In January 1945, 511 American and Allied POWs were held inside the barbed wire of the Pangatian prison camp, near Cabanatuan on the Philippine island of Luzon. They were the emaciated survivors of the fall of the Philippines in 1942, including soldiers, Marines, sailors, pilots, as well as civilians, mostly Americans but a few from allied countries. Most were survivors of General Douglas A. MacArthur's defense of Bataan and Corregidor and the infamous Bataan Death March which followed surrender of Bataan on 9 April 1942. For more than 33 months they were subjected to starvation and mistreatment at the hands of the Japanese.
Lt. Col. Henry A. Mucci (left), commander of the 6th Ranger Battalion, studies a map with his personnel officer, Capt. Vaughn Moss. Philippines, 1945.
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Background on the Cabanatuan POW Camp
After a lapse of more than two years, U.S. forces returned to the Philippines, landing at Leyte on 20 October 1944, followed by landing on Luzon on 9 January 1945. Philippine scouts reported that the POWs were in the Cabanatuan camp and that the Japanese intended to move them or even murder them as the American Army approached. In addition to Japanese intentions, malnutrition and disease took a daily toll of POWs whose ability to survive had run out.
The threat of Japanese murder was validated by the deaths of about 150 American prisoners at a POW camp on Palawan, another Philippine island, who were killed by their guards on 14 December 1944. A survivor of that massacre reached U.S. forces with a deeply troubling report.
Preparing for the Raid on Cabanatuan
Map of the Raid on Cabanatuan. Click on map for larger image.
Sixth U.S. Army commander, Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, assigned the 6th Ranger Battalion to prepare the raid. The 6th Rangers, the only Army Rangers in the Pacific, were commanded since April 1944 by Lt. Col. Henry A. Mucci (top photo), a 1936 West Point graduate. The all-volunteer 6th Rangers performed commando-type missions on three islands in Leyte Gulf on 17 October 1944 to prepare for the invasion, and were now trained, experienced, and ready. Their mission was to infiltrate about 30 miles behind enemy lines, assault the Cabanatuan POW Camp, liberate the prisoners and return them safely to U.S. lines before the Japanese could mount a counterattack.
Numerous Japanese forces were in the area. Major roadways passed the camp which was used to rest Japanese units in transit. A Japanese battalion regularly bivouacked about a mile from the camp and a division-sized unit was believed to be around Cabanatuan City, three to four miles from the camp. These Japanese units had tanks that joined movements around the camp at night, forced to avoid daylight movement due to American aircraft.
Organizing the Raid Forces
For the raid, Col. Mucci chose Company C of the 6th Rangers, commanded by Capt. Robert W. Prince, reinforced by the 2nd Platoon of Company F, led by 1st Lt. John F. Murphy. Four combat photographers from the 832nd Signal Service Battalion and two teams of Sixth Army’s elite recon unit, the Alamo Scouts, were included. In total, the Ranger force consisted of 8 officers and 120 enlisted men.
Invaluable support for the Rangers came from several hundred Filipino guerrillas under Captains Eduardo Joson and Juan Pajota. They provided intelligence, route security, and interface with the civilian population. The guerrillas would also play a critical combat role during the assault on the camp.
Before the raid, Mucci conducted a briefing and gave the volunteers the opportunity to decline the mission. Everyone re-volunteered.
The Rangers moved out at 0500 on 28 January, halted at Guimba, and left with native guides at 1400 to march to a guerrilla camp near Lobong about five miles to the southeast, where they linked up with Joson's guerillas. By nightfall, the combined force was behind Japanese lines. At the village of Balincarin, the Rangers were joined by Pajota's force and obtained the latest intelligence from the Alamo Scouts. Working with Pajota, Prince arranged for the guerillas to provide security, collect enough carabao carts to transport liberated POWs too weak to walk back and prepare enough food for several hundred men.
Mucci delayed the raid for one day in order to gather additional intelligence and to allow time for a large force of Japanese transiting the area to depart. During the delay the Rangers gathered detailed information on the camp and its defenders.
The Great Raid on the Cabanatuan POW Camp
The plan for the night-time assault on the compound gave the Filipino guerillas the vital mission of stopping any enemy reaction forces coming from nearby Cabanatuan City and Cabu. A Ranger bazooka section was attached to the guerillas to deal with Japanese tanks. The main Ranger force planned to hit the camp from two sides, with Murphy’s 2nd Platoon of Company F assaulting the rear entrance and Prince’s Company C storming through the front gate of the camp. On Pajota's recommendation, a Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter was scheduled to fly overhead just prior to the attack as a distraction.
Skillful reconnaissance and careful planning paid off in a swift, well-executed attack. The Rangers and guerillas moved into position at twilight on 30 January 1944. Company C had to crawl a mile across open ground to reach their jump-off position in front of the camp. The P-61 overflight worked as planned, drawing the attention of both guards and prisoners to the sky.
At 1945 hours, Murphy fired the first shot, indicating 2nd Platoon of Company F was in position at the rear of the camp, the signal for the attack to commence. The Rangers hit the Japanese soldiers with overwhelming ferocity, using every weapon they had. They first took out the guard towers, pillboxes and all Japanese in the open. When those positions had been neutralized, the Rangers stormed into the compound and completed the elimination of enemy soldiers and interior defensive positions.
Simultaneously, the teams at the blocking positions carried out their assignments. Pajota’s men opened fire on the Japanese battalion in the bivouac next to Cabu Creek. Guerilla machine gunners stopped the Japanese counterattacks at the Cabu Creek bridge while the Ranger bazooka teams knocked out two tanks and a truck. The other roadblock under Joson was not attacked, thanks to P-61 night fighter attacks on a Japanese convoy headed toward Joson’s position.
In less than 15 minutes, resistance inside the POW compound had been eliminated, though a final trio of mortar rounds wounded six men and mortally wounded battalion surgeon Captain James C. Fisher, one of only two Rangers to die in the attack.
Rescue of the Prisoners from Cabanatuan POW Camp
By 30 minutes after Murphy's opening shot, Prince had completed two searches of the camp and had determined all the prisoners had been found and removed. Only one prisoner was lost, to a fatal heart attack. One British POW hid in the latrines during the raid and wasn’t found by the Rangers, but he was picked up the next day by Filipino guerrillas.
Six men from Company F were the last Americans to withdraw from the objective, coming under Japanese fire. Corporal Roy Sweezy was killed in this firefight, the second Ranger to die. The Rangers and liberated prisoners made their withdrawal while Pajota continued to stop all Japanese attempts to pursue. By the time Pajota’s men disengaged on signal from the Rangers, they had virtually destroyed an enemy battalion while suffering no fatalities or serious wounds themselves.
Filipino citizens provided food and water to the liberated prisoners on the route back. Additional carabao carts arrived to transport former prisoners too weak to walk. The guerillas continued to provide all-around security.
About 12 hours after the assault on the camp, radio contact was made with Sixth Army. Trucks were requested to meet the force. A couple of hours later, the Rangers and prisoners returned to American lines and shortly thereafter, the heroes of Bataan and Corregidor were undergoing medical examination at the 92d Evacuation Hospital in Guimba.
Aftermath of the Great Raid on Cabanatuan
The epic mission was completed. It was the most complex operation that Rangers conducted during World War II and one of the most successful. All but one of the 511 American and Allied POWs were rescued while an estimated 523 Japanese were killed or wounded. The cost was two Rangers killed, and seven injured.
The success recognized and rewarded. General MacArthur, who said that the raid was "magnificent and reflect[ed] extraordinary credit to all concerned," awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to Mucci, the Silver Star to all American officers, and the Bronze Star to all American enlisted men who participated in the operation. All Filipino officers and enlisted men were awarded the Bronze Star.
The attack marked the high point of cooperation between Rangers, guerrillas, Alamo Scouts, and conventional American combat units. Cabanatuan was the last major combat operation for the 6th Ranger Battalion in World War II.
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