Former Cabanatuan POWs celebrate after successful raid on prison camp. Courtesy US Army/Wikimedia commons

by Kirk Hovious

Everything about them was forgettable. Their mission was cloaked in secrecy. Their uniforms were stripped of rank and identification. The men they were sent to rescue had suffered and languished in subhuman conditions for over 3 years…seemingly forgotten by their own country. Nearly sixty years later, the vast majority of Americans have never heard of, nor do they have knowledge of, what transpired January 30, 1945 on a flat, dry and desolate patch of land in the Philippines near a village named “Cabanatuan”.

Let me share the story of Cabanatuan with the hope that you remember this event, these men and what they stood for. Even more, I hope this inspires you to further research Cabanatuan and share what you learn with others.

By January 1945 the American Army had begun the liberation of the Philippines. One month earlier the Imperial Japanese army had massacred nearly 150 American prisoners of war on the small Philippine Island of Palawan as part of an effort to eliminate any potential witnesses at war crimes trials. The Palawan massacre was not simply an isolated act of vengeance but rather compliance with a “Kill-All” order directed by the Imperial Japanese high command.

Cabanatuan Prison Camp was a large Japanese controlled POW camp in central Luzon. During the war it became home to thousands of American soldiers. Many died from torture, execution, starvation and disease. By January 28th 1945 it housed over 500 prisoners, mostly Americans, mostly survivors of the Bataan death march. These unfortunate souls were near death after over 3 years of internment in the most inhumane conditions imaginable. As the American Army advanced, it was feared the Japanese would execute the prisoners in a fashion similar to Palawan. It was estimated that the American front line would be at Cabanatuan within 5 days. A rescue attempt was their only hope.

General Walter Krueger, Commander of the 6th Army, assigned the task of rescuing the prisoners of Cabanatuan to Colonel Henry Mucci. Mucci was the charismatic and hard driving leader of the 6th Ranger Battalion. His men were fit, fearless and ready to fight. He selected 120 men, all volunteers, to execute a “simple” mission… penetrate 30 miles behind enemy lines, attack a fortified prisoner of war camp located within a mile of an additional 1000 enemy troops, free the POW’s and safely escort them 30 miles back to the American front lines. Details about the camp were limited and the final plans for the rescue were incomplete. The mission would begin immediately.

The Alamo Scouts after the Raid at Cabanautan. Top row left to right: Gil Cox, Wilbert Wismer, Harold Hard, Andy Smith, and Francis Laquier. Bottom row left to right: Galen Kittleson, Rufo Vaquilar, Bill Nellist, Tom Rounsaville, and Frank Fox. Courtesy US Army/Wikimedia commons

The next morning Mucci and his men began their journey. They were soon joined by 10 Alamo Scouts and several hundred Filipino guerrilla fighters. The assistance of the Filipinos would prove to be both critical and essential. Following a long days march and within three miles of the camp Mucci would learn several disturbing facts. First, the needed information on the camp layout was not yet available. Second, no strategy for reaching the camp undetected had been devised. The camp was surrounded by flat, open fields that offered no shelter or protection. Third, over 8,000 Japanese troops would be passing directly in front of the camp that evening just as the raid was to begin. Despite his fears of an impending massacre, Mucci agreed to delay the rescue for one day.

The following day would bring needed intelligence and some good news. Shortly before noon, two Alamo Scouts had located an abandoned, stilted hut in a rice field several hundred yards directly in front of the main gate with an ideal view of the camp. Through creative and deceptive tactics, the scouts soon reached the shack and began noting important features of the camp including locations of enemy troops, distances between structures and estimations of the size of the enemy force. Filipino guerrilla captain Juan Pajota would provide the answer to the dilemma of reaching the prison camp undetected. He suggested Colonel Mucci request a “fly-over” by American fighter planes. While the Japanese looked skyward the Rangers could traverse the mile of open, dry rice fields crawling on their stomachs. The ploy worked to perfection.

By 7:30 pm all the elements for the mission were in place. Mucci’s men had successfully reached shallow ditches along the front, rear and east side of the camp. Providing protection for the Rangers, two groups of Filipino guerrilla fighters were assigned to block the main highway running along the front of the camp and prevent any Japanese reinforcements from reaching the impending battle. Guerrilla Captain Juan Pajota was task with neutralizing approximately 1000 Japanese soldiers encamped less than a mile east of the prison camp near the Cabu bridge. His fellow guerrilla officer, Captain Eduardo Joson, would duplicate these protective measures to the west of the prison camp. Joson would create a lethal roadblock just outside Cabanatuan City to prevent any Japanese intrusions.

Captain Pajota’s guerrillas at Cabanatuan, Courtesy National Archives/Wikimedia commons

At 7:40 pm the the first shot rang out just outside the rear of the camp signaling the beginning of the assault. Over the next 45 minutes the 130 Army Rangers and Alamo Scouts would annihilate all Japanese forces within the camp and rescue the 511 prisoners. Two Rangers would be killed during the raid. One from friendly fire and the other as a result of brief mortar attack by a lone Japanese soldier. Only one prisoner would die as a result of a heart attack. While the actual rescue would be complete by 8:30 pm the men under Juan Pajota’s command would continue to fight at the Cabu bridge until almost 10 pm. It is estimated that the 200 Filipino fighters killed over 600 attacking Japanese without suffering a single fatality.

Once outside the camp, the 511 prisoners and their 130 protectors would begin the long journey to the safety of the American lines. These liberators and their newly freed comrades would not be alone. They would enjoy the almost angelic protection of their filipino brothers-in-arms along with food, water and transportation from the filipino citizens in every village along the route to freedom.

Since many of the former captives were too weak to walk the 30 mile journey, they would require transportation. Again, the brilliance and ingenuity of Juan Pajota would prove invaluable. He had arranged for ox drawn wagons known as “caribou carts” to be available at every village. Within a short period of time over 70 caribou carts were transporting the former captives in a meandering column over a mile and a half long.

By late morning on January 31 Colonel Mucci had established contact with forward troops of the American Army and was heartened to learn that his treck to saftey would be 10 miles less than first expected. The rumbling of American trucks would soon replace the sounds of snorting beasts-of-burden as the thankful yet still fragile men were transferred from caribou carts to Army trucks for their triumphant return to freedom.

That is the story of Cabanatuan.

Something about Cabanatuan adds an element that extends beyond heroics. The countless acts of heroism in both the European and Pacific theaters during World War II by Allied soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are well documented and well deserved. Cabanatuan was not about capturing a hillside or liberating a town as part of a larger campaign. Cabanatuan was the essence of humanitarianism. It was about saving the lives of defenseless men who had endured several lifetimes of physical and psychological tortue in the span of three years.
Cabanatuan was about cooperation. The success of the mission was, without question, due to the assistance of the Filipino people and the brave Filipino guerilla fighters.

Former Cabanatuan POWs at a makeshift hospital in Talavera. Courtesy US Army/Wikimedia Commons

Cabanatuan was about humility. While America’s superior Armed forces marched across the Philippines, it was the brilliance of men like Filipino Juan Pajota who provided the knowledge and expertise to free 511 POWs. The fly-over to divert the Japanese attention, the recommendation to delay the rescue, the securing of caribou carts, the feeding and protection of 511 freed prisoners…all compliments of Juan Pajota, Eduardo Joson and some very brave Filipinos.

Finally, Cabanatuan is about remembering. Most of the men who were freed and most of the men who provided that freedom have died. In a time where success is rooted in materialism and celebrity, it is important to revive the virtues that motivated men to voluntarily risk their lives for their fellow man. The Rangers, Alamo Scouts and Filipino fighters of Cabanatuan risk their lives without material reward, without fanfare, without celebrity. For this, we owe them the respect of remembering their selfless actions.

So to the list of great events in American history remember this one…remember Cabanatuan!

Kirk N. Hovious is a Honolulu based entrepreneur and freelance writer. He can be reached at termatrol2@yahoo.com