Raid at Cabanatuan
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The great raid on Cabanatuan , Nueva Ecija, Philippines on January 30, 1945 by US Army Rangers backed by Alamo Scouts and Filipino guerrillas on a Japanese prison camp, resulting in the liberation of more than 500 Bataan and Corregidor prisoners of war was a celebrated, historic achievement involving Allied special warfare operations during World War II .
By late 1944 , Imperial Japan's fortunes of war experienced a complete turnaround. Defeat after resounding defeat met the Japanese Imperial Army from the China-Burma-India theater to the jungles of the Pacific, as they struggled vainly to stem the increasing superiority of the Allied war machine. In August, apparently piqued the US State Department's communique concerning Japan's war crimes against Allied POWs , the War Ministry in Tokyo issued the Kill-All policy - aimed to annihilate the principal witnesses - the last surviving POWs.
On December 14, 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 . One of the survivors, Pfc. Eugene Nielsen escaped and later recounted his tale to US Army intelligence on January 7, 1945.
Two days later, January 9, Gen. MacArthur's forces landed on Luzon, which 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 January 26, 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 reconnaisance 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
In the evening of January 27, the two teams of Alamo Scouts chosen to work the mission, led by 1st Lts. William Nellist and Thomas Roundsville, infiltrated behind enemy lines to begin a careful reconnaisance of Cabanatuan. Next morning, January 28, at Platero, two miles north of the camp, having linked up with several guerrilla units, the Scouts set up a base, enabling them to reconnoiter and gather useful data on Japanese movements in the camp vicinity. In the early afternoon, Mucci and a reinforced company of 107 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.
At Balincarin, five miles north of the camp, the following day, Mucci met with USAFFE guerrilla Captain Juan Pajota, whose intimate knowledge of enemy activity, the people and the terrain proved crucial to the success of the raid. Upon learning that Mucci wanted to push through with the attack that evening, Pajota insisted that it would be suicide. After consolidating the information from Pajota and the Alamo Scouts of heavy enemy activity in the camp area, Mucci concurred to postpone the raid for twenty-four hours. The Rangers withdrew to Platero.
At 11:30 a.m., on January 30, Alamo Scouts 1Lt. Nellist and Pvt. Rufo Vaquilar, disguised as locals, managed to gain access to an abandoned shack above the camp, where they were rewarded with an inobtrusive and extraordinary view of the prison compound. They prepared a detailed report on the camp's major features and the best routes for the Rangers. Shortly, they were joined by three other Scouts, to whom Nellist tasked to send the report to Mucci.
Lt. Col. Mucci received Nellist's report at 2:30 p.m. then forwarded it to Capt. Prince, whom he entrusted the job for figuring out how to get the Rangers in and out of the compound quickly, with all the sickly prisoners, and of course, with few caualties as possible.
Prince finalized his plan around surprise and confusion - among the best weapons of combat. His prediction for accomplishing the raid was thirty minutes or less. He sent two groups of guerrillas, one under Capt. Pajota, another under Capt. Eduardo Joson - in opposite directions, to hold the main road that passed by the camp. The Rangers were split into two groups - one for the front gate, and the other to come through the rear. He would personally start the beginning of the attack on a prearranged signal and make sure that the enemy barracks was cleared and the prisoners accounted for.
One primary concern of Prince was the flat surrounding 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 US Air Force to have a P-61 night fighter fly over the camp, just as the men would make their way across the field. It proved to be the biggest factor in maintaining the element of surprise.
Liberation By Fire
Two hours after Mucci approved Prince's plan for the rescue, the Rangers departed from Platero. Approaching the camp area stealthily with relative ease; Pajota had prevailed upon the villagers to muzzle their barking dogs during the night, the Rangers gained their positions.
Meanwhile, the P-61 night fighter had taken off at 6:00 p.m. and for the next hour, provided the needed distraction - attracting the guards' attention - while the Rangers at the camp's rear bellycrawled toward the barbed wire fences. The rest, under Prince, made their way nearer to the main gate.
At 7:50 p.m. ,January 30, 1945, the whole prison compound erupted - into the largest volume of small arms fire ever heard - described by one POW. The Rangers at the main gate manuevered to bring the guard barracks under fire, while the ones at the rear, eliminated the enemy near the prisoners' huts, then proceeded with the evacuation.
The alerted enemy contingent across the bridge now poured up the camp road - and into the waiting guns of Pajota's guerrillas. Squad after squad of Japanese troops rushed the bridge in a suicidal frenzy, but the guerrilla forces - armed with American firepower - repulsed all attackers.
Long Trek to Freedom
At 8:15 p.m., with the entire camp secured, Capt. Prince fired his flare to signal the end of the assault. As 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, helping with casualties, and surveying the area for enemy retaliatory movements. Meanwhile, Pajota's men continued resisting the attacking enemy until they could eventually withdraw.
Thirty minutes later, the Rangers and POWs reached the river, where a large caravan of about 100 water buffalo carts, driven by local villagers, organized by Pajota, waited. Five to a cart, and in no time, exhausted and lame, the men rolled the thirty miles to safety.
Outcome and Historical Significance
The raid was a tremendous success. In all, only two Rangers were killed, 512 POWs were liberated, and estimated 523 Japanese troops were killed or wounded. There were no Filipino casualties. The feat was celebrated equally by MacArthur's soldiers, Allied correspondents, and the American public, for the raid had touched an emotional nerve among Americans concerned about the fate of the defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.
On March 3, 1945, General Walter Krueger presented the men with awards: Mucci and Prince both received the Distinguished Service Cross, the other American officers received Silver Stars. The American enlisted men and all the Filipino officers and the enlisted men got Bronze Stars.
The raid also marked the high point of cooperation between Rangers, guerrillas, Alamo Scouts, and conventional American combat units. Its success was also attributed to the fact that it was carried out in friendly territory, that without the Filipino civilians, the whole operation would have been a lot tougher, if not impossible.