U.S. Ranger Raid on Cabanatuan, 30 January 1945 Part II

LIEUTENANT COLONEL HENRY A. MUCCI—6TH RANGER BATTALION

Lieutenant Colonel Henry A. Mucci had just turned thirty-three when he reported to New Guinea as the new commander of the 6th Ranger Battalion. A 1936 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he had been assigned as a company commander at Fort Warren, Wyoming, attended advanced infantry training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and just prior to his arrival in New Guinea was the provost marshal of Honolulu. In his capacity as provost marshal, Mucci had undergone additional training in jungle warfare and small-unit tactics.

Small in stature and rarely without a pipe in his mouth, Mucci was nevertheless “very well built and muscular” and pushed his Rangers through a rigorous training program in which he fully participated.

Forrest B. Johnson wrote in Hour of Redemption: “Whatever Mucci told the men to do, he also did. He seemed to be everywhere … on each twenty mile hike, in the middle of bayonet training, jogging along on the five mile runs before breakfast, crawling through the mud to participate in attacks on simulated Japanese pillboxes, firing a variety of weapons and scoring some of the highest grades.”

Mucci was known as a born leader. He motivated his men more through inspiration than coercion, but he was also known for his quick temper when soldiers failed to react promptly to an order. With a flare for the dramatic, Mucci once challenged a sergeant to stab him during knife training. When the sergeant attempted to cut the colonel, Mucci sidestepped him and tossed him to the ground, thereby demonstrating to the Rangers the proper technique of avoiding a charging Japanese soldier. This flamboyant style was typical of Mucci. Captain Prince described him as a “great believer in the Ranger concept … a terrific officer … who had the respect of every man in the outfit.” Others said, “He was about as rough as they came … as mean as a junkyard dog … but everybody liked him. He stood up for us. You had to be right, but he’d go to bat for you.”

Mucci was instrumental in both the planning and the execution of the raid on the POW camp. Using basic infantry tactics, Mucci and Prince developed a plan that would incorporate simple, well-known maneuvers. This eliminated the need for the Rangers to undergo extensive rehearsals. Considering the limited time available, this was the only alternative. Mucci also used the Alamo Scouts to reconnoiter the target, and he used the guerrillas to act as a blocking force.

Mucci had the innate ability to deal with people. This proved to be a valuable skill in interacting with both the Filipino guerrillas and the communist insurgents (known as the Hukbalahaps, or Huks for short). In his first meeting with the guerrilla leader Major Pajota, Mucci went out of his way to compliment the Filipino’s tactical acumen and obvious “West Point” training. These words of praise helped to win over the guerrilla leader and ensured his support throughout the operation.

While extracting from Cabanatuan, Mucci received news that the Huks were waiting in a nearby barrio and refusing to allow the Filipino guerrillas who were supporting the Rangers to pass. Mucci, gauging the situation, sent back a forceful reply: “Lieutenant, go back and tell those Huks that we all are coming through. If they offer any resistance whatsoever … if even a dog snaps at one of my men, I’ll call in artillery and level the village.”

Unbeknownst to the Huks, Mucci was without radio communication and had no means of calling in either artillery or air support. It was a bluff that worked, and Mucci, his men, the Filipinos, and the POWs passed through the Huk-held village unmolested.

THE RAID ON CABANATUAN

On 27 January, Mucci was summoned from his base camp near Calasio to the Sixth Army Headquarters in Dagupan. There he met the Sixth Army intelligence officer, Col. Horton White; the American guerrilla leader, Maj. Robert Lapham; and the three Alamo Scout officers, Lts. John Dove, William Nellist, and Thomas Rounsaville. White laid out the basic plan for the rescue of the POWs and then informed Mucci of the enemy situation in the area. The operation report said:

Due to the rapid advance of American forces to the southwest, remnants of the enemy forces were with-drawing [sic] north and east along HIGHWAY #5 running through CABANATUAN-BALOC to SAN JOSE. Due to our air activity enemy troop movement was made during the night. During the day troops rested in concealed areas or transit camps. PANGATIAN was one of these transit rest camps. Heavy concentration of enemy troops were reported at RISAL and CABANATUAN while reports indicated 800 Japs at CABU with tanks. The road nets in this area were used regularly for enemy tank movement of which heavy concentrations were numerous.

The Rangers, White explained, would have to travel by foot the twenty miles from Guimba to the camp, liberate the prisoners, and return to Allied lines. The details of the mission were left entirely up to Mucci, but he was warned that security surrounding the operations must be tight. The assistant G2 cautioned, “One tip to the Japs … and … you’ll find nothing but dead American prisoners when you arrive at the camp.”

Mucci spent the remainder of the meeting reviewing the intelligence provided by G2. It was clearly not sufficient to carry out an operation of this magnitude. The Alamo Scouts would have to conduct a detailed reconnaissance of the POW camp and report back to Mucci before the Rangers could make their assault. (The Alamo Scouts worked directly for the G2 section of the Sixth Army. Contrary to other reports, the unit was never attached to MacArthur.) Additionally, Mucci needed Lieutenant Dove to act as a liaison between the Rangers and the Filipino guerrillas. The guerrillas would be coordinating transportation of the POWs and acting as a blocking force, both of which were vital to the success of the mission. Finally, Mucci requested air cover for the return march to Allied lines. White had foreseen this requirement and tasked the Black Widow Night Fighter Squadron to provide one P-61 to act as support. Satisfied that all the headquarters-level coordination was complete, Mucci returned to his base camp.

Upon his return, Mucci summoned his officers together. He had decided upon his force mix. It would include all of Company C, commanded by Captain Prince, and 2d Platoon, Company F, commanded by First Lieutenant Murphy. Additionally, a communications element, medical detachment, and combat camera crew would be included in the list of participants. The total strength of the Ranger rescue unit was 8 officers and 120 enlisted men. Mucci assembled the troops and told them about the mission. “We have been given a tough but rewarding assignment. We’re going to hit a Jap POW stockade and free a few hundred of our boys the Nips have held for almost three years … They are what’s left of our troops who held out on Bataan and Corregidor … and if we don’t free them now, you can bet they’ll be killed by the Japs before our front reaches their area.”

After further elaborating on the condition of the POWs and their possible reaction to the Rangers, Mucci continued with the basic plan: “Before daybreak we’ll be trucked about seventy-five miles northwest [sic] of here to a town called Guimba. Near there, we’ll meet the first guerrilla army who will serve as our escort … and, from there we walk through Jap country, all the way … no sleep … then we attack and walk back!”

At the conclusion of the briefing the troops began to assemble their equipment in preparation for the following morning’s departure. Later, at 1900 that evening, the two Alamo Scout teams, guided by Filipino guerrillas, departed their base camp and began the twenty-four-mile walk to Platero. At Platero, which was the closest barrio to the POW camp, the local Filipinos would provide a final brief on the enemy’s disposition. From this information the Alamo Scouts would devise their reconnaissance plan and then move into position to observe the camp. Mucci had directed the scouts to return to Balincarin, which was just northwest of Platero, by the morning of the twenty-ninth to give the Rangers a detailed account of the situation.

At 0500 on 28 January 1945, the Rangers left their camp by truck and proceeded, as planned, to the guerrilla headquarters at Guimba, arriving at 0715.26 At Guimba, Mucci met Major Lapham and was introduced to the Filipino guides who would lead them to Capt. Edwardo Joson’s guerrilla headquarters at Lobong and then onto Capt. Juan Pajota’s base at Balincarin. The next few hours were spent planning, organizing, and distributing the rations, water, ammunition, and bazookas. At 1400 the Rangers departed Guimba and headed east for two miles and then south for a mile until they intersected the Licab River. After fording the river, they marched for another mile until they reached Lobong. Upon arriving at Lobong, Mucci was introduced to Captain Joson. “There his eighty men [Joson’s guerrillas] were attached to our own force and the entire outfit started east, crossing the national highway into enemy territory about three miles south of Baloc. We forded the Talavera River at 2400 and crossed the Rizal Road at 0400, January 29, all without incident.”

At 0600 the Rangers neared the small village of Balincarin. Waiting for Mucci were the two Alamo Scout officers, Lieutenants Rounsaville and Nellist. The scouts had not had the opportunity to reconnoiter the POW camp yet, but they had some good information from the local guerrillas concerning the terrain and the enemy situation. The ground around the camp was flat and open, although there was a ravine that might allow the Rangers to get close to the highway without being compromised. Unfortunately, the Japanese had been traveling the Cabanatuan Highway nonstop for the past twenty-four hours, apparently reinforcing the Imperial Army at Cabanatuan, which Pajota’s guerrillas estimated at division size. The Alamo Scouts had also been told there were two to three hundred Japanese (later determined to be almost eight hundred) camped along the bank of the Cabu River. The lack of cover and concealment around the POW camp had prevented the scouts from gathering the needed information on the physical layout of the facility. Nellist has tried several times to set the record straight on the scouts’ role but to no avail. In his words,

The scouts didn’t get beans done, except interrogate guerrillas until the morning that we were going to attack. This Filipino, Vacular, and I put on Filipino clothes and walked up to [a nipa hut across from] the prison camp … I had an aerial photo … When I wanted to know something, Vacular was talking out the back of this thing [nipa hut] with other Filipinos. They got out and produced people who had been in there … as forced labor. Everything I wanted to know they seemed to be able to produce somebody that could tell us … The rest of my team and Rounsaville’s team were waiting back in the high grass … There is no way they could get up there [to the POW camp] without being seen … This thing about the scouts going clear around the camp is a bunch of bullshit. We didn’t have time to do that. To make it worse we were exhausted when we got there.

As Mucci continued to discuss the situation with the scout officers, a small contingent of Filipino guerrillas arrived at their location. Leading the group was Captain Pajota. After being introduced to Mucci and the others, Pajota was asked to review the plan and was told that the Rangers intended to attack that night. Pajota responded, “Sir! Are you committing suicide!?… You must know, already, the enemy situation from your Alamo Scouts. My own scouts have been reporting to me every hour. Another Jap unit is approaching Cabu Bridge from the north … Battalion size … There are hundreds of Japs in the camp … and tanks. And, maybe five hundred POWs. Only a few POWs can walk. They must be carried if you are going to take them out.”

Although irritated by Pajota’s comments, Mucci continued to listen, knowing that Pajota was more familiar with the area than any other man. Realizing the difficulty in transporting the POWs, Pajota was organizing a team of carabao (water buffalo) carts to move the POWs from the north side of the Pampanga River back to Allied lines. Pajota’s guerrilla force numbered 90 armed and 160 unarmed men. After settling their differences, Mucci and Pajota agreed that the armed guerrillas would hold the Cabu Bridge, preventing any reinforcement from the Dokuho Battalion, while the unarmed men would help carry the POWs, drive the carabao carts, and act as runners and litter bearers. Captain Prince had requested “that all around security in depth … be established and maintained by guerrilla troops; that all civilians in the area north of the CABANATUAN-CABU road remain there and any persons entering this area will be held and not permitted to leave until [the] mission was accomplished; that all chickens be penned and all dogs be tied and muzzled.” Additionally, the civilians along the route would be co-opted to provide food and water for 650 men. At the completion of their initial meeting the Rangers moved into Barrio Balincarin and began final preparations for the raid.

For most of the day Prince, who had been assigned to plan the mission, studied the terrain and general layout of the camp. All the officers and NCOs received a copy of the sketch of the camp so they could begin their respective planning and rehearsals. Details concerning Japanese positions would be filled in by reports from the Alamo Scouts, but not until just before departing Platero. Still under the impression that the operation would commence that night, Prince radioed back to Guimba asking for air cover to begin at 1900.

At 1800 on the twenty-ninth the Rangers departed Balincarin for the short two-and-one-half-mile march to Platero. There Mucci received an updated situation brief on the POW camp and surrounding area from the local guerrillas. The news was all bad. A Japanese unit had moved into the POW camp, and now there were reportedly 500 enemy soldiers within the confines of the barbed wire. (Later the number was determined to be approximately 225.) On the main road leading to Cabanatuan City was a division of troops, tanks, and heavy equipment. In the city itself there were an estimated seven thousand Japanese soldiers. To make matters worse, the scouts had still been unable to thoroughly reconnoiter the POW camp. After getting the report, Mucci made the decision to delay the raid until the following night. A message was subsequently sent back to Krueger’s headquarters informing the general of Mucci’s decision. The air support was delayed accordingly.

The delay allowed the scouts further time to recon the camp and provided the Rangers extra planning time. Additionally, in anticipation of wounded soldiers and weakened POWs, the Ranger medical officer, Dr. James Fisher, and the local Filipino physician converted the barrio schoolhouse into an emergency hospital. The added time also allowed the Rangers an opportunity to get some rest. They had been up and moving for the past sixty hours. During the Rangers’ short stay in Barrio Platero, Pajota’s guerrillas provided perimeter security while the towns people fed and cared for the American soldiers. The following afternoon at 1500, the report from Nellist arrived at Mucci’s location. Nellist recalled that he “sent a message back with an aerial photo and [his] other piece of paper with the corresponding numbers … On each one [he] wrote everything about it.” Nellist’s report was extremely detailed and provided Mucci all the information he needed. “The decision was made to attack at dusk. The men were completely briefed on the action to take place and each man was assigned a job and thoroughly instructed as to all duties related to it. The element of surprise was stressed as being of primary importance to the success of the mission; all were cautioned to spare no effort to secure the same.”

The plan was as follows. Just prior to dusk, at 1830, a P-61 from the Black Widow Squadron would circle the camp drawing attention away from the Rangers as they attempted to maneuver into position. Second Platoon, Company F, would circle around to the south of the camp and, when in position (approximately 1930), initiate the raid by firing upon the Japanese guard barracks at the rear of the POW compound. (The POW compound was an isolated area within the Japanese camp and held not only the POWs but the guard force as well.) The platoon would isolate the guards, preventing them from reinforcing the section of the POW compound containing the prisoners. Additionally, a six-man squad from 2d Platoon was given the responsibility of destroying a pillbox in the northwest corner of the camp.

As the raid was initiated, 1st Platoon, Company C, which was located to the north, across the highway from the main gate, would assault the camp. The 1st Platoon was divided into two assault sections and a weapons section. The 1st Assault Section would force the front gate and kill the guards at the entrance, in the towers, and at the pillbox. The 2d Assault Section would move across the highway and take up positions outside the fence, providing covering fire for the 1st Section as it moved into the camp. The Weapons Section, equipped with bazookas, would follow the 1st Section through the main gate and pass through their lines, destroying the building containing the tanks. As the Weapons Section entered the compound, the 2d Section would shift fire and then take up security to prevent Japanese from escaping.

Second Platoon, Company C, also located outside the main gate, would follow the 1st Platoon into the camp and proceed to the northeast corner where the POWs were located. After breaking through the entrance to the POW compound, one assault section would proceed toward the rear of the POW compound and engage the guard barracks, preventing any Japanese from reinforcing. A second assault section would position itself on the right flank of the POW compound to prevent a counterattack from the Japanese soldiers on the west side of the camp. The Weapons Section would be held in reserve within the POW compound to escort POWs if needed. The remainder of the platoon’s personnel would search the POW barracks and direct or escort the prisoners out to the main gate.

While the Rangers were liberating the POWs, the guerrillas were to provide blocking forces along the highway to prevent reinforcement from either Cabu or Cabanatuan. Captain Joson’s guerrilla unit was to set up to the southwest, just eight hundred yards from the main gate. Attached to the guerrillas was a six-man bazooka team from 2d Platoon, Company F. Captain Pajota’s guerrillas were to set up a roadblock at the Cabu Creek, three hundred yards northeast of the gate, and cut the telephone lines that connected the camp with other Imperial Japanese units.

1 thought on “U.S. Ranger Raid on Cabanatuan, 30 January 1945 Part II

  1. Pingback: U.S. Ranger Raid on Cabanatuan, 30 January 1945 Parts I, II, and III — Weapons and Warfare | Ups Downs Family History

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