The Great Raid on Cabanatuan in the Philippines on 30 January 1945 by US Army Rangers and Filipino guerrillas resulted in the liberation of more than 500 prisoners of war (POWs) from a Japanese POW camp near Cabanatuan and was a celebrated, historic achievement involving Allied special forces during World War II.
Edward Dmytryk's 1945 film "Back to Bataan" starring John Wayne opens by retelling the story of the raid on the Cabanatuan POW camp. The raid was re-created, with great attention to historical accuracy, in the 2005 John Dahl film The Great Raid.
By late 1944 Imperial Japan's fortunes of war experienced a complete turnaround from its previous dominance. Defeat after Raid at Cabanatuandefeat met the Japanese Imperial Army facing the British in the China-Burma-India theater, and against the US and Australians in the Pacific islands. The increasing superiority of the Allied war machine was due largely to the successful US submarine campaign against Japanese merchant shipping.
In August, the War Ministry in Tokyo apparently was piqued by the US State Department's communique concerning Japan's war crimes against Allied POWs, and issued the Kill-All policy to annihilate the principal witnesses — the last surviving POWs.
On 20 October 1944, General Douglas MacArthur's forces landed on Leyte (Battle of Leyte), paving the way for the liberation of the Philippines. On 14 December 1944, as the Americans consolidated their forces to prepare for the main invasion of Luzon, nearly 150 Americans were executed by their Japanese captors in a POW camp at the island of Palawan. These Americans were herded into air raid shelters, sealed in, doused with gasoline, and burned alive. One of the survivors escaped; Pfc. Eugene Nielsen recounted his tale to US Army intelligence on 7 January 1945.
Two days later, MacArthur's forces landed on Luzon, and began a rapid advance towards the capital, Manila. During this time Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, the US Sixth Army commander, was notified of the Cabanatuan camp's existence by Major Robert Lapham, the senior USAFFE guerrilla leader in Luzon.
By 26 January, with Sixth Army forward units nearing Cabanatuan, Gen. Krueger became increasingly concerned of the situation at the camp, and with his intelligence officer, Col. Horton White, called in the special reconnaissance unit attached to his Sixth Army - the Alamo Scouts - for a briefing. The next day, Krueger assigned Lt. Col. Henry Mucci and his 6th Ranger Battalion the mission to raid Cabanatuan and rescue the POWs.
Behind enemy lines
On the evening of 27 January, two teams of Alamo Scouts, led by 1st Lts. William Nellist and Thomas Roundsville, infiltrated behind enemy lines to attempt a reconnaissance of the prison camp. The next morning, the Scouts linked up with several Filipino guerrilla units at the village of Platero, two miles north of the camp.
In the early afternoon, Mucci and a reinforced company of 127 Rangers under Capt. Robert Prince slipped through Japanese lines near Guimba. Guided by the guerrillas, the Rangers hiked through forests and open grasslands, narrowly avoiding a Japanese tank on the national highway by following a ravine that ran under the road.
The following day at Balincarin, five miles north of the camp, Mucci met with USAFFE guerrilla Captain Juan Pajota, whose intimate knowledge of enemy activity, the locals, and the terrain proved crucial. Upon learning that Mucci wanted to push through with the attack that evening, Pajota resisted, insisting that it would be suicide. After consolidating information from Pajota and the Alamo Scouts about heavy enemy activity in the camp area, Mucci agreed to postpone the raid for 24 hours. The Rangers withdrew to Platero.
At 11:30 A.M. on 30 January, Alamo Scouts First Lt. Nellist and Pvt. Rufo Vaquilar, disguised as locals, managed to gain access to an abandoned shack above the camp where they were rewarded with a view of the prison compound. They prepared a detailed report on the camp's major features and the best attack routes. Shortly thereafter they were joined by three other Scouts, whom Nellist tasked to deliver the report to Mucci.
Lt. Col. Mucci received Nellist's report at 2:30 p.m. and forwarded it to Capt. Prince, whom he entrusted to figure out how to get the Rangers in and out of the compound quickly, with all the sickly prisoners, and of course, with as few casualties as possible.
He sent two groups of guerrillas, one under Capt. Pajota and another under Capt. Eduardo Joson, in opposite directions to hold the main road near the camp. The Rangers were split into two groups as well: C Company, led by Capt. Prince, would attack the main camp and escort the prisoners out, while thirty members from F Company commanded by Lt. John Murphy would signal the start of the attack by firing into various Japanese positions. He predicted that the raid would be accomplished in thirty minutes or less.
One of Prince's primary concerns was the flatness of the countryside. He knew his Rangers would have to crawl through a long, open field on their bellies, right under the eyes of the Japanese guards. Pajota and Mucci arranged for the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) to have a P-61 Black Widow night fighter buzz the camp while the men made their way across the field. It proved to be the biggest factor in achieving the element of surprise.
Prince gives a great deal of credit for the success of the raid to others: “Any success we had was due not only to our efforts but to the Alamo scouts and Air Force. The pilots (Capt. Kenneth R. Schrieber and Lt. Bonnie B. Rucks) of the plane that flew so low over the camp were incredibly brave men.”
About 45 minutes before the attack, Capt Schrieber cut the left engine at 1,500 feet over the camp. He restarted it, creating a loud backfire, and repeated the procedure twice more, losing altitude to 200 feet. Pretending to be a crippled plane, Schrieber headed toward low hills, clearing them by a mere 30 feet. To the Japanese observers, it seemed the plane had crashed and they watched, waiting for a fiery explosion. It created a much-needed diversion for the Rangers inching their way toward the camp on their bellies.
Liberation by fire
Two hours after Mucci approved Prince's plan, the Rangers departed from Platero. Approaching the camp by stealth was relatively easy — Pajota had prevailed upon the villagers to muzzle their barking dogs during the night. Meanwhile the P-61 had taken off at 6:00 p.m., piloted by Kenneth Schrieber and Bonnie Rucks, to provide distraction for the next hour, while the Rangers at the camp's rear crawled toward the barbed wire fences. The others, under Prince, made their way nearer to the main gate.
At 7:40 p.m. the whole prison compound erupted into the largest volume of small arms fire ever heard, as described by one POW. The Rangers at the main gate maneuvered to bring the guard barracks under fire, while the ones at the rear eliminated the enemy near the prisoners' huts and then proceeded with the evacuation. A Bazooka team from F Company ran up the main road to a tin shack which the scouts had told Mucci held tanks. Though a truck moved in with a dozen Japanese soldiers, the team was able to destroy the shack and the truck. The surviving Japanese were mowed down by F Company.
When the Rangers yelled to the POW's to come out and be rescued, many of the POWs feared that it might be a trap so the Japanese could mow them down. Also, a substantial number of the POWs resisted because the Rangers' weapons and uniforms looked nothing like those from a few years prior. Many of them hid, forcing the Rangers to go barracks to barracks. The Rangers were challenged by the POWs, and asked who they were and where they were from. Many Rangers had to resort to physical force to remove the prisoners, throwing or kicking them out. Once out of the barracks, they were told by the Rangers to proceed to the main, or front gate. Prisoners were disoriented because to them, the 'main gate' meant the entrance to the American side of the camp. Many of the POWs collided with each other in the confusion but were eventually led out by the Rangers.
Zero Ward was a makeshift hospital where the sick and weak were placed (zero being the chance of survival). Rangers carried the prisoners out, and many were so light that some Rangers carried two men on their backs.
A lone Japanese soldier was able to fire off three mortar rounds toward the main gate. F Company located the soldier and took him out. Several Rangers and POWs, including battalion surgeon Capt. James Fisher, were wounded in the attack.
The alerted Japanese contingent now poured over the bridge in the nearby Cabu River and into the waiting guns of Pajota's USAFFE guerrillas. Pajota had sent a demolitions expert several hours earlier to set charges to go off at 7:40 PM. The bomb went off and did not destroy the bridge, but blew a hole over which tanks could not pass. Squad after squad of Japanese troops rushed the bridge in a suicidal frenzy, and the Filipino guerrillas repulsed all attacks. One guerrilla, who had been trained to use the Bazooka only a few hours earlier, destroyed or disabled four tanks which were hiding behind a clump of trees.
Prince checked all parts after the raid but he missed a deaf British soldier hiding. This man was found later on by passing guerillas.
Long Trek to Freedom
At 8:15 p.m. the camp was secured and Capt. Prince fired his flare to signal the end of the assault. The Rangers and the weary, frail and disease-ridden POWs made their way to the appointed rendezvous at the Pampanga River, a mile away. The Alamo Scouts stayed behind to help with casualties and survey the area for enemy retaliatory movements. Meanwhile, Pajota's men continued to resist the attacking enemy until they finally could withdraw.
Thirty minutes later, the Rangers and POWs reached the river. A caravan of about a dozen water buffalo carts waited there, driven by local villagers organized by Pajota.
During one leg of the return trip, the men were stopped by the Hukbalahap, a group that hated both American and Japanese. They were also rivals to Pajota's men. One of Pajota's lieutenants confered with the Hukbalahap, and came back and told Mucci that they were not allowed to pass through the village. Angered by the message, Mucci sent the lieutenant back to insist that pursuing Japanese forces would be coming. The lieutenant came back and told Mucci that only Americans could pass, and Pajota's men had to stay.
The agitated Mucci told the lieutenant that both Rangers and guerrillas were passing through, or he would call in an artillery barrage and level the whole village. (Actually, Mucci's radio wasn't working). The Huks, as they were called, agreed to let both groups through. Mucci, now a little paranoid, worried that the lieutenant might be working with the Huks. He took out his .45 pistol, cocked it, and asked the lieutenant if the road was clear. The lieutenant answered yes and Mucci responded, "It's like this. It better be clear. Because you're going to head the column. I'll be right behind you. If there's even a hint of trouble, I'll shoot you first."
As the forces moved through the village, the unharmed Mucci apologized to the Lieutenant. At 8 o'clock, Mucci's radioman was able to get Sixth Army headquarters on the line. The Sixth Army had captured Talavera, a town ten miles from Mucci's current position. Mucci was directed to go there. At Talavera, the POWs were ordered to board trucks for the last leg of their journey home.
Outcome and historical significance
The raid was a tremendous success — 512 POWs were liberated. A deaf and almost blind British citizen who could not hear the gunshots, and did not see the tracers, was missed in the final sweep of the camp. He had a bad case of dysentry and was in the outhouse all night long, and went back into his barracks to sleep at night, unaware to the carnage surrounding him. He was later brought to American lines the next day by Capt. Pajota's men.
Four Americans died. One prisoner apparently had a heart attack while a Ranger was carrying him out of the camp. Another prisoner died of tuberculosis just after reaching American lines. Battalion surgeon James Fisher succumbed one day later from his mortar wounds. Corporal Roy Sweezy of F Company was shot by a fellow Ranger who mistook him for an enemy soldier. (The U.S. Army would state in the After Action Report that Sweezy was killed by a stray Japanese bullet.) Twenty-one Filipino guerrillas were injured.
An estimated 523 Japanese troops were killed or wounded.
This feat was celebrated by MacArthur's soldiers, Allied correspondents, and the American public, for the raid had touched an emotional chord among Americans concerned about the fate of the defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.
Two hundred seventy-two former Cabanatuan POWs left Leyte on 11 February 1945, aboard the transport USS General A.E. Anderson bound for San Francisco via Hollandia, New Guinea. The Japanese were dealt a great propaganda blow and their radio announcer Tokyo Rose announced that Japanese submarines, ships and planes were hunting the ship. Fortunately, her threats proved to be a bluff, as the General Anderson safely arrived in San Francisco Bay on 8 March 1945.
General Douglas MacArthur presented the following awards on 3 March 1945: Lt. Col. Mucci and Capt. Prince both received Distinguished Service Crosses. The other American officers received Silver Stars. The American enlisted men and the Filipino guerrilla officers were awarded Bronze Stars.
The raid marked the high point of cooperation between Rangers, Alamo Scouts, Filipino guerrillas, and conventional American ground and air units. Without the assistance of Filipino citizens the whole operation would have been even more difficult, if not impossible.