As the Japanese war machine rolled over the Philippines Islands, American forces put up a spirited though futile effort to stave off defeat. Hopes of reinforcement were dashed and the passing weeks found them being drawn into defending ever smaller parcels of territory with fewer and fewer men.

Ammunition and food reached critical levels, with the closing chapter of their struggle written during the battle for the Bataan peninsula and finally, on the rugged finger of an island called Corregidor.

General Douglas MacArthur left in March on a PT boat bound for Australia, with the words “I shall return” an inspiration to the handful of American and Filipino soldiers hiding in the jungles, forming guerrilla units to fight on until liberation.

Japanese Soldiers Examine POW Possessions Before Death March
Japanese Soldiers Examine POW Possessions Before Death March
(Photo Credit: corregidor.proboards.com)

Weeks later on the peninsula, some 79,000 of the starving and defeated remnants of the American/Filipino army found themselves herded into an endless line and marched away at bayonet point to a receiving facility called Camp O’Donnell some 63 miles distant. The date was April 10th, and what would become known as the Bataan Death March was underway.

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Under searing hot days marked by mosquito-infested nights, with cries of suffering always present, the Japanese marched the ragged column with little rest, leaving behind scores of corpses along the twisting macabre route until the first captives marched into O’Donnell, a hair’s breadth away from death to begin the next phase of imprisonment

The Japanese set up several large prison camps, such as Cabanatuan and Los Banos, then combed through them over the next 2 1/2 years for healthy enough bodies to send to Japan and other occupied territories on what became known as ‘Hell Ships’.

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Here thousands were crammed together without food or water in darkened cargo holds where many suffocated or died of illness before seeing the light of day again. Their experience found parity in the camps, where disease hovered like a specter over each man, filling up the rows of markers and crosses on the plots of land where almost every day, new occupants arrived carried by groups of living skeletons knowing their turn may soon come.

These men fought to carve out a semblance of humanity within the inhumane world around them, comforting each other, smuggling food and vials of medicine to the starving and sick, while their captors looked for any opportunity to abuse and execute them.

Prisoners found early on that pleading with the Japanese for assistance did little good. To them they were cowards, having chosen surrender over death. Compassion was a feeling not permitted under the warrior code of Bushido. And it showed, time and again, with the torture and murders that occurred right up to war’s end.

Occasionally, information from the outside reached them. As ’42 became ’43 then ’44 the news began to lift spirits. The U.S. and its allies were defeating the Japanese with every battle, and moving ever closer to the Philippines.

The dead hope of liberation began to revive itself again, though more suffering lay ahead. In the jungles and mountains, guerrilla groups struck with more determination knowing the day drawing near when a great armada – the might of a free world – would appear off the shores of their weary nation.

It happened on October 20, 1944. U.S. Army units landed on the island of Leyte and then commenced invading the main island of Luzon on January 9th 1945. Like their enemy two years before, the Japanese began retreating up the island on a broad front barren of any chance of reinforcement.

MacArthur had kept his word. The Philippines were on the verge of liberation.

6th Battalion Rangers Enroute to Cabanatuan
6th Battalion Rangers

Inside the camps, hope mixed with fear. Friendlies were out there, but how close no one knew. They knew the Japanese were unwilling to march their feeble captives to other camps, and would delight in executing them.

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Their fear proved correct.

On January 7, an escaped prisoner was interviewed by an intelligence officer who was stunned to hear how on December 14th, the Japanese ordered some 150 prisoners into trenches covered with logs and dirt.

The air was thick with the smell of gasoline, and once all were in, flames erupted engulfing the entire trenchline. Many tried to escape, enswathed in fire only to be shot. Still, he and 10 others made it to the jungle where they found a guerrilla unit who helped evacuate them. This report later reached army headquarters on Luzon.

HQ knew the locations of several camps, albeit all were behind enemy lines. But with the Japanese mindset growing desperate, they made the decision to assault the camps whenever possible, as thousands of lives hung in the balance. Efforts to gather more intelligence quickened.

One of these locations, Cabanatuan, had been under surveillance by an American-led guerrilla unit. Its commander reported that the Japanese evacuated all prisoners healthy enough to travel leaving behind some 500 prisoners in the worse shape, sick and near death, likely candidates for execution. And with guard detachments coming and going, that could occur at any moment.

A plan was organized to liberate them. Using intel from the guerrilla group they learned of the camp layout, guard changes and defenses.

Prime material for a raid.

The kind Army Rangers excelled at.

LTC Henry Mucci
LTC Henry Mucci

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci, commander of the 6th Ranger Battalion, was designated mission commander, while Captain Robert Prince, commander of Charlie company, would lead the assault element through the gates. 121 men were assigned for the task. This force would truck to a starting point then attempt to infiltrate 30 miles behind enemy lines, hit the camp, secure the prisoners, and get them back to American lines.

Covering the assault and withdrawal was a force of 250 guerillas. They were to block any large counterattacks attempted by the Japanese, which seemed likely as there were over 1,000 known to be encamped in the camp’s vicinity. The group pledged to have ox carts at a nearby river available to transport prisoners or casualties.

On the morning of January 28, a convoy bearing the Rangers pulled into the town of Giumba and the unit dismounted and assembled in a mango grove. Olive drab attired, they wore no helmets for this mission, choosing instead to wear field caps because helmets presented a distinctive silhouette and restricted vision. They took neither backpacks nor sleeping gear, preferring to travel as light as possible.

After catching up on rest and equipment checks they took a final swig of water before embarking into the tropical forest for Cabanatuan. Walking in single file, they hoped to return in 48 hours with the prisoners.

Into late the next day, their march led them near a highway busy with Japanese vehicles, under a bridge where a tank crew conversed, and through enemy-infested regions to the link up with guerrillas and U.S. Army Alamo Scouts who accompanied them into the village Platero. Tired men walked by children singing “God Bless America” and were provided with food and places to rest for the night.

CPT Robert Prince
CPT Robert Prince

January 30th dawned, with the men waking from a deserved sleep and being served breakfast. Mucci held a final planning session discussing his intent to hit the camp after dark at 9:30, hoping his request for a diversion would be honored. He then moved the force of 370 out toward Cabanatuan, 5 miles away.

Splitting into 3 groups, the Rangers – now sporting white armbands as ID – headed for the camp. Guerrillas were to hold a bridge nearby, and a reinforced platoon of Rangers would set up a roadblock on the road approaching the main gate. 14 Alamo scouts would wait outside ready to guide the group to a rendezvous with the guerrillas.

The last embers of daylight began fading into night as the moon rose, and the Rangers crouched low and moved toward the main entrance. They had to cross a large rice paddy to get into position, and even hugging the ground they worried an attentive guard might spot them. What they needed was that promised diversion.

And at that moment, from the sky it came.

A large twin engine fighter plummeted, howling over the camp at full throttle, just above the guard towers. It zoomed into a climbing turn and dove back again. Japanese and prisoners tried to figure out whose plane it was, as the Rangers made it into their assigned positions outside the huge stockade fence that formed a rectangle around the camp.

The Raid at Cabanatuan
The Raid at Cabanatuan

Once the plane sped away into the dark, the Rangers raid on Cabanatuan POW Camp began. Ranger gun sights lined up on the guard towers and any other Japanese in sight. 9:30 came and went. Men wondered when a lieutenant tasked with opening the raid would fire. At 9:45 a rifle shot rang out. A guard fell. Then a great crack deafened the air as dozens more jerked and stammered in a wild death dance before lines of muzzle flashes.

Filipino Guerillas
Filipino Guerillas

Rangers ran for the main gate firing and throwing grenades. They busted the lock off then swarmed in working their triggers at the shocked Japanese, cutting down most before they ever got a shot off. Those that did shoot couldn’t work the bolts on their rifles fast enough to counter the lines of men streaming round them before they too were cut down.

Single shots bounced between automatic ones as more grenades detonated in machine gun emplacements and guard huts. The Rangers swatted away all resistance in minutes and moved in to secure the prison barracks, shouting, “We’re Americans. We’re Yanks.”

“You don’t look like an American,” came the reply from some. Many refused to believe that the dark figures standing in their doorway could be their rescuers. But they came around quick.

“You’re a Yank.” another POW said in a different barrack, startled, that the moment of liberation would come in the form of such speed and violence.

“You’re damn right I am,” the Ranger said. “We’ve come to get you.”

Teams began moving and carrying prisoners out of the camp and towards waiting ox carts. Once a final check of the barracks was finished the Rangers moved out leaving some 270 dead Japanese behind.

They moved the column back through villages where more carts were gathered. The trek was long and tedious but by February 1st the prisoners had arrived and were being fed and greeted by General MacArthur.

News of the mission reached America on the 2nd, and the prisoners would depart for the mainland and a hero’s welcome a few days later, while halfway round the world a group of gritty young men headed back into combat bearing witness to the motto that Rangers Lead The Way.

Cabanatuan Prison Camp Survivors
Cabanatuan Prison Camp Survivors (CREDIT: England)

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Raid of Cabanatuan Video History

For some outstanding video histories of the Raid of Cabanatuan, we recommend: