There have been many heroic rescues in recent years, the Thai youth soccer team in 2018, the Chilean copper miners in 2010, but neither compares to perhaps the most daring heroic rescue in modern times – the Great Philippine Raid of World War II. Sadly, with the passing of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ it is also becoming the most forgotten.
“The Great Raid” occurred on January 30, 1945, on the Philippine Island of Luzon. A team of bold US Army Rangers and Filipino guerrillas led a daring mission behind enemy lines. Their goal was to free 500 Allied prisoners of war, facing mass execution at the Japanese POW camp at Cabanatuan. Why was such a risky mission so urgent?
By late 1944, Allies had been slowly pushing back the Japanese forces in the Pacific. The Imperial Japanese Army only dug in deeper. They had already shown a willingness to never surrender and fight to the last man. The liberation of the Philippines began in October 1944, when General Douglas MacArthur landed his forces on Leyte island, having vowed to return. As the Japanese retreated, the Americans had good reason to fear they would execute their POWs before withdrawing.
The Japanese War Ministry had already issued a directive to their Pacific forces in late 1944. Realizing Allied units would liberate POW camps, they circulated a “Kill All” policy. Their motive being that the POWs had witnessed gruesome atrocities committed by the Japanese. Thousands had been slaughtered, tortured, starved, and used in forced labor. These witnesses had to be eliminated.
The Allies had already obtained proof the Japanese forces were capable of such horrific acts.
In December 1944, the Japanese army had forced 150 American POWs on Palawan Island into make shift air-raid shelters. The guards locked them in, dousing the structures with gasoline, and set them on fire, burning the helpless POWs alive. Any who crawled out were machine gunned to death. Somehow, 11 men managed to escape and join the Filipino guerillas.
By early January 1945, US forces had landed on the big island of Luzon, containing Manila, the nation’s capital. The Cabanatuan POW Camp was the largest on Luzon and had once housed over 5,000 prisoners! However, most had been moved to the Japanese mainland to work as slave labor.
As American troops began to sweep across Luzon, there was great fear the same fate could happen to the 500 remaining POWs at Cabanatuan, as had happened at Palawan. The POWs remaining had been left there due to their health and weakened condition. Most men had been at the camp for 3 years, survivors of the horrific Bataan Death March in 1942.
Scouts reported that a full Japanese division was withdrawing on the main road that ran past the prison. The US Army had every reason to believe that, once that division had left, a similar fate awaited the emaciated men at Cabanatuan. Major Robert Lapham proposed an immediate raid to free the prisoners. Best estimates put about 300 Japanese guards in the camp, and as many as 5,000 Japanese troops in Cabanatuan City, a few miles away.
Approval for the raid came from the highest levels: General Douglas MacArthur himself.
A team was quickly formed from the 6th Ranger Battalion. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci, an Army Ranger, was give overall command. He handpicked Captain Robert Prince to lead the Rangers that would enter the camp and extract the POWs. To get to the camp, the rescue force would have to march 30 miles through enemy lines. The small rescue force would consisted of only 121 Army Rangers, 14 Alamo Scouts, and about 200 Filipino guerrilla fighters.
Japanese soldiers in the region could be as high as 9000. The Alamo Scouts would go in first to provide reconnaissance. The Filipino guerrillas would hold off the Japanese soldiers in the city closest to the camp. The Rangers would attack the Japanese camp guards, gather up the POWs, and get them moving back toward the American lines. Everyone knew the chance of success was low and risks high.
The Colonel gathered his Rangers and asked them to meet in a nearby church. An emotional Mucci addressed the men before departure:
“Remember, these boys have been in that hell hole, beaten and starved for nearly three years. If they can’t walk to the river, we will carry them. We don’t leave one of them behind. Not a single one! Go with God—and bring our boys home. They have not been forgotten.”Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci
Mucci then asked his men to take an oath to die fighting, if necessary, to free their brothers.
After the briefing, Mucci had all of them meet with their chaplains to pray.
The Alamo Scouts departed January 28, the Army Rangers the following day. The Rangers were heavily armed for the mission, carrying automatic rifles, submachine guns, knives, pistols, grenades, and bazookas. The Alamo Scouts (US 6th Army Special Reconnaissance Unit) had performed many missions behind enemy lines. They were seasoned soldiers, what today we call Special Forces.
The next day, dressed as Filipino peasants, the Scouts slipped into an abandoned hut only 300 yards from the POW camp. What they saw was not welcome news. The attacking Rangers would have to navigate a 300 yard, completely cleared perimeter around the entire compound, crawling on their bellies under the cover of darkness.
At a rendezvous point on the Pamanga River, the Rangers met up with the 200 Filipino guerrillas. They had intimate knowledge of the surrounding area and would escort them through the back-country. They were lead by Captain Juan Pajota of the US Armed Forces Far East. The Alamo Scouts reported to the officers on their reconnoiter, with details of the entire camp layout.
Mucci and Prince decided to subdivide their Rangers into two elements. Thirty Rangers would flank the camp from the opposite side and initiate the assault, destroy rear guard towers and provide fire support. A 90 Ranger man assault team would storm the camp through the main gate, kill the Japanese guards, and secure all the prisoners.
The Filipino guerrillas would set up blocking positions to the east and west of the camp to hold off any attempt by the nearaby Japanese troops in the city to interfere with their escape. By nightfall, all elements were in place. If all succeeded, they would meet back at this rendezvous point in a couple hours.
On January 30, the Rangers and guerrillas stepped-off, crossing the Pamanga River.
The camp was just a mile and a half away. Mucci radioed in for his special air support. Within minutes a P-61 Black Widow night fighter appeared overhead. The pilot, Captain Ken Scribner, from the 547th Fighter Squadron, immediately began faking engine trouble. Cutting his engines off-and-on, causing backfires and white smoke, the plane dove dramatically towards the jungle, then careened off, only to return, and do it all over again.
To the Japanese guards, the plane appeared to be in serious trouble and might crash at any moment. The soldiers watched transfixed as the struggling plane circled around their camp for 20 minutes. As Scribner kept the guards’ attention, the Rangers painstakingly crawled the 300 cleared yards to the camp on their stomachs. They cut the barbed wire of the camp fence, then took precise aim at every Japanese guard they could see.
On Tuesday night, January 30th, 1945, at 7:40 p.m, the Rangers burst upon the unsuspecting Japanese guards in a sudden, ferocious assault. The 30 Ranger detachment in the rear attacked first, then all hell broke loose. The camp exploded with grenade bursts, rifle and machine gun-fire, wiping out the closest guard towers and rear defenses of the camp first.
Rangers and Scouts then poured into the compound. They kicked-open the doors, and riddled the Japanese guards with machine gun-fire. They charged boldly into to the crowded guard’s barracks and officer’s quarters. Bazooka shells blew-apart guard towers, bunkers, and pillboxes. Any resistance was rapidly dealt with using deadly force. The bodies of dead Japanese soldiers began to cover the dark grounds of the prison camp.
The entire POW camp was under American control in just ten minutes.
The Americans had surprised and overwhelmed the Japanese guards, killing them all. When the firing started, many POWs thought it was the Japanese coming to kill them and they hid. Most of these men had taken part in the infamous Bataan Death March. Held captive for 3 years, they had experienced beatings, executions, and starvation from their Japanese guards. Emaciated to the point of death, it took time to locate, calm down, and gather all the POWs together.
Many of the veteran Rangers, used to the ravages of war, shed tears openly when they saw their fellow soldiers emerge as mere human skeletons. Many could not walk. Others had no shoes. Most were sick. The Rangers gave their shoes and clothes to the men who need them most. Some Rangers carried the skinny POWs on their backs. Others rigged improvised stretchers using their uniforms.
Within 35 minutes, every Japanese soldier had been killed and all the POWs assembled at the main gate for the still dangerous journey back. It was then, one surviving Japanese soldier managed to fire several mortar rounds at them, wounding a few. The Rangers quickly surrounded and killed the gunner. At 8:15 pm, Mucci fired a red flare into the air, letting the Filipino guerrillas know the camp had been taken and the POWs secured.
They still had a 30 mile journey back through enemy lines in the dark. As they passed through friendly Filipino villages, local offered their carabao carts for the weak POWs, wooden buggies pulled along by water buffaloes. By the time the American lines were reached, some 106 carabao carts were contributed.
The Filipino guerrillas fought savagely, holding off a counter-attack by Japanese forces.
The 200 guerillas held back several Japanese attempts, destroying enemy tanks. This allowed the slow moving prisoners to escape on the long journey back. Pajota and his guerrillas placed charges under a nearby bridge over the Cabu River. As the Japanese advanced, they detonated the explosives. Japanese infantry attempted several crossings, but were repeatedly repulsed. The Black Widow returned, strafing and bombing the Japanese troops on the riverbank.
When the Rangers and prisoners reached the rendezvous point, Mucci fired a second red flare in the air. This notified the Filipino guerrillas to finally withdraw. A small field hospital had been erected in a nearby village to care for the wounded, but the column of carts pushed-on, struggling along at barely 2 mph. Filipino villagers gladly supplied food and water to the exhausted Americans.
When the freed POWs first saw a tattered American flag, hanging from a muddy Sherman tank, they were overcome with emotion. The ‘ghost soldiers’ slid off their carts, steadying one another as best they could to stand at attention. Then with tears in their eyes, they saluted the flag that many had not seen for 3 years. At the village of Talavera, a welcome truck convoy was waiting to drive them the remaining distance to the American lines.
The Great Cabanatuan Raid is the largest rescue in American history.
When the smoke and exhaustion finally cleared, the raid had rescued 522: 464 American soldiers, 22 British soldiers, 3 Dutch soldiers, plus 33 American, Norwegian, British, Canadian, and Filipino civilians. Casualties were surprisingly light: 2 American soldiers killed & 4 wounded, with 9 Filipino guerillas wounded. Two of the prisoners, died during the trek out. Japanese casualties were far heavier, ranging somewhere near 1,000, along with untold wounded.
The final outcome of the Cabanatuan raid was nothing short of miraculous. General MacArthur pronounced that , “No incident of the Pacific campaign has given me such satisfaction.” When news of The Great Raid reached American shores, there was jubilation! Throughout the Allied military, and among citizens across the war-torn globe, spirits lifted in response to the heartwarming news. Mucci and Prince were personally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by General McArthur.
However, as so often happens with history, The Great Raid soon became a distant memory. In the final months of WWII, headlines announced the German surrender, Hitler’s suicide, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the 2 atomic bombs. Few today remember, or have even heard, of the most heroic rescue mission ever.
Let us never forget The Great Raid of Cabanatuan, the daring rescuers, and the brave men they set free. They represent a generation of us that gave so much for their countries, and the entire world, during the dark days of World War II, when evil was on the brink of success. Let us pray we never need such a great heroic rescue again.