On 9 April 1942, Maj. Gen. Edward P. King Jr., commander of the American and Filipino forces on Bataan, surrendered to the Japanese. This marked the end of four months of fighting by the 90,000 Allied troops holding the Philippine island of Luzon. The Japanese rounded up 72,000 prisoners and began the infamous Bataan Death March, during which more than 20,000 men died from malaria or starvation or were murdered. (Of the 52,000 men who survived the Bataan Death March, approximately 9,200 were American and 42,800 were Filipino.) The survivors were marched sixty-five miles from the peninsula north to the railroad station at San Fernando. Packed one hundred men to a boxcar, the prisoners rode to Capas where they were off-loaded and continued the march to Camp O’Donnell. There they were interned for the next several months. During the stay at Camp O’Donnell another three thousand Americans died. Worse yet, however, were the conditions for the Filipino prisoners who lived in a separate compound across the nearby creek. Dr. Herbert Ott, a survivor of both O’Donnell and Cabanatuan, recalled that “there were 50,000 Filipinos across the creek from us at O’Donnell. In six months, as near as I know, 30,000 of those 50,000 passed away. I got home [from the war] with a diary and … I counted 409 dead bodies [Filipinos] carried out [in one day].” In September 1942, the remaining 6,500 American prisoners were transported by rail from Capas to Cabanatuan City. Five miles east of the small town was Camp Pangatian, their final destination. By December 1943, 2,650 Americans were buried in the camp’s cemetery, and by the time the Allies began their fight to retake the Philippines, less than 550 prisoners remained alive in Camp Pangatian.
On 9 January 1945, the U.S. Sixth Army under the command of Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger landed unopposed at Lingayen Gulf on the island of Luzon. The XIV Corps, which included the 37th and 40th Infantry Divisions, was positioned on the Sixth Army’s right flank and advanced along an axis parallel to Tarlac, Clark Field, and San Fernando. On the left flank was I Corps, which drove through the mountains toward the city of Baguio and eventually on toward San Jose in the north. By 26 January advanced units of the Sixth Army held a line from Guimba south to La Paz with Licab in the center. This was to be the jumping-off point for the Rangers’ raid on Cabanatuan. (Although the POW camp was officially known as Camp Pangatian it is more commonly referred to as Cabanatuan.)
For months before the Allied invasion, Krueger had been receiving reports on the inhuman treatment of Allied prisoners. He realized that as his forces moved across the island the Japanese would massacre the remaining POWs to hasten their retreat. On 27 January, intelligence provided by American and Filipino guerrillas had located Camp Pangatian just twenty-five miles from the forward edge of the battle area. Between the front lines and the camp, however, were over seven thousand Japanese troops, most positioned in the immediate vicinity of Cabanatuan City.
The Sixth Army intelligence officer, Col. Horton White, recommended to Krueger that the newly formed 6th Ranger Battalion be assigned the mission of rescuing the POWs. The plan to reach the POW camp was as follows: “The Rangers would move to Guimba, about seventy-five miles east of base camp, on 28 January and pick up an eighty-man guerrilla force and native guides at a nearby guerrilla camp. They would then march on a route chosen by local civilians and rendezvous with the Alamo Scouts and a second eighty-man guerrilla force at Balincarin, about five miles northeast of the objective, on 29 January. They would complete their plans there and, unless the situation had changed, conduct the operation that night.”
The Rangers were commanded by Lt. Col. Henry A. Mucci, a West Point graduate. Mucci chose Capt. Robert W. Prince, commander of Company C, and 1st Lt. John F. Murphy, Company F, 2d Platoon, to lead his operational forces. Additionally, two Sixth Army reconnaissance teams (called Alamo Scouts) headed by 1st Lt. Thomas Rounsaville were assigned to support the mission. The two Filipino guerrilla forces, which were recognized units of the U.S. Army and provided both logistic and combat support, were commanded by Capt. Juan Pajota and Capt. Eduardo Joson respectively.
PANGATIAN POW CAMP—CABANATUAN
The POW site at Camp Pangatian lay five miles east of Cabanatuan City and less than a mile west of the small town of Cabu. Mountains rose in the north and southwest, leaving Cabanatuan nestled in the center of a valley that began at Lingayen Gulf and ended at Manila Bay. Surrounding the camp were rice paddies and elephant grass fed by water from the Platero River on the north and the Cabu River on the east. A main road lay just outside the gate of the camp and connected Cabanatuan City with Baler Bay in the north. This road was the primary transportation route for Japanese troops.
The camp itself had once been a U.S. Department of Agriculture station and later a Filipino army training center. Now it was a death camp where the inhumane treatment of prisoners rivaled the Nazi “work camps,” but “the Germans were civilized compared to the Japanese.”3 In the book Cabanatuan: The Japanese Death Camp by Vince Taylor, John McCarty, a survivor of the Bataan Death March and two POW camps—O’Donnell and Cabanatuan—describes the treatment of seven prisoners caught trying to escape. “They beat them awful. Then they tied them to posts … They tied them with wire. They left them out there without any cover, clothes torn off. They put two by fours back of their knees and tied up their ankles to their necks and left them in the hot sun without water. Swarms of big black flies and insects crawled all over them … They must have kept them there for forty-eight hours, then they moved them to the cemetery and had them dig their own graves … and then they shot them all.”
This was a frequent occurrence at Cabanatuan. Those who did survive lived a life of pain. Dr. Ott stated:
A daily routine was getting up before [dawn] … there were work details that would go to the farm or go to the woods. I was fortunate to be in charge of slaughtering the water buffalos. Occasionally you would get one or two of these for 10,000 people. We were down to as low as 800 calories a day and you had to work on it. It took 1200 calories to maintain you, so a lot of people just worked to death. A scratch would become infected and you would get gangrene. With all the vitamin deficiencies the corners of your mouth would be sore, the backs of your feet and insteps would ache. I’ve seen men’s scrotums the size of your head; so swelled up from beri-beri.
By January 1945, over 3,000 men had died in Cabanatuan. Saving the remaining 512 would require swift action on the part of the Rangers, and obtaining detailed information on the exact layout of the facility was essential. Fortunately for the Americans, one of the guerrilla leaders, Captain Pajota, had once been stationed at the camp while undergoing training as part of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).
The entire camp was approximately six hundred by eight hundred yards and was enclosed by three barbed wire fences, eight feet high and situated about four feet apart. Four-story wooden guard towers were positioned at even intervals outside the fences. Inside the camp additional barbed wire fences were erected to isolate specific areas, including the entire east section of the camp where the POWs were held.
The main gate on the north end was an eight-foot-high fence padlocked and guarded by three twelve-foot-high guard towers and one pillbox. The towers were manned by a single guard with another guard at the gate and four heavily armed men in the pillbox. The gate opened onto a dirt road that divided the camp down the middle. To the east were the POWs. They were housed in eight sixty-foot-long thatched-roof barracks. The barracks were originally designed to accommodate 40 troops, but the Japanese had placed 120 prisoners in each building. At the south end of the POW compound were the Japanese guard barracks. These were also protected by a barbed wire fence to prevent POWs from entering the area.
The west side of the camp contained messing and berthing facilities for transient Japanese troops and storage buildings for trucks and tanks. At the time of the raid there were 150 Imperial soldiers from the Kinpeidan Battalion housed in the southwest end of the camp as well as the normal complement of 73 guards. (The guards were a mixture of Japanese, Korean, and Formosan.)
The real threat to the raid force, however, was the Japanese units positioned at both Cabanatuan City and Cabu. At Cabu was the Dokuho 359 Battalion under the command of Tomeo Oyabu. Oyabu’s forces numbered over eight hundred men and included six to eight tanks and several artillery pieces. The day prior to the raid, Oyabu had been ordered to rest overnight at Cabu. When the Kinpeidan unit departed Camp Pangatian the following morning, Dokuho 359 Battalion was to move into Cabanatuan City to reinforce the Imperial Army.
Cabanatuan City was the temporary headquarters of the Imperial Army’s Command Naotake and harbored over seven thousand troops. Naotake had been ordered to defend Cabanatuan City against the advancing Allied forces and was equipped with a division-level supply of tanks and artillery. All three of the Japanese units, the Dokuho Battalion, the Naotake Command, and the transient Kinpeidan Unit, would have to be engaged or delayed in order for the Rangers to have any success rescuing the POWs.
THE 6TH RANGER BATTALION
The 6th Ranger Battalion, which was assigned the mission of rescuing the POWs at Cabanatuan, was originally formed as the 98th Field Artillery Battalion. Activated in January 1941 at Fort Lewis, Washington, the 98th was sent to New Guinea in 1943 but spent most of the time conducting training while the war was going on around them. By April 1944, the 98th had moved to Port Moresby on the southeast end of the island and joined with Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger’s Sixth Army.
Krueger was in the process of reorganizing the Sixth Army for the invasion of the Philippines. He had heard about the success of Lt. Col. William O. Darby’s newly formed Ranger units in Europe and decided to turn the 98th Field Artillery into the 6th Ranger Battalion. The transition would not be an easy one. Most of the men in the 98th were not infantry trained, and Krueger knew that in order for the Rangers to be a success the men would have to undergo intensive training at the hands of an experienced infantry officer. To this end Krueger chose Lt. Col. Henry Mucci. Mucci was chosen because of both his experience and the fact that he was not from the Sixth Army. Tough decisions would have to be made, probably at the expense of several careers, and Krueger believed an outsider would bring no personal baggage to the decision-making process.
As training began, Mucci made several issues clear. Rangers would not wear insignia in the field, they would not salute other officers, and they would not call officers by their rank. He once said, “I may be Colonel Mucci, but don’t dare call me that in the field. The first one who calls me ‘Colonel,’ I’ll call him ‘General’ and we’ll see who the Japs shoot first.”
Additionally, Mucci encouraged all married men to look for reassignment elsewhere, and he recommended that those men who did not want to volunteer for the 6th Ranger Battalion be transferred to another unit. By the end of the first week of training, the ranks had thinned considerably, some voluntarily, some not. Eventually the battalion consisted of almost six hundred men divided into six companies, a headquarters staff, and a battalion staff. The companies were subdivided into two platoons with one officer and thirty-one enlisted men as well as a company headquarters element. The platoons were further divided into a headquarters section, two assault teams of eleven men each, and a special weapons section of six men.
The Rangers carried an array of weapons including the Browning automatic rifle (BAR), M1 carbines, Thompson submachine guns, .45-caliber pistols, bazookas, flamethrowers, and 90mm and 60mm mortars. Additionally the Ranger battalion had an integrated medical detachment, communications section, and motor pool.
Basic training for the 6th Ranger Battalion included extensive weapons firing, small-unit tactics, long marches, and amphibious warfare. Sergeant Charles H. Bosard, first sergeant of F Company, kept a diary in which he noted some of the training events. It read in part:
May 8, 1944—Having a big general inspection today—Have been firing all our weapons, going over Misery Hill, through Torture Flats, landing nets, obstacle course—ran about ten miles. We are all darn good swimmers now—250 yards with a 50 pound pack.
June 4—Working very hard—going through grenade course and bayonet course. Getting ready for amphibious training.
June 19—Getting ready to go out on a night problem … night patrol, perimeter defense, etc.
Staff Sergeant Clifton Harris later recalled jokingly, “We always said if we went through the training we never had to worry about getting killed.”
On 3 October 1944, the 6th Ranger Battalion got its first assignment. The Rangers would be responsible for securing several Japanese-held islands that guarded the entrance to Leyte Gulf, the site of the planned invasion. On 17 October, three days before the main landing, the Rangers went ashore on the Philippine islands of Dinagat, Suluan, and Homonhon. Staff Sergeant Harris remembered the tasking clearly. “We were to direct the main invasion fleet into Leyte Gulf. We put up searchlights and brought the convoy through the straits. It was our first mission.”
Captain Prince’s Company C landed unopposed and saw only limited action, while the remaining companies encountered varying degrees of resistance. The Rangers were spread out across the three islands and had ringside seats for the ensuing Battle of Leyte Gulf. On 20 October the U.S. Sixth Army landed on the eastern shore of Leyte Gulf and Gen. Douglas MacArthur gave his famous “I have returned” speech. By the end of the month, Leyte was securely in American hands, and by the year’s end the Japanese had lost over 50,000 soldiers defending the Leyte Valley. Even with those staggering losses, the Imperial Army still had over 250,000 troops left on Luzon.
On 4 January 1945, the bulk of the Sixth Army departed Leyte and proceeded to the Lingayen Gulf. Five days later, on 9 January, the invasion of Luzon began. The Rangers did not play a significant role in the landing and for the two weeks following the landing remained idle. On 16 January, they received orders to establish a radar station on the Japanese-held island of Santiago. Captain Arthur D. “Bull” Simons, later of Son Tay fame, was tasked with the mission. Simons and a small element arrived on the island that night only to find that the Japanese had departed. Subsequently, the Rangers were ordered to provide two companies to hold the island and erect the radar station. Owing to this requirement, the 6th Rangers were without Bravo and Echo Companies when the mission to rescue the POWs was ordered.
The other unit involved in the operation was the Alamo Scouts. Activated in November 1943, the Alamo Scouts were modeled after the navy’s amphibious scouts and formed by Krueger to conduct amphibious and deep reconnaissance, small-unit raids, and demolition. Krueger, a San Antonio native, named the scouts in honor of the Battle of the Alamo. He said, “They’ll be called the Alamo Scouts. I’ve always been inspired with the story of the Alamo and those brave men who died there. Our Alamo Scouts must have the courage and qualifications of Crockett, Bowie and Travis.”
Krueger directed his commanders in the Pacific to identify within their units men who were exceptionally fit, good swimmers, intelligent, and experts with a rifle. The men chosen were sent to New Guinea to begin scout training on Fergusson Island.
Like the participants in the rigorous Ranger course, the trainees spent four weeks conducting long jungle patrols, weapons familiarization (including Japanese weapons), communications training, land and water navigation, self-defense, and rubber-boat training. After the four weeks of this basic indoctrination they underwent two weeks of field-training exercises including joint operations with navy patrol boats, the scouts’ primary means of insertion. Part of the final two weeks incorporated a swim test. The prospective scouts were required to swim out through the surf while instructors ashore fired into the water around them. After six weeks of training the prospective scout still had one more hurdle to overcome, peer selection.
“When they wanted to determine who these teams were going to be, they had a secret ballot and the officers voted for the five or six enlisted guys they most wanted on their team, and the enlisted men all voted for the officers they wanted to go on a mission with. They [the instructors] sorted this out so that everyone was compatible,” William Nellist, a former Alamo Scout, later recalled.
By February ten teams of seven men had been formed. One of the team members was always a Filipino. “That was a real wise move on somebody’s part,” said Nellist. “Those people [Filipinos] kept us out of more trouble. They could evaluate the Filipinos [civilians] and their reports and how much stock to put in it. They were completely invaluable to us.” Soon after selection, the Alamo Scouts began operations against the Japanese. Inserting by boat, submarine, parachute, or seaplane, the Alamo Scouts would go ashore for three to five days and gather intelligence on enemy activity, conduct beach reconnaissance, spot targets for air strikes, and support guerrilla activities. Within the first year, the scouts conducted sixty missions without a single loss.
Their most successful operation was in October 1944. First Lieutenants Nellist and Rounsaville, and their two teams, all of whom would later play a key role in the rescue of POWs at Cabanatuan, were inserted by patrol boats into Moari, New Guinea. This Japanese-held territory was the site of a POW camp containing thirty-two Dutch and thirty-four Javanese civilians. (According to Nellist most after-action reports indicate that only thirty-three prisoners were rescued instead of the actual number of sixty-six.) The two teams slipped ashore at night and within thirty minutes successfully liberated the civilians and killed the entire Japanese guard force.
Nellist said later, “This mission was just the opposite of the Cabanatuan mission, in that there wasn’t anything we didn’t know about that prison … There was hardly any risk of failure … we had such good information.”
By late 1944 the Alamo Scouts had racked up an impressive record of combat action, and the men had been awarded nineteen Silver Stars, eighteen Bronze Stars, and four Soldiers’ Medals.