Heroes Under Fire

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Photos are from The History Channel story about the Camp Cabanatuan raid. There’s some background.

In December 1941 the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, and a few hours later they attacked American air fields on Luzon in the Philippines. A few days later Japanese forces invaded the Philippines at Lingayen Gulf in the north part of Luzon. American and Philippine forces in the islands were not able to stop the invasion forces, and it was not possible to provide support or re-enforcements to the troops there. By April of 1942 the combined American and Philippine forces on Luzon had become trapped on the Bataan Peninsula and were forced to surrender. 72,000 American and Philippine troops went into captavity and were marched to prison camps over a three-day period to camps 70 miles away. Along the way about 20,000 prisoners perished from starvation, illness or (principally) murder by the Japanese.

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Conditions in the camps in the Philippines were brutal, and when American forces invaded the Philippines in October 1944, the Japanese made plans to prevent prisoners from being rescued. Most of the survivors were shipped to Formosa (Taiwan), the Japanese islands and other locations for use as slave labor. A directive from the Japanese command ordered the murder of the remaining prisoners in the Philippines to prevent their repatriation.

After the Japanese slaughtered almost 150 Americans in a POW camp on the island of Palawan by burning them alive, the decision was made to rescue those still in the Cabanatuan POW camp before they were massacred as well.

Eleven prisoners survived the massacre, and some made their way back to invading American forces. When the Americans learned of the Japanese actions and of the planned execution of the remaining prisoners they initiated rescue missions to save prisoners at the Cabanatuan camp and at Camp O’Donnell.

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Lt. Col. Henry Mucci had recruited mule skinners (drivers) from the campaign in New Guinea, and had formed a specialized ranger corps. Intense training had weeded out all but the best and the toughest, and the result was a force of 500 as the 6th Ranger Battalion.

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Mucci was a slightly-build fighter with a flair for the dramatic.

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When he got together a group for the Cabanatuan raid he brought along a film crew.

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American forces invaded Luzon along the same route used by the Japanese in 1941, and by late January they were within striking distance of the prison camps.

On January 28, 1945, 121 Rangers left their base and drove until they were within 95 kilometers (60 mi) of the camp, where they disembarked and prepared to walk the rest of the way. About five miles out, on January 29, they met up with Captain Juan Pajota and his 300 Filipino guerrilla fighters, who provided crucial assistance and intelligence about the surrounding area. Pajota also convinced Mucci to wait another day because many of the Japanese would be leaving the area that night.

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Once started, the group had to delay for 24 hours, because a large body or retreating Japanese soldiers was close by Camp Cabanatuan. Also, a large number of Japanese had encamped with the prisoners. On 30 January two of the raiding party dressed as civilians and scoped out the camp. As dark settled in, the main party crawled on their bellies toward the camp perimeter. It was flat and open ground all around the camp, and the time between sunset and the rise of a full moon gave them only two hours to make their approach. A P-61 night fighter distracted Japanese guards by flying low and feigning engine trouble. The plan worked.

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When the attackers were close enough they opened up on the Japanese guards, and quickly suppressed all watch towers and sentries. Shots from a .45 pistol opened the lock on the main gate, and the attackers rushed the camp.

The raiders killed over 500 Japanese soldiers, annihilating virtually all the camp’s contingent. They moved to the prison huts and roused the frightened prisoners. The prisoners had no advance notice, and they suspected a Japanese ruse to justify killing the prisoners. Previously, when two prisoners had escaped, they were recaptured. 18 other prisoners were collected, and all 20 were executed by the guards.

Compounding the element of surprise, the prisoners had been out of touch with the war for so long, they found it difficult to recognize their rescuers as Americans. Uniforms were different, helmets were different, weapons were different. The rescuers did not take no for an answer. Prisoners reluctant to leave the huts were removed by force, and everybody was herded out the main gate.

Then came the long march back to American lines. Many of the prisoners were too weak to walk, and more and more local carts were obtained. Locals gladly volunteered carts until more than 100 were employed.

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Trouble came on the return when the party encountered a village controlled by communist guerrillas. The communists refused to let the other Philippine guerrillas pass through, but American rangers with machine guns waded through the communist contingent and told them not to interfere.

 

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512 prisoners were rescued. Two died on the trip. One had a heart attack almost immediately and another succumbed shortly after. Two rangers were killed, including one by friendly fire. The trek back was shorter because the American lines had advanced in the mean time. It was 70 years ago today.

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The ordeal was not over for the Philippines. The battle for Manila began within a few days. Here, ever the sore loser, the Japanese army engaged in wanton murder of the civilian population.

Subjected to incessant pounding and facing certain death or capture, the beleaguered Japanese troops took out their anger and frustration on the civilians caught in the crossfire, committing multiple acts of severe brutality, which later would be known as the Manila Massacre. Violent mutilations, rapes, and massacres on the populace accompanied the battle for control of the city. Massacres occurred in schools, hospitals and convents, including San Juan de Dios Hospital, Santa Rosa College, Santo Domingo Church, Manila Cathedral, Paco Church, St. Paul’s Convent, and St. Vincent de Paul Church.

100,000 civilians died. Within the next few weeks I will post a memorial item about the Battle for Manila.

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