Tampa Bay is playing host to the Special Operations community this week as SOFIC is the hub of all things for the SOF world. And the area of operations for the for SOF is the globe these days. One organization being highlighted this week in the US Army Rangers who will celebrate their 75th anniversary next month. One of their operations from World War II was a classic example of a joint special operations mission that was incredibly planned and executed, the rescue of POWs at Cabanatuan.
The raid on Cabanatuan involved troops from the US Army Rangers, Alamo Scouts, and the Filipino guerrillas. All would play key roles in the operation.
After the fall of the Philippines and Bataan in the early day of World War II, Cabanatuan was the largest POW camp in the country. At its peak, it held over 5000 prisoners but by the time of the raid, also known as the “Great Raid”, it held just a bit more than 500. The prisoners had survived the Bataan Death March, brutal conditions in the camp as well as disease and malnutrition.
General Douglas MacArthur authorized the rescue attempt when it was feared that the Japanese were planning on murdering the prisoners before the US forces would liberate them. The Japanese had already done so at the Puerto Princesa Prison Camp on the island of Palawan. They herded 150 prisoners into an air raid shelter where they were doused with gasoline and burned alive.
The initial plan set up by LTC Henry Mucci, commander of the 6th Ranger Bn. had two teams of Alamo Scouts, 14 in all and they would set up a reconnaissance and surveillance detachment on the camp.
Mucci had 120 Rangers from Company C and Company F. They had to march 30 miles behind the Japanese lines to reach the camp undetected to do the assault. The plan was to set up around the camp, put fire on the Japanese guards, eliminating them, rescue the prisoners and get them all back to friendly lines.
The assault was to be led by Captain Robert Prince with 90 Rangers. The support element of 30 Rangers was led by Lt. John Murphy.
The Rangers were bolstered with 200 Filipino guerrillas under the command of CPT Juan Pajota who would serve as guides and support the assault. Pajota’s men set up a roadblock on a bridge spanning the Cabu River to stop Japanese reinforcements from reaching the camp.
The Rangers would have to crawl across open terrain where the Japanese had cleared, to cut down on prisoner escape attempts. To distract the guards, an Army Air Corps P-61 Black Widow buzzed the camp, performing aerobatics and backfiring his engine in an attempt to allow Prince’s men to get in position. During this time, Filipino guerrillas cut the telephone lines to Cabanatuan where the other Japanese forces were.
At 1940 hours Murphy’s men put devastating fire on the Japanese positions and within 15 seconds had neutralized every guard tower and pillbox. One Ranger blew the lock of the gate with a .45 pistol.
The Rangers at the main gate shifted fire in the Japanese guard barracks and the officer’s quarters. Bazooka teams targeted a shed that was thought to have tanks but Japanese soldiers attempting to flee in two trucks were targeted and destroyed.
Prince’s Rangers rushed the compound where the prisoners, fearing that the raid was a Japanese ruse to lure them out to be killed, hid from their American rescuers. But eventually, the prisoners, led by the Rangers made their way to the main gate. Many had to be carried due to their weakened condition.
A Japanese mortar fired three rounds injuring several Rangers and Filipino guerrillas, mortally wounding Ranger Bn. surgeon CPT James Fisher. Murphy’s men from Company F quickly killed the soldier on the mortar.
At the sound of the attack on the camp, CPT Pajota’s guerrillas fired on the Japanese forces from across the river, detonating explosives on the bridge that didn’t destroy it, but blew a hole large enough where tanks or other vehicles couldn’t cross. One guerrilla destroyed four Japanese tanks with a bazooka, having just been trained on its use by the Rangers earlier.
A Japanese flanking force trying the cross the river behind Pajota’s guerrillas was spotted and annihilated.
Prince’s men cleared the camp and he fired a red star cluster to indicate that the last men had left the camp. The Rangers carried and led the POWs to the Pampanga River, where a caravan of 26 carabao carts waited to transport them to Plateros, driven by local villagers organized by CPT Pajota.
Once all of the carts and Rangers had crossed the river, Prince fired a second red star cluster to signal Pajota’s men to withdraw. Mucci radioed the Sixth Army HQs that the mission was a success and that they had all of the POWs safely out of the camp.
The Americans reached their lines at Talavera on January 31, the amount of carts had swelled from 26 to 102 as many of the prisoners found it increasingly difficult to walk. The raid freed 489 POWs and 33 civilians.
General MacArthur wrote about the raid stating, “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.” Mucci and Prince were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions. All the other officers and several Rangers received Silver Stars. The rest of the force received Bronze Stars. The fourteen Alamo Scouts received Presidential Unit Citations.
The raid was one of the most successful POW rescue attempts in US military history and serves as a beacon with what would be the joint special operations of today. The Rangers have a history rich in tradition. The raid at Cabanatuan is among their finest moments.
Photo courtesy US Army