January 30, 1945
Company F, 6th h Ranger Battalion, on patrol in the Philippines. There were no photos taken of the Great Raid until it was over. US Army photo.
After the Bataan Death march, many of the American prisoners of war captured at Corregidor were eventually shipped to a prison camp in the Philippines called Cabanatuan (pronounced “cah-ban-nah-two-ahn”).
It’s hard to describe Cabanatuan, not because we don’t have details, but because like all the Japanese prison camps, things were so very terrible.
The POWs were tortured, starved, and left to die from diseases.
At Cabanatuan, they received two very small meals each day, usually just steamed rice that sometimes with bugs in it. To survive, the POWs learned to bribe the guards for more food or they killed animals that wandered into the camp such as mice and snakes. The Filipino underground tried to help the Allied POWs, smuggling in medicine, such as quinine. Made from tree bark, this crystalline compound was used to treat malaria.
Probably the most valuable item smuggle in was a radio. Before they were captured, the POWs cleverly his pieces of the radio inside their clothing--one piece of radio per man. Once inside Cabanatuan, they reassembled the pieces and managed to find a broadcast signal that brought them news about the war that was continuing beyond the armed guards and eight-foot barbed wire fences.
Some prisoners tried to escape from Cabanatuan. Most didn’t make it. Recaptured by the Japanese, they were beaten in front of the other prisoners, then forced to dig their own graves. The Japanese executed them, then forced the other prisoners to bury them. This psychological torture grew into another rule made by the guards. If any POW tried to escape, ten POWs would be shot. The guards then placed the prisoners in groups of ten. Imagine being part of that group. Would you want anyone to try and escape? The Japanese used this device to keep the POWs policing their own men.
But as the war dragged on, Japan needed workers. The stronger POWs were taken from Cabanatuan and sent to slave labor camps where they were forced to build weapons in Japanese factories—weapons that would be used to kill their fellow Americans. The POWs also had to repair airfields so that more bombers could kill even more Americans.
All of this abusive treatment was banned by Geneva Convention, but as you know, Japan signed that document but never followed its rules.
At one point, Cabanatuan held as many as 8,000 American and Filipino POWs, along with some captured civilians from Allied countries such as Great Britain and Norway. But by 1944, with the slave labor camps going full steam, there remained only about 500 POWs at Cabanatuan.
These men were too sick and weak for even slave labor.
After losing the battles at Tarawa and Saipan, Japan was no longer winning every fight. And in early 1945, General Douglas MacArthur landed forces on Luzon—the very same Philippine island where the Japanese captured these POWs on the Bataan peninsula.
MacArthur not only fulfilled his promise of “I shall return,” but he now s determined to take the capital of Manila, where 250,000 Japanese soldiers were waiting.
“Go around them, go through them, but go to Manila,” he ordered.
Two days after the Luzon landing, an escaped POW named Eugene Nielsen came out of hiding and told some of MacArthur’s men an incredible story.
Private First Class Nielsen said he and another 150 Americans were forced to work as slave labor on a Japanese airfield. The American Air Force kept bombing the field every time it got fixed. So the POWs had an unchanging routine. Every morning, they rose at dawn, received one small portion of maggot-infested rice, then worked to repair the bombed airfield until lunch. After more buggy rice, they worked until dark before being herded back to their compound.
This story was shocking to the American soldiers. First, most of them had no idea about the horrific prison and slave labor camps.
But then Nielsen told them something even more gruesome.
In early December, he and other POWs working on the airfield were ordered back to the camp for lunch, then told to climb into their air raid shelters. These shelters were nothing more than slit trenches with log roofs, with an opening at each end.
As soon as Nielsen and the other prisoners climbed in, they smelled gasoline.
The Japanese guards were pouring the fuel into the shelter. They lit torches on either end, engulfing the trench in flames. With only two open ends, the POWs crawled over each other as the fire incinerated their bodies.
Miraculously, several men managed to escape, including Nielsen.
MacArthur’s men took Nielsen to G-2, otherwise known as Army Intelligence.
Later it was discovered that Japan had issued a “Kill All” order for the POWs. Japan didn’t want these men later testifying about how they were abused, because the Japanese soldiers could be tried for war crimes--and executed.
Part of the Kill-All policy read:
“Whether they are destroyed individually or in groups or however it is done, with mass bombing, poisonous smoke, poisons, drowning, decapitation, or what, dispose of them as the situation dictates. In any case it is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces."
The last POWs at Cabanatuan, Philippines
Nielsen’s story was backed up by Major Robert Lapham. He had escaped capture by the Japanese and was fighting as a guerrilla leader in the Philippines.
And on January 26, 1945, Lapham told the army all about the torture and disease inside the camp known as Cabanatuan. Lapham said any remaining POWs at that camp were going to be executed—within days.
The American soldiers wanted to rescue those POWs.
Even if they could find the right soldiers, they would have to train them in two days for a secret mission that was thirty miles away. And who would lead them?
Enter Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci.
Commander of the 6th Ranger Battalion, an elite group of warriors, Mucci had trained his men in hand-to-hand combat, knife fighting, jungle survival, and marksmanship.
Within hours, Mucci put together a POW rescue team with men from C Company and a platoon from F Company, led by Captain Robert Prince.
Mucci told these men they were gong to raid Cabanatuan. He also said there was a good chance they’d be killed. But if they lived, he said, “you’re going to bring out every last man, even if you have to carry them on your backs.”
“One other thing,” Mucci added. “There’ll be no atheists on this trip. I want you to swear an oath before God. Swear that you’ll die fighting rather than let any harm come to those prisoners.”
Then, Mucci took all his men to church.
Lt. Col. Henry Mucci
On the morning of January 28th, the rangers headed out on trucks to a secret drop-off location. After resting, they loaded two-days’ supplies into their packs, including a special surprise for the POWs: Hershey’s chocolate bars.
At 2 p.m., they formed a column with Mucci up front and Captain Prince bringing up the rear. Creeping through the Philippine jungle, they suddenly realized artillery shells were flying past them. But the fire power was coming from the American air force! This rescue mission was so top-secret, not even their fellow soldiers knew about it.
The jungle foliage provided cover but it also slowed their progress. Thick mud in the rice paddies sucked off their boots. Tropical heat sent sweat pouring down their faces.
Mucci allowed these men to carry nothing that would reflect light: no rings and no helmets—only soft fatigue-colored hats that matched the rangers’ faded clothing. As elite rangers, however, these men could carry the weapon of their choice: M-1’s, Thompson sub-machine guns, carbines, hand grenades, Browning automatic rifles, .45 pistols, and bazookas.
After several miles of slow and silent creeping, the column stopped at a village. There, they met up with Captain Eduardo Joson. A Filipino guerrilla fighter with a team of eighty men, Joson and his crew would protect the column’s flanks, guiding the rangers across miles of unfamiliar territory.
Heading out again at dusk, now 200 strong, the men crossed terrain cloaked in darkness and came to their first significant obstacle: the national highway. Japanese forces were using this road, but the rangers needed to cross it. At first, Mucci’s men waited for breaks in the traffic then ran in groups of one or two. But suddenly a Japanese tank appeared, aimed right at them. So Captain Prince devised a new plan. Using his map, he found a ravine and the rangers used the gully for cover, creeping under a bridge, right beside that Japanese tank.
By 9:00 p.m., every man had crossed the highway safely.
The rangers then marched twenty-five miles. Now they were about an hour from Cabanatuan, and they had been awake for twenty-four hours.
Mucci ordered them to rest in a safe village. They planned to attack the prison camp that same night.
Captain Robert Prince
As the assault commander, Captain Prince needed to come up with a plan to get these team inside the camp, retrieve the prisoners, and get back out—without anyone getting killed.
But Prince’s job was even tougher because he was missing many important pieces of information. For instance, he didn’t know how many soldiers were guarding Cabanatuan, or how many pillboxes filled with guns, or if there were any guard towers and how many. Then, if his men managed to safely reach the POWs, could these sick men even walk?
The Filipino guerrillas offered all the information they knew: in nearby Cabanatuan city, there were about 7,000 Japanese soldiers; another 200 were even closer, only a mile from camp; while inside the camp, there were one hundred Japanese soldiers and four tanks.
“I was very apprehensive," Prince later stated. “Any commander's greatest fear is the fear of failure. It preys on you. You have to keep your focus. You have to consider all the things that could go wrong, but then you have to banish them from your mind. If you think about them too long, you can't go forward--you’re paralyzed."
As Prince was trying to solve these problems, several sources of help arrived.
Without telling Mucci, an American general had ordered his team of Alamo Scouts to do reconnaissance (or “recon,” which means finding as much information as possible). Equivalent to today’s Green Berets or Navy Seals, the scouts were specialized fighters, coming specifically to help Mucci and Prince.
But the scouts told Price that there were so many Japanese soldiers on the road outside the Cabanatuan camp that nobody could get near it.
“The place looks like Main Street in Tokyo,” said one Scout.
Also, the land surrounding the camp was so flat that, the men would have no cover approaching Cabanatuan. The Japanese would see them.
But as a veteran Filipino guerrilla fighter, Captain Juan Pajota knew the whole area around Cabanatuan like it was his own back yard. And now he had ninety battle-hardened soldiers and another 160 volunteers ready to help rescue these POWs.
Pajota went to Prince and corrected his numbers. There weren’t 200 nearby Japanese--there were 1,000!
And inside the compound, there were another 300 soldiers.
When Pajota learned the raid was planned for that night, he said a Japanese convoy was scheduled to arrive at that same time. So the rangers would be crossing the road just when Japanese reinforcements showed up.
Based on Pajota’s information, Mucci delayed the raid until morning.
Map of Cabanatuan prison, with Ranger directions courtesy Jappanlang
And then good news: the Japanese convoy left the next morning, January 30th. Also, The Alamo scouts had discovered a shack in front of the main gate that could be used to observe the camp undetected. Finally, some Filipino civilians gave them peasant clothing, so the Scouts could walk up and down the road looking like like farmers--before slipping into that shed.
From inside the shed, the rangers could see the guard towers, the pillboxes, and the prison yard.
Prince was giving the rangers only thirty minutes for the raid. The schedule was for them to approach the camp with Pajota’s men protecting them on one side and Joson’s men on the other. Then Pajota’s group would set up a roadblock near the Cabu River Bridge. At precisely 7:40 p.m., the guerrillas would blow up the bridge and block the 1,000 Japanese soldiers from rushing to the compound. Joson’s men would block the opposite side, stopping thousands more soldiers who would race over from Cabanatuan city.
Those diversions and blockades would free the rangers to dash in and rescue the POWs inside the camp.
At dawn, the rangers began crawling forward on knees and elbows, staying low because the land was so flat. They held their weapons out in front of them and moved that way for an entire mile while red ants bit their skin and mud walls tried to block their path, forcing them to stand up and climb over them, risking getting seen by the Japanese.
Finally they reached the shack. The scouts came out of their hiding place and joined the rangers.
And then, more help arrived.
Told of this rescue mission, the American air force sent a P-61 “Black Widow” plane to swoop over Cabanatuan. The plane distracted the camp guards, who kept looking up at the sky instead down at the ground. The pilot even cut the engine on and off, making it sound as if the plane was about to crash.
Thirty men from F Company moved to the back of the camp. Their job was to blow up the rear guard towers and pillboxes, along with a barracks of Japanese soldiers. The attack was planned to launch at precisely 7:30 p.m., and would be signaled by a lieutenant firing his M-1 rifle.
Prince’s men waited outside the gate, so close to the camp that they felt exposed. They waited for 7:30. Which became 7:35. Then 7:40. They started to get scared. Where was the gunshot? What was wrong.
At 7:45, the shot cracked.
Front and rear, the other rangers destroyed the front guard towers and pillboxes. The disoriented Japanese soldiers were blown to pieces while other rangers shot the padlock off of the front gate. They ran into the camp, flooding the compound and racing to their assigned positions. One group obliterated the officer’s quarters. Riflemen kept up a wall of fire. The bazooka team took out the tanks.
The rangers reached the POW barracks. They blasted open the locks.
“We’re Yanks!” they yelled. “This is a prison break! Head for the main gate!”
But the prisoners were as confused as the Japanese guards. Huddling on the floor, they tried to hide. They thought it was an attack.
“Come on, we’re here to save you!” the rangers shouted.
But some POWs thought this was just another Japanese trick to kill them, especially since the rangers were dressed like Filipino peasants. Other men were so used to being captives, they were afraid to go outside with strangers.
The rangers were also suddenly confused. These POWs skeletons: their ribs stuck out, their legs were thin as pegs, and bugs infested their skin. Several rangers immediately stripped off their clothing to cover the POWs, who were almost naked.
Quickly, the rangers gathered all of the prisoners—some of whom needed to be physically carried from the barracks. They hurried back to the main gate.
The enemy troops were close, numbering in the thousands. Time was running out.
They cleared the front gate with the POWs. The shooting had died down to sporadic fire and Pajota’s men continued holding the bridge.
Captain Prince stayed behind, going through the barracks, yelling, “Is anybody there?” He didn’t want any man left behind. Only when he received no responses did he fire off the signal flares, letting his team know the raid was over.
All 512 POWs were suddenly free.
“I thought we were forgotten,” they told the rangers.
The rangers moved them out of the area, gave them food, including Hershey’s chocolate bars, medical attention, and finally a ride home to the United States.
This mission was later called The Great Raid.
Only two Rangers were killed in the raid. There were no Filipino casualties.
But about 500 Japanese soldiers were killed or wounded.
And just as Prince had planned, this deadly mission planned in only hours took only thirty minutes.
Captain Juan Pajota
Pajota played an extremely important part in the success of the Great Raid. Not only did this guerrilla leader have deep knowledge about the terrain around Cabanatuan, his informants told him about every movement made by the Japanese forces, including that Japanese convoy that would’ve destroyed the mission before it even started.
Pajota also took care of small details, such as asking the local Filipinos to muzzle their dogs so they wouldn’t bark as the rangers snuck past. It’s also believed that it was Pajota’s idea to get the American airplane to fly over the camp and divert Japanese attention. And it was Pajota’s troops that held back the enemy during the raid.
"The Guerrillas were our flanking protection at the Cabu River, which was no more than a mile from the camp.” Prince later said. “There was a sizable force of Japanese, but Pajota and his men just killed everything in sight that came up that river and across the bridge. They were the ones that kept this thing from being a tough deal for us."
Pajota also gathered fifty water buffalo with carts, to carry the weak POWs to newfound freedom.
FIND OUT MORE:
Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission by Hampton Sides
The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II by Gregory A. Freeman
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Resolve: From the Jungles of WW II Bataan, A Story of a Soldier, a Flag, and a Promise Kept by Bob Welch
Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific by Mary Cronk Farrell and Diane Carlson Evans
US Army Rangers & LRRP Units 1942-87 by Gordon Rottman and Ronald Volstad
Captured: The Japanese Internment of American Civilians in the Philippines, 1941-1945 by Frances B. Cogan
Here is an article where Captain Prince talks about the famous raidover fifty years later:
This is Private First Class Eugene Nielsen’s story of POW torture, which prompted the Great Raid on Cabanatuan.
Historic film footage taken after the raid.
Back to Bataan
The Great Raid