How a band of locals helped American Rangers save 500 prisoners of war
American soldiers moving north during the liberation of the Philippines in 1944-1945 faced a real problem. Their men stranded on the islands at the outbreak of the war had been subjected to years of mistreatment, malnourishment, and disease. They needed to be liberated as soon as possible.
The Japanese had implemented a "kill-all policy," ordering the deaths of any prisoner attempting escape or about to be liberated. On Jan. 7, 1945, the Army learned about the Palawan Massacre where 135 of the 146 prisoners on a work project were brutally murdered. The other 11 men escaped, most with serious injuries.
So the American forces wanted to rescue the prisoners as quickly as possible but couldn't advance too quickly or the prisoners would be killed.
North of the advancing American soldiers was a camp near Cabanatuan, Philippines, where 512 American, Canadian, and British troops were held. Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, commander of the Sixth Ranger Battalion, moved with his Rangers and Alamo Scouts to work with Filipino guerillas to raid the camp and rescue the prisoners before the Japanese forces could repeat the Palawan Massacre.
The Americans slipped behind enemy lines on Jan. 28, 1945. The Alamo scouts split off and moved north of the camp to begin reconnaissance. Capt. Robert Prince, one of the Rangers, moved to a Filipino guerilla camp to meet Capt. Juan Pajota, a commander of local forces resisting the Japanese.
They devised a bold strategy where the 121 Rangers would assault the camp while the 275 guerillas would hold off a large Japanese force camped within earshot of the prison camp. They scheduled the attack for the evening of Jan. 29, only 24 hours after they had slipped behind enemy lines and begun reconnaissance.
Due to increased Japanese activity in the area, the assault was delayed another day. Late on Jan. 30, the Rangers and the guerillas began their assault.
Capt. Juan Pajota's geurilla forces. Photo: US Army Signal Corps
The guerillas slipped up to blocking positions near the camp. Seventy-five of them set up a position to watch for forces that might come from nearby Cabanatuan while the other 200 others planted themselves firmly between the main Japanese encampment and the prison camp.
Meanwhile, the Rangers began a slow crawl across the open ground around the prison. To prevent them from being spotted, Pajota had suggested a plane fake distress near the camp.
Photo: Department of Defense
A Navy P-61 flew over the camp and began shutting off and restarting one of his engines, causing it to backfire. Then, still simulating engine distress, he allowed the plane to lose altitude and dropped behind a nearby ridge. The Japanese focused on the plane while the attackers moved in.
The assault was scheduled for 7:30, but the main force of Rangers were surprised when the attack didn't begin. The Rangers of Fox Company were ten minutes late in reaching their position.
At 7:40, the attack began. Fox company assaulted the camp from the rear while the main force, Charlie Company, slipped up to the front. Bazooka teams quickly eliminated enemy machine gun nests. One platoon of Charlie company began searching out guards and killing them while the other immediately began evacuating prisoners.
Within five minutes, Pajota and his guerillas began taking fire from suicidal Japanese forces. But they held the Japanese back, allowing the evacuation to continue.
Soon after 8 p.m., Prince searched through all the buildings to ensure all the prisoners had made it out. He then fired a flare to signal the all clear at 8:15, barely 35 minutes after the assault began. The prisoners and the Rangers began moving along their escape route to American lines. The scouts and the guerillas stayed behind to block Japanese forces.
All 512 prisoners were successfully rescued and more than 500 Japanese were killed. Two Rangers also died in the battle.
For their parts in the raid, Mucci and Prince were awarded Distinguished Service Crosses and the rest of the Americans were awarded Silver and Bronze Stars.