In March 1942, General Douglas MacArthur evacuated the Philippines, leaving his men, some 76,000 of them, to the “mercy” of the Japanese, declaring, “I shall return.” When he did finally returned to the Philippines in late 1944, the Japanese forces throughout the Pacific were reeling from American pressure and fighting what all concerned knew was a losing battle. In the grand strategic scheme for the Pacific campaign during World War II, re-capture of the Philippines was seen by the Allies as an anchor to support the end-game: Capture of Okinawa and the final assault on the Japanese homeland.
Taking the Philippine Islands was the task of the U.S. 6th Army under command of Lieutenant General Walter Krueger. His primary opponent was Imperial Japanese General Homma who ordered his battered and scattered forces to re-group and head for the mountains of northern Luzon where he intended to make a desperate last stand. His scheme required a decision about what to do with thousands of Allied POWs – many of them survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March who had been imprisoned for more than three years in brutal conditions and physical deprivation. They were weak, crippled, and sick; many of them near death from starvation, beatings, overwork, and disease.
The Japanese General Staff in Tokyo issued a ‘kill all’ order to commanders of various POW camps in the Philippines. The idea was to avoid having to deal with prisoners and to cover up what would be seen as war crimes when the end of the war finally came. General Krueger found out about this order from stay-behind guerilla commanders and from Philippine guerilla units when he landed in the islands. Of particular concern was the fate of some 500 allied POWs being held in the Cabanatuan Camp in central Luzon. Philippine Scouts reported that the Japanese planned to kill these men just prior to pulling out of the area as U.S. forces advanced. The pressure to rescue these POWs was intense, as General Krueger had received reports that POWs on the nearby island of Palawan had been herded into air raid shelters and burned alive. If he didn’t do something in a hurry, the Death March survivors being held at Cabanatuan would surely suffer the same or similar fate.
He turned to the highly-trained and under-used 6th Ranger Battalion which had been serving as his Command Post security unit and called for Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci, commanding officer of the unit, to come up with a plan to rescue the Cabanatuan POWs. Mucci gladly accepted the dangerous mission and turned to the quiet, competent commander of Charlie Company to plan a raid on Cabanatuan. Captain Bob Prince mustered 120 Rangers from his own Charlie Company and a platoon of Fox Company Rangers to pull off the mission. They would have to penetrate 35 miles behind Japanese lines, make an approach to the camp across a kilometer of open ground and deal with 250 Japanese guards without killing any of the POWs in the effort. It was a daunting task.
Adding to Mucci and Prince’s problems was the threat of some ten thousand Japanese troops who were positioned to reinforce the camp defenders unless they were delayed or blocked in some fashion. Fortunately, they ran across a strong force of Philippine guerillas that volunteered to screen the flanks of the raiding force against Japanese reactions. The guerillas and a force of Krueger’s Alamo Scouts also provided vital information about the Cabanatuan layout and came up with a scheme to transport the POWs back to allied lines via native caribou carts.
In the end, the Rangers staged a classic raid that is still studied by Rangers to this day. They low-crawled half a kilometer in broad daylight across dry rice paddies to get themselves into assault position with the added distraction of a B-25 flyover to keep the guards looking elsewhere. They then waited until darkness fell to crawl the rest of the way, avoiding an exhausting crawl all under cover of night, wasting precious time. They conducted a devastating assault, killing all the Japanese guards in the camp and rescuing all the POWs at the cost of only two Rangers killed in action. The only casualty among the POWs – many of whom could not even walk – was one poor soul who died of a heart attack just as he was being carried out the gates of Cabanatuan.
It is the actions of these and countless other men in various theatres of war across the world that have dubbed their generation “The Greatest Generation.” Never in our history had such a large group of men held as POWs endured so much and complained so little. Many couldn’t shake the fact that their country had abandoned them, left them to die in a foreign land. The raid was said to be of no significance or strategic value to the war effort, but it meant everything to each individual, both Rangers and POWs. It’s true they had been left behind, but never forgotten.
Breuer, William B. “The Great Raid.” Miramax. 2002.
Warrior Inc. 2017