When all the POWs were clear of the camp, Captain Prince would initiate the Rangers’ withdrawal by firing a red signal flare. The guerrillas were to remain at their roadblocks until the entire column of Rangers and POWs were a mile from the camp. At that time Captain Prince would fire a second red signal flare, and the guerrillas would withdraw, forming a flank and rear guard for the Rangers. What was unknown to Mucci and Prince at the time of the planning was that Captain Pajota had already positioned two hundred armed guerrillas a quarter mile north of the Cabu Bridge. Captain Pajota, who had learned to work closely with the Americans while maintaining a certain autonomy, was planning to use these Filipinos as a reserve element for both himself and Captain Joson. When Captain Prince’s second red flare was fired, Pajota would lure the Japanese away from the Rangers’ line of march. In order for this maneuver to be successful, Pajota knew he needed more men than Mucci had authorized.
At 1700 on the thirtieth, all units departed Platero. Guided by Pajota’s scouts, the column, which numbered almost 375 men, moved southwest through the tall elephant grass and bamboo groves to the Pampanga River. Once at the river, the column divided into its three main tactical groups. Pajota’s guerrillas headed upstream and then southwest to their position outside Cabu. Joson moved downstream to his position southeast of the camp, and Mucci and his Rangers crossed midstream to intersect the main gate. For the next three-quarters of a mile the Rangers were able to move without crawling owing to the high grass and falling darkness, which continued to conceal their position.
By 1800 the column was a mile from the river. They had broken through the tall grass and could see the guard towers less than a mile from their position. It was getting dark, but before them lay only rice paddies with no trees or bushes for concealment. Prince ordered 2d Platoon, Company F, to break off and begin heading east. Intelligence from the Alamo Scouts and overhead photography had identified a creek bed that ran underneath the highway and along the east side of the camp. Second Platoon, Company F, would negotiate the creek bed and be in position to initiate the attack at 1930.
After walking a few hundred more yards, Mucci ordered the Rangers to crawl the remaining mile to the highway. “Movement had to be very slow and cautious because the ground was so open.” At 1840, a P-61, appropriately named Hard to Get, circled the camp, diverting the Japanese’s attention away from both Company C approaching from the highway and 2d Platoon, Company F, crawling along the creek east of the camp. Nellist, who had remained in the nipa hut across from the POW camp, saw the P-61 as it made its runs. It “just about ripped the shingles off that damn prison camp. He came by several times and really buzzed it.” The diversion was helpful and “by 1925 Company C was all set, in position twenty yards from the front gate, concealed by both darkness and a small ditch.”
Second Platoon, Company F, had crossed under the highway at approximately 1830 and had dropped off SSgt. Cleat Norton and a small element midway along the creek bed. This element was tasked with assaulting the guard towers on the east side of the compound. Norton later recalled, “Just as I got underneath that tower a bell went off inside the POW compound. I’m telling the truth, you could feel the hair go right up on the top of your head. Nearly pushed your hat right off … It nearly scared the daylights out of us.”
As planned, 2d Platoon, Company F, was in position at the southeast end of the camp at 1930; however, the platoon leader, Lt. John Murphy, spent a few extra minutes to ensure all his troops were ready. At exactly 1945 Murphy opened fire on the guard barracks.
Within seconds all the Japanese in the guard towers and pillboxes around the camp came under fire. An element of 2d Platoon, located in the creek bed to the east of the camp, opened fire on the Japanese positions at the southeast end. Once the guards in the outer positions were killed, the element focused its attention on the guard barracks, which were also under attack by Lieutenant Murphy’s element. “All guard towers, guard shacks, and pillboxes were neutralized within thirty seconds after Murphy fired the first shot.”40 When it was clear that there was no more Japanese resistance at the rear of the camp, 2d Platoon, Company F, retraced its tracks back up the creek bed and out to the main road.
At the north end of the camp, elements of Company C had also killed Japanese guards located in the towers, pillboxes, and concrete shelters that paralleled the north fence. Staff Sergeant Theodore R. Richardson, who had been assigned the task of opening the front gate, quickly crossed the highway and charged the front gate, trying to smash the lock with the butt of his tommy gun. When this failed he pulled out his .45-caliber pistol and started to shoot the lock. Two Japanese guards suddenly appeared and fired at Richardson, knocking the pistol from his hand. Private First Class Leland A. Provencher, who was accompanying Richardson, killed one of the guards while Richardson fired his tommy gun and killed the other. Although it was his first real action, Provencher didn’t hesitate. “We were so well coached and so well drilled that everything just fell in line instinctively.” Richardson recovered his .45-caliber and shot the lock, allowing the gate to open.
Seeing the gate open, the 1st Assault Element from Company C, 1st Platoon, under the command of Lt. William J. O’Connell, jumped from the ditch on the north side of the highway and stormed toward the camp. Immediately behind the 1st Element was the Weapons Section. As the 1st Element and Weapons Section moved, the 2d Assault Element, which was just a few yards down the road, charged the fence line and began firing into the camp. As the two initial elements entered the main gate, the 2d Assault Element ceased firing and took up security positions as assigned.
Inside the camp, the 1st Assault Element moved down the center road and broke to their right (west). The Japanese in the officers’ and enlisted men’s quarters were now aroused and returning fire. The Rangers quickly subdued the Japanese with grenades and fire from their BARs and tommy guns. The Weapons Section passed through the 1st Assault Element and ran three hundred yards down the center road into position to engage the tank shed. As Sgt. Manton Stewart, the designated bazooka man, dropped into position, he could clearly see two trucks loaded with Japanese troops beginning to emerge from the shed. Stewart aimed his rocket launcher at the shed, received a ready command from his loader, and squeezed the trigger. The 88mm rocket ripped through the thin-skinned building, sending shrapnel flying everywhere and creating secondary explosions that rocked the surrounding area. Stewart received another slap on the shoulder from his loader and squeezed again. The shed exploded, and the Japanese in one of the trucks were quickly engulfed in flames. Those enemy soldiers who managed to escape the fire were cut down by Rangers who flanked Stewart on both sides. Stewart received a third and final ready from his loader and fired once again, this time taking aim on the second truck. The rocket hit the front end of the vehicle, destroying it instantly. The remaining enemy soldiers were killed as they scrambled for cover.
As the assault elements of 1st Platoon, Company C, reached their positions and began to engage the enemy, 2d Platoon, Company C, moved in immediately behind them. The three elements of 2d Platoon, Company C (1st and 2d Assault and the Weapons Section), ran down the center road, and after shooting the lock off the gate, broke into the POW compound. The 1st Assault Element moved toward the POW huts while the 2d Assault Element sprinted toward the south end of the prisoners’ section to set up a blocking force. During the planning phase, specific fields of fire had been designated to prevent the various elements from being hit by friendly fire. The Weapons Section, which was being held in reserve, waited at the entrance to the POW compound, eventually being called upon to assist in evacuating the prisoners.
Inside their nipa huts frightened American prisoners were hiding under beds, in latrines, wherever they could. They were certain that the Japanese had come to kill them. Soon, however, the prisoners heard the Rangers shouting, “We’re Americans,” and yelling instructions for all POWs to assemble at the main gate. Although many prisoners quickly emerged from the huts, some POWs had to be coaxed out and, in several cases, the prisoners were forcibly escorted to the gate for their own safety. Those who couldn’t walk were carried. During the evacuation, one Ranger encountered a POW who said he was dying and told the Ranger to leave him and save the others. The Ranger gently picked the man up and placed him on his back. Unfortunately, before the two men reached the main gate the POW died of apparent heart failure. It was the first casualty of the raid.
As the POWs began to evacuate, Prince had the task of personally checking each nipa hut to ensure there was no one remaining. “It was kind of spooky. Each nipa hut had a fire burning in a sandbox. I looked in but couldn’t see very well. I yelled, ‘Is there anyone else left in there?’ and then I entered to double-check.” At one point Prince encountered the senior POW, Colonel Duckworth, who was trying to assert himself during this state of mass confusion. Duckworth was directing all the POWs to remain where they were until he could figure out exactly what was going on. Prince approached the colonel and asked, “Who are you?” Duckworth fired back, “I’m Colonel Duckworth!” To which Prince responded, “Well, Colonel, get your ass out of here! I’ll apologize tomorrow!”
All over the compound similar episodes were taking place. Staff Sergeant Harris still remembers one episode vividly. It was his job to help clear the POWs from inside the nipa huts. “You couldn’t see at all. It was dark inside and it stank. Some of the foulest odors you ever smelled in your life. I almost killed one of the prisoners when he jumped on my back.”
Prisoners who had witnessed death on a daily basis, who had only dreamed of freedom, were now in the process of being liberated. For many it was an emotionally overwhelming situation, and it required the Rangers to handle each case differently. Mucci described it as follows: “Getting those prisoners out was quite a job. Some were dazed. Some couldn’t believe it was true. Some tried to take their belongings, and we had to tell them they had to leave their stuff behind, as there was a tough march ahead. One old United States Marine who had been a prisoner all that time wrapped his arms around the neck of one of the Rangers and kissed him. All he could say was ‘Oh boy! Oh, boy! Oh, boy.’ ”
As the POWs began to flood out of the camp, the Rangers directed or assisted them across the highway and back toward the Pampanga River, where carabao carts were waiting to take them to Allied lines. Mucci, who had remained outside the camp to direct his forces, continued to oversee the evacuation and ensure all the POWs were cared for properly. During the raid, a Japanese soldier had managed to escape the confines of the camp and set up a light mortar on the southern corner of the compound, behind the guard barracks. From this position he began to lob rounds in the direction of the front gate. Three rounds fell in the vicinity of the Rangers, wounding several including the command surgeon Dr. James Fisher.
To the east of the compound, members of 2d Platoon, Company F, were retreating up the creek bed and across the highway as directed. They began to take heavy fire from the compound, and several members dove for a ravine on the north side of the highway. Corporal Roy Sweezy, the BAR man for the platoon, was struck in the back by two rounds and died almost instantly. He was the first and only Ranger killed during the raid.
At approximately 2015, Prince, having inspected all the nipa huts, fired the withdrawal flare. Unknown to Prince or anyone else, however, “one dysentery-weakened British civilian prisoner had hidden in the latrine at the sound of the first shots and never came out. He would be discovered near the camp after midnight by Filipino guerrillas and rescued.”
Outside the camp another battle was raging as the guerrilla force under Captain Pajota was holding off the Japanese at the Cabu Bridge. Alamo Scout Bill Nellist later remembered, “This unit that was across the Cabu River was just exhausted. They weren’t dug in. They were lying on the ground. The guerrillas just raked the hell out of them.”
Pajota caught the Japanese completely by surprise and inflicted heavy casualties within the first few seconds. The Japanese who were not caught in the initial cross fire began to charge across the creek bed in an effort to break the ambush. Pajota had planned for this eventuality and positioned his men accordingly. Additionally, to ensure the Japanese could not bring reinforcements across the Cabu Bridge, Pajota had blown the bridge with a time bomb. Although not completely destroyed by the demolition, the bridge could not support the weight of the Japanese tanks, which were being held in reserve by Commander Oyabu. Even after suffering more than a hundred casualties in the first five minutes, Oyabu continued to order his troops to attack.
At one point several trucks laden with heavy weapons and Japanese troops started for the bridge, hoping to cross on what remained of the structure. As they approached the creek, Pajota’s men fired at the trucks with bazookas. Those Japanese who survived the onslaught of the 88mm rockets were killed as they jumped from the vehicles. This fight raged until 2200, and Pajota was forced to disregard Prince’s second withdrawal flare until he could ensure that the Japanese would not pursue the retreating column of Rangers and POWs. When Pajota finally broke contact, his guerrillas had killed over three hundred Japanese while suffering only nine casualties, none seriously injured. (Initial reports indicated that twenty-three Filipinos were missing in action, but eventually these men were found and the numbers revised to reflect only nine wounded men.)
The column of POWs and Rangers that departed the Cabanatuan area stretched for over a mile. By the time the small army reached Plateros, there were over twenty-five carabao carts with more being assembled at each barrio. Mucci reported afterward:
The column halted in Plateros [sic] to reorganize, give water and food to the men, and gather more carts. Cots were set up in the schoolhouse by Doctor Layug, local guerrilla doctor, who treated the sick and wounded. The ex-POW’s [sic] able to walk were dispatched in groups guarded by Rangers to the next Barrio, Baligcarin [Balincarin], as fast as they could be organized. The first group left Plateros at 2100 hours the 30th. Captain Prince brought the last elements of the column into Plateros protected by the rear guard of 115 men [who] were moved from Plateros to Balincarin in 25 carabao carts.
Upon reaching Balincarin, the Rangers and POWs halted again. An additional fifteen carabao carts were added to the growing column. The wounded medical officer, Captain Fisher, was left in Balincarin with a small contingent of Rangers. A light plane had been requested to medevac him to a field hospital. Unfortunately, no plane arrived and Fisher died in Balincarin. The column departed Balincarin at 2400 for the next small village, Matoas Na Kahey.
As the Rangers marched along the trails toward the Allied lines, P-61s from the 547th Night Fighter Squadron flew air cover, ensuring that the retreating column would not be intercepted by Japanese. Although few Rangers ever saw the P-61s (other than Hard to Get), the Black Widows “destroyed a total of twelve Japanese trucks, one tank and hundreds of foot troops trapped in those vehicles or around camps fires near the roads.”
Upon arriving at Matoas Na Kahey, the soldiers and ex-POWs were provided food, water, medical support, and an additional eleven carabao carts. This brought the total of carts to fifty-one and created a column over a mile and one-half long. The length of the column presented a considerable problem for the next phase of the mission, crossing the Rizal Highway. The highway was a main Japanese thoroughfare, and the column would have to travel down the road for almost a mile before crossing.
Mucci ordered 1st Lt. William O’Connell to establish roadblocks on both the north and south end of the highway and to report back when the men were in position. Accompanied by two squads of Rangers, a bazooka team, and some of the Filipino guerrillas, O’Connell set up a blocking force four hundred yards to the north and another three thousand yards to the south. Additionally, Rangers on ponies rode two miles north and two miles south of the crossing to provide added warning time. This would protect both right and left flanks during the crossing. The column began the crossing at 0331 and completed it at 0430. Mucci later recalled, “It was the longest hour I’ve ever sweated out in all my life.”
At 0530 the column arrived at a small barrio, rested for a short while, and then continued the march. By 0800 they had reached the village of Sibul. Mucci received word that the Allied lines had advanced to the Talavera River, which was only a few miles from Sibul. Radio communications were established with Guimba, and Mucci requested that trucks, ambulances, and food be available upon the column’s arrival at the front lines. The villagers provided Mucci another twenty carts and at 0900 the march continued.
Within two hours the column was intercepted by an advanced reconnaissance patrol of the Sixth Army. The ambulances and vehicles, which were only a few minutes behind the patrol, evacuated the prisoners and wounded. Soon thereafter the Rangers returned to their base camp near Calasiao, their mission complete. The Ranger logbook of 31 January 1945 reported the following:
Co “C” and 2d Platoon Co “F” returned to Ranger Area. Mission completed. Casualties: Capt. Fisher and Corporal Sweezy killed in action; Pvt Peters, Jack wounded. Enemy casualties estimated at 250 by Rangers and 300 by Guerillas [sic] forces. 510 prisoners released from Japanese prison.
For their bravery at Cabanatuan, Colonel Mucci and Captain Prince received the Distinguished Service Cross, all other officers and selected enlisted received the Silver Star, and all the remaining enlisted received the Bronze Star. The Filipino guerrillas were all awarded the Bronze Star.