The rescue of the U.S. POWs at Cabanatuan was a World War II U.S. Army Rangers operation and a classic example of a joint special operations mission that was incredibly planned and executed. The operation against the POW camp at Cabanatuan would be known as the “Great Raid.”
The raid on Cabanatuan was conducted on January 30, 1945. It involved troops from the U.S. 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 days of World War II, Cabanatuan became the largest POW camp in the country. At its peak, it held over 5,000 prisoners but by the time of the raid, it held just over 500. These 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 U.S. forces could liberate them. The Japanese had already done so at the Puerto Princesa Prison Camp on the island of Palawan. They had herded 150 prisoners into an air-raid shelter where they doused them with gasoline and burned them alive.
A Daring Plan
The initial plan set up by LTC Henry Mucci, commander of the 6th Ranger Bn., had two teams of Alamo Scouts, 14 men in all, 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. The plan was to set up around the camp, put fire on the Japanese guards and eliminate 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 would be 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 that had been cleared by the Japanese in order to cut down on potential prisoner escape attempts.
To distract the guards, an Army Air Corps P-61 Black Widow would buzz the camp, performing aerobatics and backfiring its 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.
The Raid on Cabanatuan Begins
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 towards the Japanese guard barracks and the officers’ quarters. Bazooka teams targeted a shed that was thought to have tanks. Japanese soldiers attempting to flee in two trucks were targeted and eliminated.
Prince’s Rangers rushed the compound where the prisoners, fearing that the raid was a Japanese ruse to lure them out to be killed, were hiding 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 and mortally wounding Ranger Bn. surgeon CPT James Fisher. Murphy’s men from Company F quickly killed the soldier operating 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. The explosives didn’t destroy it but blew a hole large enough such that tanks or other vehicles couldn’t cross. One guerrilla destroyed four Japanese tanks with a bazooka although he had 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. Then, Prince 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, driven by local villagers organized by CPT Pajot, waited to transport them to Plateros.
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 informing them that the mission was a success and that they had all of the POWs safely out of the camp.
The raid freed 489 POWs and 33 civilians.
A Beacon to the Special Operations Community
The Americans reached their lines at Talavera on January 31. In the meantime, the number of carts had swelled from 26 to 102 as many of the prisoners had found it increasingly difficult to walk.
General MacArthur wrote about the raid, “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 14 Alamo Scouts received Presidential Unit Citations.
The raid was one of the most successful POW rescue attempts in U.S. military history. It serves as a beacon to the special operation forces of today.
The Rangers have a history rich in tradition. The raid at Cabanatuan is among their finest moments.
This article was originally published in January 2021. It has been edited for republication.