transported out of camp and were forced to do manual labor in other locations along the Philippine archipelago, Japan, Formosa as well as Manchuria. They were forced to work doing slave labor or work in Japanese weapon factory, unload ships as well repair airfields totally ignoring the Geneva Convention provisions.
Those who were left inside the camp were provided meal provisions at least twice a day with steamed rice accompanied by fruits, soup and meat. To add to their provisions, the imprisoned soldiers smuggled food supplies by hiding it under their clothing during occasional trips going to Cabanatuan with consent from the Japanese. To prevent their valuables from confiscation such as jewelries, diaries or even food, they hide them inside their clothing, latrine or buried under the ground before the routine inspection approached. They gather foods in any way they can through stealing or by bribing the guards-on-duty, through gardening or hunt stray animals trapped inside the camp including rodents, snakes, ducks or even dogs.
The Filipino subversive movement managed to collect and smuggled thousands of medicines called quinine tablets to the camp to cure malaria which had saved many lives inside the prison. Whenever a radio technician was called to have their radios fixed, he would take with him some spare parts. This allowed prisoners to listen to news as to developments in the outside world. When a group of prisoners from Corregidor came, some had hidden radio parts safely tuck under their clothes which were reassembled later. The radios managed to receive US frequency which allowed the prisoners to listen over the radio and know about the condition of the war activities outside the camp. There was a camera smuggled and they used it to record the living condition inside the camp. There were several attempts to smuggle ammunitions and weapon devices to secure a handgun. Several attempts to escape were made for the whole duration inside the prison camp though all efforts were in vain. There was a failed attempt wherein four soldiers escaped but were recaptured; all the prisoners were forced to look as they were beaten and forced to excavate their respective graves before they were executed. Afterwards, signs were posted warning that an equivalent of ten prisoners against one escapee would be executed for every attempt to escape. The living quarters of the prisoners were sub-divided into set of ten for every group so they could keep easily detect whenever one was missing. A week after, two American soldier made an attempt to escape. Because of this, the guards took ten prisoners and aligned them facing a fence, executed them as the others watched.
The POWs were later permitted to construct septic systems as well as irrigation ditches inside the camp within the prisoners’ side. A small commissary within the site of the Japanese guards was accessible to sell immediate needs of the prisoners. Recreational activities were permitted for game matches. Likewise, a library room was allowed for reading books most of which came from the medical team from the Red Cross and watching movie films occasionally. A bulldog was reared by the prisoners to cheer them up. Each year during Christmas, the prisoners were allowed to receive presents from the Red Cross such as canned corned beef, coffee and cigars. Prisoners could send some postcards to their relatives though they were thoroughly checked.
As the American forces were advancing, the Imperial Command of the Japanese gave instructions that all POWs who were physically fit be brought to Japan. In October 1944, more than 1,600 Japanese soldiers pulled out leaving behind those more than 500 POWs who were disabled sick and too weak to escape. By January 1945, all the Japanese troops pulled out from the Camp leaving behind the POWs with a warning at hand as to the outcome of any attempt done by them. The POWs were hesitant of course, having in mind that Japanese forces were not far away and that they were only looking for loopholes for any attempt to escape to give them enough reason to have the all executed before the Americans come to their rescue. The POWs were left unguarded but there were no attempts made. Instead, they went to the Guard’s side and ransacked their storage for food and other supplies. They were left alone for weeks aside from periodic stay of Japanese forces retreating from combat to rest and ask for provisions. A group would look for carabao to be slaughtered. The food they got from the other camp and animal meats helped the prisoners to gradually recover their strength and stamina. By middle of January, a vast number of Japanese forces came and sent back the prisoners on the other side of the barracks. There were speculations for them to be executed sooner or later.
By late October 1944, the US forces returned to the Philippines in Leyte as promised by General Douglas MacArthur himself. The Americans combined forces to set the plan for the invasion in Luzon. Philippine scouts gave information that the Japanese intended to have the POWs in Cabanatuan executed when the Americans would be approaching them. On December 14, 1944, the threats were actually done to approximately150 American soldiers who were captured by the Japanese captors in at Palawan Island. The American soldiers were gathered inside air raid shelters, closed, drenched with gasoline fuel and scorched…alive. The very troubling report was recounted by PFC Nielsen who was one of the survivors on the 7th day of January 1945. Gen. MacArthur’s forces landed in Luzon and started their rapid advance.
American USAFFE guerilla and senior chief, Major Bob Lapham and guerrilla leader in the person of Juan Pajota, considered to free the prisoners while they’re inside the camp but the question was how and where to hide them without getting caught in their unstable condition. On the other hand, Lt. Col. Bernard Anderson who was the guerilla leader not far from the camp suggested for them to cover the prisoners and guide them towards Debut Day covering 50 miles and transfer them via the 30 submarines but the plan disapproved by Gen. MacArthur for fear that the Japanese forces would only catch up and massacre them all. Likewise, they didn’t have the submarines required.
On the 26h of January 1945, Maj. Lapham traveled to the Sixth Army headquarters which was 30 miles away from his location and proposed to Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger intelligence Chief Col. Horton White to plan a rescue to free the estimated 500 prisoners at Cabanatuan camp before they could all be massacred by the Japanese. An estimated 100-300 inside the camp were sited, 1,000 along Cabu River on the northeast side and around 5,000 inside the city. Visual images of the camp were provided where surveillance images have been taken on January 19 but the first corps as estimated by White would not be available not later than January 31 or on the 1st of February but the most probable attempt would be on the 29th of January. The details were reported to Krueger by White and gave his order to proceed with the rescue plan.
White coordinated with Mucci of 6th Ranger Battalion among three other lieutenants from Alamo Scouts of reconnaissance unit, for briefing. The rescue team consist fourteen Scouts by two teams, to depart 24 hours earlier as the advance party to do the surveillance. The major force covering 90 Rangers of Company C and 30 of Company F who would take their post 30 miles before the Japanese borderline, encircle the camp and kill the prison guards and bring back the prisoners to safety. The Americans forces would join the 80 Filipino guerrillas as their guide and join forces in rescuing the POWs. On the nightfall of January 26, the rangers focused on the visual images and communicated with the guerilla intelligence inside the prison. The 2 five-man team Alamo Scouts headed by 1st Lieutenants William Nellist together with Thomas Rounsaville, left the place at Guimba and took off around 19:00 and penetrated behind the enemy line by doing the long walk in an attempt to have a surveillance of the target area. They were loaded with .45 pistols, 3 grenades, carbines, knives and extra ammo. The following day, the Scouts coordinated with Filipino guerilla units at Platero about 2 miles on the northern part of the prisoner’s camp.
On the other hand, all Rangers were all loaded with different Thompson Garand rifles, submachine guns, BARs, hand grenades, pistols, knives, and extra ammos including bazookas. Volunteers from 832nd Battalion Signal Service composed of four combat photographers and armed with pistols joined each of the teams to cover the said rescue for documentation as suggested by Mucci. The Medical team headed by surgeon Capt. Jimmy Fisher also carried individual pistols or carbines despite the restrictions to carry firearms by medical personnel under the Geneva Convention provisions. Radio outpost to keep track between the penetrating group and main command was set at Guimba. Two radios were on standby on purpose for asking aircraft support only in case large Japanese forces are encountered on the process or in case of last-minute alterations of the plan and an off friendly fire to be made by the American aircraft.
In late January 28, 1945, Mucci among other reinforcement were121 Rangers under the command of Capt. Prince travelled for 60 miles on their way to Guimba before going through the Japanese lines duly guided by Filipino guerillas. The Rangers traveled by foot along wide grasslands to evade from Japanese patrol. Other guerrillas used muzzling dogs as well as caged chickens to cover any sounds made by traveling group. There was a situation when the Rangers almost got caught when the Japanese tank was patrolling along the highway when they were following a narrow path near the road.
The group stopped at Balincarin which is situated on the northern part about 5 miles away from the Japanese camp. The next day, Mucci coordinated with Nellist along with Rounsaville to conduct reconnaissance before that night and reported that the territory surrounding the camp that would make them as an easy target in the eyes of the enemy. Mucci also communicated with Capt. Juan Pajota, a USAFFE guerilla with 200 men. His knowledge about the activities of the enemy and geographical location of the place were vital information that he had to postpone the planned attack that night. He informed Mucci that his group had been observing the activities of no less than 1,000 Japanese soldiers encamped across Cabu River over a hundred yards near the prison camp. He further confirmed that around 7,000 Japanese troops were posted within Cabanatuan City just miles away. With the American forces stationed along the southwest, the Japanese division retreating towards the north road near the camp was visible. It would therefore be much safer to let the division pass than face them. Mucci took the advice of Pajota and suspended the proposed plan round the clock. He then notified the 6th Army Headquarters of the situation via radio to be on alert with orders to observe and gather more information surrounding the camp. The raid took place on January 30.
Outcome and historical significance
The raid in Cabanatuan was very significant and it was considered as a great accomplishment for the Americans and the Filipinos. 489 Prisoners of War were set free with other 33 civilians with a total of 492 Americans, 23 British, 3 Dutch, 2 Norwegians, 1 Canadian and 1 Filipino. The rescue paved the way for the prisoners to tell the whole world of the Bataan and Corregidor atrocities by the Japanese forces which had sparked a new upsurge to resolve the issue against Japan. The Alamo Scouts and the Air Force alongside the two great pilots, Capt. Kenneth R. Schrieber and Lt. Bonnie B. Rucks who maneuvered the plane that flew so low were incredible and heroic. An estimated number of 530 to 1,000 Japanese were killed during the assault.
Fisher was among those who were fatally wounded. Mucci had ordered to build an air strip next to Plateros to transport Fisher to get immediate medical attention but he succumbs the following day. His last words were “Good luck on the way out”. The other Ranger killed was Sweezy who got struck by 2 rounds of friendly fire, 20 of Pajota’s guerillas were wounded as well as 2 Rangers and 2 Scouts. Fisher and Sweezy were sent to their final resting place at Manila National Cemetery. Most American prisoners were immediately flown to the United States those who were too weak to travel remained to recuperate at American hospitals.
On February 11, 1945, 280 POWs were sent off aboard USS General A. E. Anderson bound for San Francisco thru channel Hollandia and New Guinea. The ship arrived safely in San Francisco Bay on March 8, 1945
MacArthur spoke about the raid. He said
“No incident of the campaign in the Pacific has given me such satisfaction as the release of the POWs at Cabanatuan. The mission was brilliantly successful”
Awards were presented by General Douglas MacArthur to those who took part during the raid on March 3, 1945. Mucci and Prince both got Distinguished Service Crosses. Mucci got promoted to colonel with the 1st Regiment of the 6rh Infantry Division under his command. All other selected officers received Silver Stars and the rest of American enlisted men as well as the Filipino guerilla officers got Bronze Stars. Nellist, Rousanville with other 12 Scouts got Presidential Unit Citations.
By late 1945, the bodies of those who died at the camp were rightfully exhumed and transferred to respective cemeteries. The land was later donated by the Philippine government and was created as a memorial in late 1990s. The Cabanatuan Camp site is now a park with a memorial wall bearing the names of the late 2,656 American prisoners. Former American POWs and veterans helped finance the project and maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Pres. Ronal Reagan designated April 12, 1982 as “American Salute to Cabanatuan Prisoner of War Memorial Day” through a joint resolution by Congress. A hospital was also named after guerilla leader Eduardo Joson situated at Cabanatuan City. Bob Lapham managed to write a book about their actual undercover activities and various guerilla operations.