During the early hours of 31 October 2020, United States Navy SEALs from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), parachuted from Air Force Special Operations aircraft, and conducted a successful rescue operation of an American hostage in northern Nigeria killing six of the seven captors. The hostage, 27-year-old Philip Walton, had been kidnapped in front of his family at his home in the village of Massalata in neighboring Niger on 26 October by armed gunmen, who intended to sell him to armed terrorist groups in the area.
In 2020, Niger experienced a multitude of attacks by extremists linked to both Islamic State (IS) groups and Al-Qaeda. About two months prior to the kidnapping of Walton, IS-linked militants killed six French aid workers and their Niger guide while they were visiting a wildlife park near the capital Niamey. Additionally American aid worker Jeffery Woodke was kidnapped from Abalak in October 2016, and is believed to be held in Mali.
Philip Walton is an American citizen and the son of missionaries, who has lived in Massalata with his wife and child for two years. His father lives in Birni-N’konni, and has lived in Niger for about 30 years.
Walton was kidnapped by six men armed with Kalashnikovs, from his farm in Massalata in southern Niger in the early morning of 27 October 2020. The kidnappers initially demanded money from Walton, but abducted him after he was only able to offer US$40. The kidnappers then demanded a US$1 million ransom from Walton’s father via a phone call.
The Nigerian Interior Ministry announced the incident via a statement read on national radio, which claimed that the kidnappers had searched Waltons home before fleeing with him. The country sent additional security reinforcements to the area and began efforts with the United States to secure the release of Walton.
Walton was rescued on 31 October 2020, in northern Nigeria. Officials from the US Department of Defense and US Department of State have not linked the kidnappers to any terrorist organization.
US President Donald Trump hailed the operation and the rescue team on Twitter, where he said that the operation was a “big win for our very elite U.S. Special Forces” and added “[…] we got our young man back.” Trump also referenced the rescue at a campaign speech in Pennsylvania stating; “The kidnappers wished they had never done it.” and “…we got our young man back.”
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also reacted on Twitter where he described the operation as “outstanding.” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany spoke on Fox & Friends about the rescue and stated that the president prioritizes the safety of American citizens.
Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and retired CIA officer, said “These types of operations are some of the most difficult to execute. Any mistake could easily lead to the death of the hostage. The men and women of JSOC, and the CIA should be proud of what they did here. And all Americans should be proud of them. “ Eric Oehlerich, a retired Navy SEAL, said, “Men in these top-tier special forces units train their entire adult lives to be ready when called upon, hostage rescue operations are inherently dangerous. Those men put someone else’s life above their own, they do so selflessly….it’s an illustration of utter commitment.”
Niger kidnapping signals Salafi-jihadis’ growing influence in West Africa
Salafi-jihadi groups’ strengthening in West Africa is incentivizing attacks on foreigners, even in areas where Salafi-jihadi groups have a limited presence. Six criminals kidnapped an American farmer, Philip Walton, in southwestern Niger near the Nigerian border on October 27. The kidnappers, who were not themselves members of a Salafi-jihadi group, demanded nearly $1 million and threatened to turn Walton over to Salafi-jihadi militants if the ransom was not paid. US Special Operations Forces rescued Walton on October 31. The kidnappers’ threat reflects the growing influence of Salafi-jihadi groups in the border region of northwestern Nigeria and southwestern Niger.
Salafi-jihadi groups are increasingly active in and around the region of northwestern Nigeria and southwestern Niger where Walton was kidnapped. Three groups are active in this area. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) has two branches: one based in northeastern Nigeria and its environs, and one based in the tri-border area of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The latter group is commonly referred to as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Al Qaeda–linked Ansaru also operates in northwestern Nigeria.
All three groups have recently resumed activity in or advanced toward northwestern Nigeria. On August 9, ISGS killed eight French aid workers in southwestern Niger’s Giraffe Zone, expanding its operations to an area previously considered safe. ISWA is already active in southeastern Niger and regularly claims attacks in Niger’s Diffa region and in northern Nigeria. ISWA’s area of operations may be expanding westward, and the group is active in regions outside its control.
ISWA may also be competing with Ansaru, an al Qaeda–linked group that resurfaced in northwestern Nigeria in 2019. ISWA and ISGS have recently stepped up attacks targeting foreigners and aid workers. US security forces rescued Walton in Nigeria, which may indicate the kidnappers’ intent to transfer him to ISWA.
Two major areas of Salafi-jihadi activity may be merging across northwestern Nigeria. ISGS’s eastward shift and ISWA’s westward advance could connect the two main areas of Salafi-jihadi activity in West Africa and increase interaction between the two groups. This interaction could include sharing tactical and strategic guidance, accessing each other’s safe havens to weather counterterrorism pressure, or even coordinating joint attacks.
Salafi-jihadi groups will likely benefit from lucrative illicit economic activity along the Niger-Nigeria border. The area of Walton’s kidnapping is a key crossing point for trafficking and smuggling, including the moving of migrants toward the Maghreb and Europe. A greater presence along the Niger-Nigeria border may allow a Salafi-jihadi–criminal nexus to exploit these routes for transit and profit-making. Salafi-jihadi groups may also expand ties with local criminal groups to facilitate their expansion into new areas.
Rising Salafi-jihadi threats in West Africa will increasingly strain Niger, a US partner. Niger is already fighting Salafi-jihadi groups on two fronts and may now confront the merging of these two theaters along its entire southern border. Niger is a key player in counterterrorism efforts in West Africa and contributes troops to counterterrorism missions in Mali and Nigeria. Niger also hosts US and French forces. A serious uptick in Salafi-jihadi activity in Niger could worsen its already struggling economy by disrupting tourism and targeting the significant humanitarian presence in the country.
Raiders exit a deliberately crashed helicopter at the Son Tay prison camp in North Vietnam. Painting: Mikhail Nikiporenko/USAF
In 1968, 356 American prisoners of war (POWs) were being held in camps north of the Demilitarized Zone in the Republic of North Vietnam. One of these facilities was Camp Hope, located near the Son Tay citadel, just twenty-three miles northwest of Hanoi. It had been activated on 24 May 1968, and over the course of the next several months fifty-five American POWs were moved into the small compound. After U.S. intelligence sources located the camp, the Interagency Prisoner of War Intelligence Committee (IPWIC), headed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), began to focus its reconnaissance efforts to determine whether American POWs were being held at Son Tay.
In May 1970, the U.S. Air Force’s 1127th Special Activity Squadron (Headquarters Command) received aerial reconnaissance photos taken of Son Tay that showed a coded message “spelled out” by the prisoners indicating the number of personnel interned and the location of a possible pickup site eight miles to the northeast at Mount Ba Vi. (The 1127th believed that the work parties from Son Tay were being sent to Mount Ba Vi to chop wood either for the kitchen fires or for camp construction projects.) The 1127th provided the information to Brig. Gen. James Allen, the deputy director of plans and policy under the deputy chief of staff for plans and Operations, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, who commissioned a preliminary study of rescue possibilities and presented the findings to Brig. Gen. Donald Blackburn, the special assistant for counterinsurgency and special activities (SACSA), Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Blackburn immediately asked the DIA to conduct a photo reconnaissance mission of both Son Tay and another suspected POW camp called Ap Lo. On 2 June, DIA provided Blackburn with SR-71 photos that confirmed the presence of “someone” in both camps. Three days later Blackburn briefed the JCS and recommended an in-depth feasibility study be conducted with options provided to the JCS by 30 June. He later recalled, “The JCS wanted more detail before they would make a determination of whether we should go on with this thing or before they would agree to a joint task force to be set up to plan this operation.”
JCS approved the study, and on 10 June SACSA convened a twelve-man study group from all three services and DIA. But Blackburn realized it would be difficult to get a mission approved. “I knew from the start that we would be singing to a reluctant choir. My inhibitions stemmed from my days as Chief SOG in Viet Nam … There was an off-and-on policy at the time about bombing in the north, and they did not want to rock the boat by these ground operations.”
The initial concept-of-operations brief to the Joint Chiefs was delayed from 30 June until 10 July, at which time Col. Norman Frisbie, USAF, the senior member of the preliminary study group, told the JCS that a rescue effort was feasible, and he presented an expanded concept of the operation. Initially, Blackburn and his staff considered inserting a controlled American source (CAS) agent (Vietnamese recruited by SOG) into the vicinity of Son Tay. The agent would verify the presence of POWs and call in a helicopter-borne rescue force that would be prepositioned on the Laotian border. This concept was discarded because of fears that prepositioning forces in Laos would alert the North Vietnamese and compromise the mission. Consequently, the planning group recommended that a combined fixed-wing and rotary-wing air element (two C-130Es, five HH-53s, one HH-3, and five A-1Es) be launched from Thailand to insert and support a Special Forces ground-assault force that would rescue the POWs. The navy would provide a massive three-carrier air strike into North Vietnam as a deception to focus enemy air defenses and radars away from the inbound rescue force. The JCS approved the concept and directed commencement of detailed planning and training.
On 8 August, a joint contingency task group (JCGF) was formed under the JCS with SACSA as the office with primary responsibility. Brig. Gen. Leroy J. Manor, USAF, commander of the Special Operations Force at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was designated as the commander, and Col. Arthur D. Simons, USA, J4, XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was assigned as the deputy. Admiral Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Manor, “You have the authority to put together a task force and train that task force.” Manor was pleased with the clear direction and support. He said later, “We had practically a blank check when we left there to go ahead with this. We had the authority we needed to get whatever resources we needed personnel-wise or equipment-wise or whatever. All the resources that were available in the military were ours to put this together. It is the only time in my 36 years of active duty that somebody gave me a job, simply stated, and the resources with which to do it, and let me go do it!”
Immediately upon establishment of the JCT, Colonel Simons returned to Fort Bragg and requested volunteers for a classified mission involving considerable travel and risk. Over five hundred men from the John F. Kennedy Center for Special Warfare showed up for the initial meeting. Some men, not knowing the nature of the operation, elected not to return for a follow-on screening. Each of those men who did return was personally interviewed by Colonel Simons, Lt. Col. Joseph Cataldo, a Special Forces medical officer, and two sergeants major. Eventually 120 men were chosen as the nucleus for the army component of the Son Tay force. “Every one of these people had been to Viet Nam. Some of them had had two or three tours in Viet Nam.”
At the same time, the air force crews were being selected from personnel assigned to the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Training Center at Eglin. This squadron possessed the only stateside heavy-lift, air-refuelable H-3 and HH-53 helicopters. Some HH-53 crews from the 40th Air Rescue Squadron and the 703d Special Operations Squadron were even returned to Florida from Southeast Asia to participate in the operation. Additionally, the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and the 56th Special Operations Squadron in Thailand supplied pilots and co-pilots. According to Col. John Allison, “All of the foregoing crew members volunteered, and after being interviewed by General Manor or Lieutenant Colonel Warner Britton, were selected to participate on the mission. Colonel Britton was the Air Force representative who participated in the feasibility study and was pilot of Apple 1 on the mission.”
Once chosen, all the men were taken to Duke Field at Eglin to begin training. Eglin was chosen as the training site because it had all the necessary resources and provided the isolation required to maintain security. The training began on 20 August and terminated on 8 November 1970. During the interim, the air and ground planning staffs assumed the joint planning function. Regularly scheduled joint meetings were held to plan the logistic and training activities. In Washington, intelligence agencies continued to gather extensive information on Son Tay. “Both SR-71 and drone (low altitude) resources were programmed to obtain aerial photography of the objective, the surrounding area, and the tentative route.”
Operational security was considered essential to the success of the mission. The Security Staff Section was established on 11 August 1970 and given the responsibility of maintaining security and counterintelligence for the project. Work areas were surveyed, visitor control was established, classified material control was instituted within the work space, and all messages leaving the command were screened by the Security Staff. All the personnel involved in the planning, support, or execution of the raid had their phones monitored. Brigadier General Manor received a daily report detailing the highlights of possible violations. Additionally, a cover and deception plan was developed for the training and deployment phase and a counterintelligence plan to provide specialized assistance in gathering information on possible organized threats to the mission.
As training progressed, Brigadier General Manor and Colonel Simons frequently traveled to Washington to assist the SACSA planning cell and brief the necessary senior officials. Manor recalled that on 8 September
Simons, Don Blackburn, and myself had an appointment to brief the chiefs and I was the briefer, the commander of the task force. I pointed out to the chiefs that we had determined that this [the Son Tay raid] is feasible. It can be done. This is how we plan to do it and I outlined the concept. We will be ready to do this on the 21st of October.8 Admiral Moorer [Chairman of the JCS] said, “We could approve it here, but of course, it has to go to a higher level for [final] approval. You will have to brief the secretary of defense.” Secretary of defense was Mr. Melvin Laird. We weren’t able to schedule a briefing before him until the 24th of September. And at the same time, we briefed the Director of CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] [Richard Helms]. Apparently he had been briefed before … They were rather noncommittal, although Secretary Laird said that he agreed with the concept and he agreed that it was feasible, and we would have to wait for higher authority. We knew, of course, that it would have to go to the White House. But it wasn’t until the 8th of October that we had an opportunity to brief the White House. Then we briefed Dr. Kissinger and General A1 Haig. A1 Haig, then, was the military assistant to Kissinger. The briefing was well received there. No changes made in concept. They didn’t have any problems with how we planned to do this, and they had confidence we could do it.
Kissinger told Manor that the mission might have to be delayed from 21 October to 21 November. Unbeknownst to Manor, President Nixon was working to gain the release of POWs through diplomatic means, and he was concerned that a raid could compromise those initiatives. Kissinger authorized Manor to continue training. On 1 November, Admiral Moorer authorized Manor to conduct in-the-ater coordination. Prior to this time no one beyond CINCPAC (commander in chief, Pacific) (Admiral McCain) was aware of the proposed operation. Blackburn, Manor, and Simons flew to Saigon and briefed General Creighton Abrams (commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) and General Lucius Clay (commanding general, Seventh Air Force). Both generals wholeheartedly supported the mission and offered “any resources” under their control.
Upon completing the brief in Saigon, Blackburn flew back to Washington, and Manor and Simons flew to the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany and briefed VAdm. Fred Bardshar (commander, Task Force [CTF] 77), Capt. Alan Hill (CTF 77 operations officer), and Comdr. P. D. Hoskins (CTF 77 intelligence officer). From these briefings the navy developed a three-carrier diversionary strike into North Vietnam designed to divert attention away from the inbound helicopter raid force. Bardshar was directed not to inform his immediate superior, Admiral Weisner (commander, Seventh Fleet). “I [Manor] later worked for Admiral Weisner, and he would occasionally bring this up to me—in a good natured way—that I had gone around him to get his force to do something.”
On 10 November, the raid force with its logistic support departed Eglin, and it arrived at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) on 14 November 1970. Additional C-141s departed on the tenth and twelfth, arriving as scheduled on the sixteenth. On the morning of 18 November, Moorer briefed Nixon on the Son Tay raid. Also present were Kissinger, Laird, Helms, Secretary of State William Rogers, and Haig. Later that afternoon the raid was approved.
CAMP HOPE—SON TAY POW COMPOUND
Camp Hope, located near the Son Tay citadel, was activated on 24 May 1968. Three contingents of American POWs were brought into the camp, the first group on 24 May, the second on 18 July, and the third on 27 November 1968. After confirming the existence of personnel in the camp (June 1970), the U.S. intelligence community began extensive coverage of the compound and surrounding area. Photo intelligence during the planning phase of Son Tay consisted of coordinating the reconnaissance, photo interpretation, and target material production. All photography came from either SR-71 overflights or Teledyne Ryan’s Buffalo Hunter reconnaissance drones and was orchestrated through the DIA. Both Camp Hope and the nearby camp Ap Lo were entered as national intelligence requirements and a priority drone coverage effort from Strategic Air Command (SAC) was requested.
In September 1970, seven drone tracks were drawn up by the Son Tay planners to ensure full coverage of both the camp and surrounding areas. This allowed the planners to identify helicopter landing zones (LZs), infiltration and exfiltration routes, and airborne staging areas, and to develop detailed intelligence on the POW camp itself. From these photos a scale model of the POW camp was produced by the CIA for use by the planners and operators. (The model was codenamed Barbara and now resides in the aviation museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.)
Camp Hope, designated Son Tay Prisoner of War Camp N-69, was located at 21 degrees, 08 minutes, and 36 seconds north and 105 degrees, 30 minutes, and 01 second east. It was bordered on the west by the Song Con River which flowed south to north and bent slightly to the east three hundred feet from the camp. The river was about forty feet wide and fordable by foot troops in the dry season. There was a sixty-foot, single-lane, three-span bridge to the north that became a gravel road to the east of the compound. The road was bordered by power lines and air-raid pits. A small canal bordered the compound in the south. The entire area, from the bridge to the canal, including the compound and surrounding buildings, was no larger than three football fields laid side to side.
The compound itself was approximately 140 feet wide by 185 feet long north to south. Its walls were 6- to 12-inch-thick masonry and between 7-1/2 and 10 feet high. There was concertina wire on the south wall. Entrance into the compound was either by a vehicle access gate on the east wall or a smaller access gate on the south wall. Inside there were five main buildings, three guard towers, and two latrines. On the north end of the compound were two smaller buildings. The building on the west wall (5C) was surrounded by concertina wire and considered to be a maximum detention cell. The other building, located against the north wall, contained holding cells (5D). The large adjoining buildings in the center of the compound also contained holding cells (5A and 5B), and the large single building housed the guard relief and interrogation cells (5E).
Son Tay Prisoner of War Camp and the Movements of the Assault (Meadows), Command (Sydnor), and Support (Simons) Groups. From JCS
Outside the compound were several structures that supported the guard force including: guard quarters (7B), kitchen and guard mess (11, 12), administration building (7A), family housing (13 A, B, C, and D, E [not shown]), and numerous support buildings (8A-F). The nighttime guard force was estimated to be one guard per watch-tower and a minimum of two guards in the compound with possible relief personnel in 5E. The outside force could number up to two platoons, located primarily in the guard quarters in 7B. Although they were probably not manned, automatic-weapon positions were stationed around the camp at the south, east, and north ends.
Located approximately four hundred meters south of the Son Tay POW camp was another facility originally designated as the Son Tay secondary school. This facility was later presumed to be the headquarters for a missile battery and was reclassified as a military installation after the support element mistakenly landed by the compound and was engaged by enemy forces. The installation was similar in size and construction to the Son Tay compound. It had a masonry wall surrounding the outside. A canal resembling the Song Con River ran north of the facility, and a gravel road bordered the compound on the east side. Inside the walls were at least four buildings, three one-story barracks and a two-story headquarters facility. (According to Col. Elliot Sydnor it was never actually determined how these buildings were used.) Very little intelligence was gathered on the installation prior to the mission because it was not part of the objective area. Based on photo interpretation of the Son Tay compound and surrounding area, intelligence experts estimated that a total of fifty-five personnel might be held prisoner at Camp Hope. (Colonel Richard A. Dutton, USAF [Ret.], a former Son Tay POW, stated that on 27 November 1968 there were a total of fifty-two prisoners.) A physical profile of the average Son Tay POW was developed by Dr. Cataldo based on World War II and Korean War data. Estimates of body weight, disease, and psychological state were made. It was determined that most of the POWs would have lost 20 percent of their body weight and been inflicted with either malaria, intestinal parasites, goiter, malnutrition, peripheral neuritis, active dysentery, or tuberculosis. A psychological profile based on interrogations of returning POWs was prepared for POW-handling purposes. The profile was as follows:
Overhead View of the “Secondary School” Showing the Movements of the Support Group. From JCS
The POW has heard very little noise, has had very little physical exercise and lives in dimly lit rooms. He has two meals a day, usually consisting of cabbage soup plus bread or rice. Fish and pumpkin occasionally supplement the diet with less than two ounces of meat per week. Sometimes a banana or some other fruit is provided. Flour and sugar cookies are rarely given to the POW. Restriction of total protein intake plus physical inactivity will cause marked muscular atrophy plus a slow reaction to stimuli. A few POWs will maintain a strong hope for liberation, and some will have given up hope, but the majority are probably unsure and live day to day driven only by a natural desire to survive. Therefore, for the most, the sudden realization that “liberation is here” will be shocking.
The CIA built a tabletop replica of the Son Tay camp so it could be studied from all angles.
The North Vietnamese air defense system was one of the most extensive in the world. Each known site was mapped by the planners, and the appropriate anti-air defense measures were used. Of significance were the central and western air defense systems. Fortunately, neither of these systems detected the raid force until five minutes after the time over target (TOT). This was despite the presence of four F-4s and four F-105s in the area ten minutes prior to TOT. Other air defense systems that proved active included the northeastern (Phuc Yen control) sector, which controlled a minimum of seven FanSong (surface-to-air missile or SAM) and two FireCan (antiaircraft artillery or AAA) sites. Intelligence on these sites was excellent. Brigadier General Manor later recalled, “We had the capability to determine what they were seeing on their radar almost as soon as they did—which, of course, was very, very helpful.”
On 8 August 1970, the joint contingency task group (JCTG) was formed, and Brig. Gen. Leroy J. Manor was selected to command the force. Manor’s career began in June 1942 when he enlisted in the army air force and was sent to pilot training as an aviation cadet. Upon graduation he became a fighter pilot in P-48s, flying in the European theater of operation with both the Eighth and Ninth Air Force. He finished the war with seventy-two combat missions.
After the war, Manor returned to New York University and finished his degree in 1947. Later that year he became an instructor at the air tactical school at Tyndal Field, Florida. Following that assignment he went to Maxwell Air Force Base at Montgomery, Alabama, and helped organize the squadron officers’ school, staying on to teach the first class. He departed Maxwell for the Tactical Air Command air-ground operations school at Southern Pines, North Carolina.
In 1953 he was assigned to the Sixth Allied Tactical Air Force in Izmir, Turkey. After two years he went to Selfridge Field, Michigan, as the commander of the 2242d Air Reserve Flying Center where he flew F-80s, F-84s, F-86s, and eventually C-119s. In 1958 he attended the Armed Forces Staff College and was subsequently assigned as squadron commander of an F-100 squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. Manor was then reassigned overseas to Germany as the chief of the Tactical Evaluation Division of U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), where he flew F-100s and F-105s. Upon completion of his tour in Germany, Manor was sent to the Industrial College of the Armed Forces with a four-year follow-on assignment in the Pentagon. For his tour in the Pentagon, he was rewarded with command of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing (F-100s) in Phu Cat, Republic of South Vietnam.
After one year and 275 combat missions in Vietnam, Manor returned to command the 835th Air Division at McConnell Air Force Base, Wichita, Kansas. While at McConnell, Manor was promoted to brigadier general and in 1970 became commander of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Forces at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. While heading the Special Operations Forces, Manor was chosen as the task group commander for the Son Tay raid. Colonel Elliot “Bud” Sydnor described Manor as “very intelligent … the steel hand in a velvet glove.”
Another person instrumental in the planning and preparation of the raid was Brig. Gen. Donald D. Blackburn. Blackburn was the JCS SACSA at the time of the Son Tay raid. He was responsible for developing the initial plan, establishing the study group, coordinating all the intelligence and logistic support, and interfacing with the JCS and senior Department of Defense (DOD) and National Security Agency (NSA) personnel. Blackburn was arguably the most knowledgeable senior officer in the army on special operations. He began his career in 1940 as an infantry officer assigned to advise a Filipino infantry battalion in northern Luzon. When the Philippines fell in 1942, Blackburn refused to surrender and helped organize Filipino guerrillas to fight the Japanese. He became a regimental commander of a unit composed largely of Igorot headhunters. On 9 January 1945, the Americans returned in force to Luzon but had to battle the 235,000 well-entrenched Japanese until 5 July 1945. Throughout the interim “Blackburn’s headhunters” were instrumental in behind-the-lines operations in support of the ground campaign.
After the war, Blackburn, a highly decorated twenty-nine-year-old full colonel, returned to the United States where he was sent back to service schools to learn about “the real army.” After a tour as provost marshal of the Military District, Washington, D.C., he was sent to the Infantry School and then returned to Washington to serve two years in the Pentagon. Following his tour in the Pentagon, Blackburn was sent to parachute training and then in 1950 to be an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy. In 1953 he was assigned to the Allied Northern Forces, Europe. Upon completing his European assignment in 1957, Blackburn was sent to Vietnam as senior adviser to the Vietnamese commanding general, 5th Military Region, Mekong Delta. He was subsequently assigned to Fort Bragg where he assumed command of the 77th Special Forces Group. In 1960 Blackburn was picked to organize a military advisory group to conduct covert operations in Laos. Blackburn chose Lt. Col. Arthur D. Simons to head his “White Star” program. From 1964 to 1965, Blackburn was director of special operations for the deputy chief of staff for operations (DCS Ops) of the army. He returned to Vietnam in 1965 to be the first commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Studies and Observation Group (MACVSOG). This joint military organization included army and air force special operations forces, navy SEALs, marine reconnaissance forces, CIA, and a host of service support personnel. Following his tour in Vietnam, Blackburn returned to Washington as SACSA and retired from the military in June 1971 after that assignment.
Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons was chosen as the deputy commander of the JCTG for the raid on Son Tay. He graduated from the University of Missouri through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program and received his commission in the army in 1941. His first assignment was with the 98th Field Artillery Battalion in New Guinea. The outfit was disbanded soon thereafter, and Simons, who had become a battery officer and battalion executive officer, joined the 6th Ranger Battalion. He participated in the invasion of the Philippines, commanding B Company, 6th Rangers, during several behind-the-lines operations.
He was out of the service from February 1946 until June 1951. From 1951 until 1954 he served as an instructor at the Eglin Air Force Base Ranger Camp. The Ranger Camp was a department of the Infantry School. Following that tour Simons served three years in Ankara, Turkey, as a military adviser. In 1957 he received orders to Fort Bragg and in 1958 was assigned to the 77th Special Forces Group. He transferred to the 7th Special Forces Group. There Simons met Blackburn, who in 1960 chose him to head his White Star program in Laos.
Simons took 107 Special Forces personnel to Laos and formed a Laotian army by impressing thousands of Meo tribesmen into service. The CIA used White Star teams to train the Meo one-hundred-man autodéfense de choc (shock) companies. The Meo were well suited to the task and enjoyed soldiering. The White Star teams sent the Meo into the highlands to ambush the Pathet Lao forces and capture key military territorial objectives.
By July 1962, the White Star program included 433 Special Forces personnel who were responsible for conducting extensive unconventional warfare and training both the Forces Armées du Royaume and the Laotian military schools. Following his six months in Laos, Simons returned to Fort Bragg and then was assigned signed to Panama with the 8th Special Forces Group at Fort Gulick. In 1965 he reported to Vietnam and joined Blackburn at MACVSOG. While at MACVSOG Simons earned a reputation as a superb unconventional operator, but as Blackburn remembered, “He didn’t believe in ‘foolhardy frolics’ … When Bull Simons undertook an operation,… the research and planning behind it were ‘meticulous.’
In 1966 he returned to the States and was the assistant chief of staff of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg. Following a one-year tour in Korea, Simons returned to the XVIII Airborne Corps and while there was appointed to be the deputy commander of the Son Tay raid. He retired in July 1971 after thirty-four years of service. In 1979 Ross Perot brought Simons out of retirement to rescue two executives of the Electronic Data Systems who were trapped in Tehran. He died of heart failure soon after returning from Iran.
Lieutenant Colonel Bud Sydnor was probably the most influential and yet the most publicly unappreciated officer on the raid. It is a popular misconception that Simons was the ground force commander, but in fact, it was Sydnor. Sydnor developed the training curriculum, conducted the rehearsals, and led the force at the POW compound. For these tasks he was well qualified. At the end of World War II, Sydnor joined the navy, and after serving in the Atlantic as an enlisted man aboard the submarine USS Raton, he left the service and attended ROTC at Western Kentucky University, where he graduated in August 1952 as the Distinguished Military Graduate. After several schools Sydnor was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division as a platoon commander and then in 1954 as a company commander with the 2d Infantry Division in Korea. This was followed by a Stateside tour as the 25th Infantry Division’s battalion operations officer. In 1960-61 he served with the 22d Special Air Service in England and then returned to Fort Bragg where he joined the Special Forces in 1962. After three years in Washington, Sydnor received command of the 1st Battalion, 327th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, in Vietnam. He held this position until June 1968, at which time he was sent back to Fort Bragg.
In 1970 Sydnor was selected as the ground force commander for the raid on Son Tay. For his actions at Son Tay, Sydnor received the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1973, he assumed command of the 1st Special Forces Group in Okinawa. Following command, Sydnor was assigned as chief, Infantry Branch, and then chief, Company Grade Arms Division, at Fort Bragg. In June 1977, he moved to Fort Benning and became the director of the Ranger Department. He held that post until May 1980. Sydnor’s final assignment was the director of plans and training at the Infantry Center at Fort Benning. He retired in August 1981 after thirty-one years of service. In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross, Sydnor’s decorations also include: the Silver Star, Legion of Merit with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star for valor, the Air Medal with nine Oak Leaf Clusters, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Master Parachutist Badge, and the Ranger tab. In June 1992, Col. Elliot Sydnor was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame.
On 13 August 1970, Auxiliary Field 3 at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was selected as the continental United States (CONUS) training site for the raid. The cantonment included six barracks for the troops, classroom space, a secure building for the tactical operations center, a mess hall, a BX, a theater, and a motor pool. The area was isolated from the main base and had an apron space suitable for helicopter training.
A support detachment and five operational detachments were formed from those Special Forces personnel chosen for the mission. The training site was activated on 26 August, and the personnel deployed in two increments from Fort Bragg, with the last group arriving at Eglin by 8 September. The support detachment was responsible for all administrative and logistical support, providing backup personnel for the operational units, and maintaining a cover program by conducting daily training not related to the mission.
The training program was divided into four phases for both the air and ground forces. Phase I for the ground forces began on 9 September and ended on 16 September. During this time combat skills were evaluated to help select primary and alternate participants. This training included daily physical exercise (six to eight repetitions of Army Drill I and a two-mile run), psychological preparation for escape and evasion, land navigation, communications procedures, radio familiarization classes, helicopter orientation (including tactical loading and unloading), demolition charge preparation, patrolling, and extensive range firing with all weapons (M16, M79, M60, and .45-caliber).
The Son Tay Report explained that “this relaxed schedule of approximately seven hours per day was designed to allow the individual Ground Force member sufficient time to adapt to the strenuous PT program and to become acclimated.”
Throughout Phase I and the remainder of the training, several nonstandard equipment items were obtained for use on the mission. The procurement and employment of this equipment were instrumental in the success of the mission and warrant discussion. This equipment included:
• Two oxyacetylene emergency outfits for cutting through metal hasps or locks.
• Six commercial chain saws for clearing LZs.
• Bolt cutters used by air force fire fighters for cutting locks.
• Miners’ electric headlamps for hands-off illumination of the target. In many cases it became impractical to move and shoot with the lamps mounted on the soldiers’ heads, so most were secured to their load-bearing gear.
• Armson single-point sights. This sight allowed the Special Forces personnel to identify their target under low-light conditions. (For the actual raid, flares were dropped from a C-130 to provide the needed light.) It was found that during daylight operations the conventional iron sights were marginally better than the single-point; however at night there was no comparison. The single-point sight significantly improved the soldier’s ability to engage his target. At a distance of twenty-five meters, the worst marksman could place all rounds in a twelve-inch circle at night. At fifty meters the same individual could place all his rounds in an E-type silhouette.
• A special machete was developed with a heavy blade and a sharp point to be used for prying open doors and barricades. Some difficulty was encountered in making the blade quickly, and eventually the Eglin machine shop produced the required quantity in a couple of days.
• A fourteen-foot fireman’s ladder was acquired for use by the assault platoon in the event they had to scale the compound wall.
• Night-vision devices (NVDs) were obtained for the group and element leaders. During the raid, the NVDs were used by the assault and security groups at the objective site.
Phase II was conducted between 17 September and 27 September and included a review of basic skills and some specialized training, including: night firing on the range with all weapons, close air support, raid and immediate action drills, day and night aerial platform training, house searches, demolition training, medical training, and target recognition (this emphasized engaging targets at unknown distances). To increase realism, some abandoned buildings on Field 1 were used as a training aid.
Phase III was conducted between 28 September and 6 October. This phase concentrated on the joint interoperability aspect of the mission. For the first time, the ground and air forces were joined to develop and exercise detailed insertion and extraction plans necessary for the ground operations. The after-action report stated: “The period culminated with a series of ‘profile’ flights. The last profile was flown full-time to include a one hour flight simulating the flight from staging base to launch site.” This phase also concentrated on day and night live-fire rehearsals, close air control of the A-1s, weapons firing, search and rescue training, and escape and evasion (E&E).
Phase IV was added to the schedule when the execution was delayed. This phase was designed to maintain force readiness and improve any skills that might be deficient. It included a continued emphasis on dress rehearsals, immediate action drills, house-to-house fighting, demolition training, house clearing, E&E, and search and rescue (SAR) (which included a night exercise where all personnel were extracted by HH-53 in a simulated tactical scenario), alternate plan execution, and detailed target studies.
The air forces’s training was also divided into four phases and required precision night formation flying at low altitudes. The composition of the force complicated this mission because some of the aircraft were required to perform at the extremes of their capabilities. The Son Tay Report states that “this demanded the installation and use of special equipment as well as the development of new tactics and procedures before the Task Group could become mission ready.”
The composition of the air force task group included two Combat Talon C-130s to provide precise navigation to the target area. One C-130 was designated to escort the five HH-53s and one HH-3 carrying the assault force. The other C-130 led the five A-1s that were used to provide strike force and air cover. (General Manor later stated, “The primary reason for the second Combat Talon was for redundancy in the event the first [C-130] was lost due to mechanical or other troubles. Redundancy was planned into every phase of the air elements.”)
During Phase I (preparation phase) personnel were selected for the mission, deployed to Auxiliary Field 3, and put through complex formation flying to determine their proficiency. In Phase II (specialized training) the HH-3, UH-1, and C-130s conducted day and night formation flying and full-mission profiles. (The UH-1 was designated as an alternative insertion platform in the event the HH-3 was unable to land in the compound owing to the limited size of the landing zone.) During Phase III (joint training phase) actions at the objective were rehearsed, including aerial and ground rescue operations, objective area tactics, emergency procedures, and full-mission profiles. A delay in the execution window from 21 October to 21 November allowed time for additional training (Phase IV) and included continued rehearsal of the basic and alternate plans.
For the training and execution, a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system was installed aboard each C-130, and an additional navigator was added to the crew to improve precise navigation to the target area. Additionally, ground acquisition responder/interrogator (GAR/I) beacons were used to assist the C-130s in determining their location over the ground.
In the course of training, some important lessons were learned. Formation flying for the air forces was particularly challenging. The C-130 and either the HH-3 or the UH-1H were both required to exceed their normal limits. The helicopters flew in a draft position, maintaining a speed of 105 knots to keep up with the C-130, which had to fly at 70 percent flaps. At those slow speeds the C-130 had Doppler reliability problems. These problems were overcome by both the FLIR and GAR/I beacon, which added to the reliability of navigation. The narrow operating envelope of the HH-3 meant only essential fuel and equipment could be carried. As tactical requirements increased the size of the assault team, particular attention was paid to weight reduction. After numerous trials it was determined that flying the UH-1H in formation with a C-130 was “not within the capability of the average Army aviator,” but after intense training “the tactics of drafting with HH-3 and UH-1H [were] proven and [could] be applied in future plans.”
Another minor problem developed when it was found that the C-130 and A-1 strike force was not capable of maintaining formation with the lead assault force of C-130s and helicopters. A plan was devised to allow the A-1s to make circles or S-turns to remain in contact with the lead helicopter force. This later resulted in the decision to separate the two formations and allow them to arrive on target at a predesignated time.
According to the after-action report, throughout the training, air force “tactics and techniques were in a constant state of revision and modification until the full-dress rehearsal in early October. All missions were jointly briefed and debriefed with every element that participated represented. The building-block concept was constantly stressed and emphasized and practiced. [The air element] would practice each segment separately and single ship, if feasible. Ballast was carried to match planned flight gross weight. Formations were flown at density altitude expected to be encountered … Frequently a mission would be flown in the afternoon, and after a debrief and discussions of problems with corrective actions, the mission would be repeated after dark. During the proper phase of the moon, some missions were flown as late as 0230 in the morning to achieve as realistic lighting as possible.”
By the time training was completed on 13 November 1970, “every facet of the operation [was] exercised [totaling] more than 170 times … and over 1000 hours of incident-free flying [were] conducted primarily at night under near combat conditions.”
On 10 November 1970 the force deployed to Thailand fully prepared to conduct the mission that lay before them.
The deployment to Thailand was conducted in two phases. On 10 November the two C-130s left Eglin Air Force Base under cover of darkness, and they arrived at Takhli RTAFB on 14 November. In staggered flights, the remaining personnel and equipment were flown by C-141s on 10, 12, and 16 November. The helicopters and A-1s used during training were left in CONUS, and replacement aircraft were provided by forces in Thailand. Appropriate cover stories were disseminated to prevent “espionage and sabotage from interfering with the movement of the force, to insure surprise, and to deny information regarding the movement.” In Thailand, security surveys were conducted at both Takhli and Udorn (the helicopter-staging base) RTAFBs, and secure working areas were established and maintained throughout the final stages.
On 18 November the force was assembled in the base theater at Takhli, where Manor and Simons presented a joint air and ground operations brief. Up to this time only those personnel directly involved in the planning knew what the objective was and where Son Tay was located. Although this brief was fairly extensive it did not include the exact name and location of the POW camp. Following the formal brief, the platoon leaders read the official operation plan and reviewed the schedule of activities for the remaining three days. That evening there were more staff and platoon meetings that included partial mission briefs by key individuals.
At 0330 local time on 19 November, Manor received a red rocket (flash execute) message giving him approval to launch the mission as planned. Unfortunately, the weather situation had deteriorated since the force had arrived in Thailand. Typhoon Patsy was about to make landfall over the Philippines and was expected over Hanoi within twenty-four to forty-eight hours. It was essential for the success of the mission that the air element have a five-thousand- to ten-thousand-foot cloud ceiling en route to Son Tay and suitable moonlight for the ground operations at the objective. Additionally, the coastal ceiling off the Gulf of Tonkin had to be seventeen thousand feet for the navy to conduct their diversionary air raid. Manor received a detailed weather brief the afternoon of the nineteenth, and based on that forecast he made the decision to launch the raid on the twentieth instead of the twenty-first.
The ground force spent the nineteenth conducting equipment checks, range firing, and receiving SAR and E&E briefings. On 20 November a final briefing was conducted in the base theater. “A route briefing and target briefing was given to include the geographical location, the name of the target, its relation to Hanoi’s location [cheers went up] and specific instructions concerning the conduct of force in the target area. Included were: decisive action, importance of time to success, care of wounded, SAR operations, and fighting as a complete unit in case of emergency actions.”
Following the brief, the ground force moved to the hangar for a final equipment check and to await onload. An advanced party had flown to Udorn earlier in the evening to load the helicopters with special clothing for the POWs and extra batteries and equipment for the ground force. Manor had departed earlier in the day for his command post located at Monkey Mountain just north of Danang. He later reported that “the reason Monkey Mountain was chosen was because it was a communications hub, and it had some special communication put in for [Manor’s] use.”
In the three days preceding the launch, the air elements were also busy checking aircraft and making final preparations. The two C-130s had arrived on the fourteenth and were test flown for systems checks on both the sixteenth and seventeenth. The 3d Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Group redistributed HH-53s within Southeast Asia so that ten were available at Udorn RTAFB on 15 November. By 17 November all HH-53s were mission ready. Two CONUS-based EC-121T airborne radar platforms were prepositioned at Danang, South Vietnam, for support of the mission and were ready by the seventeenth of November. The A-1 strike aircraft used for the mission were based at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, Thailand. The A-1 crews from CONUS were moved to Nakhon Phanom and conducted system checks throughout the final three days. The aircraft realignment was conducted using routine daily frag orders or operational patterns. This helped maintain a low profile, and was consistent with the security posture throughout the training and deployment.
At 2125 on 20 November 1970, the ground force departed Takhli by C-130 and after an uneventful flight arrived at Udorn. While at Udorn the ground force transferred to the five HH-53s and one HH-3. At approximately the same time, the A-1s departed Nakhon Phanom RTAFB to effect the rendezvous over Laos with the ground force aircraft. The aircraft were designated as follows:
In addition to the above aircraft there were also a ten-aircraft MiG combat air patrol (CAP) provided by the 432d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Udorn (F-4s), six F-105Gs (SAM and AAA suppression) provided by the 6010th Wild Weasel Squadron at Korat RTAFB, two EC-121T College Eye early warning and command and control aircraft, two Combat Apple (airborne mission coordinator aircraft) from Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa, one KC-135 radio relay aircraft, ten KC-135 reserve tankers from U-Tapao RTAFB, and a three-aircraft carrier diversionary strike force which included seven A-6s, twenty A-7s, twelve F-4 and F-8 aircraft, six ECM/ES-1s, and fourteen support aircraft. In all over 116 aircraft participated in the operation, taking off from seven airfields and three aircraft carriers.
The Route of the Son Tay Raid Force.
At 2256 on 20 November, the ground forces aboard their designated helicopters departed Udorn to begin the flight to Son Tay. Immediately after takeoff, an unidentified aircraft passed through the formation on a reciprocal heading, causing the helos to disperse. This created only a momentary delay before the helos rejoined in formation. The plan called for the helicopters (led by one C-130) and the A-1s (following the second C-130 out of Nakhon Phanom) to rendezvous over Laos. This provided an in-flight refueling point for the helos and allowed the two elements to join forces prior to the final leg into Son Tay.
The assault formation approached Son Tay from the west. As they arrived at a point 3-1/2 miles from the compound, the lead C-130 relayed a heading of 072 degrees to the helicopters and then pulled up and away, preparing to drop flares and firefight simulators. The first three HH-53s and the HH-3 slowed to approximately eighty knots while the remaining two HH-53s climbed to fifteen hundred feet to stand by as reserve flare ships and to recover POWs. The A-1s had executed their flight plan as scheduled, with the fifth A-1 dropping off over the Black River and the third and fourth A-1s establishing a holding pattern closer to the compound. The primary strike A-1s proceeded to the objective area and established a left-handed orbit at three thousand feet above ground level.
The lead C-130 commenced the flare drop on schedule at 0218. Seeing that the flare drop was satisfactory, Apple 4 and 5 HH-53s proceeded to their holding area on an island in Finger Lake (7 nautical miles west of Son Tay). At the same moment, approaching the coast from the east, the navy diversionary raid was in progress, which “utterly confused the enemy defenses,” focusing their attention away from Son Tay.
As the helos approached the objective area, Apple 3 (the gunship HH-53, which was the lead helo in the formation at this time) began a firing run on what appeared to be the compound. As he approached the target, however, the pilot realized it was not the correct location, and he turned left toward Son Tay. The HH-3 following immediately behind Apple 3 also turned north. Unfortunately, Apple 1 (containing Colonel Simons’s support group) landed in a field outside the wrong target. Behind Apple 1 was Apple 2, which contained Sydnor and the command and security group. The pilot of Apple 2 immediately recognized the error and proceeded north behind Apple 3 and the HH-3.
At 0218, Apple 3 commenced his firing run on the Son Tay guard towers. As their aircraft flew between the two wooden structures, the door gunners in Apple 3 opened fire, destroying the watchtowers instantly. After completing the firing run, Apple 3 proceeded to a holding area 1-1/2 nautical miles east of Finger Lake and awaited orders to return and pick up POWs.
Banana 1, the HH-3 with Capt. Richard Meadows and the assault group, made a west-to-east approach crossing the west wall. The door, window, and ramp gunners began firing on their areas of responsibility as the helo executed a controlled crash into the compound. The trees in the LZ had grown significantly since June when they were originally photographed. The blades of the HH-3 severed several small trunks and sheered the tops of the others. The impact of the landing was so violent that the door gunner was thrown clear of the aircraft but landed unhurt. Once on the ground the assault group’s mission was “to secure the inside of the POW compound, to include guard towers, gates, and cell blocks and to release and guide POWs to the control point.”
The group was divided into five elements: a headquarters element with the mission to secure the south tower and latrines and provide command and control; Action Element 1, which was to clear the cell blocks and north tower; Action Element 2, which was to provide cover for the third element; Action Element 3, which was to clear the front gate; and the air force crew, which would assist in POW handling.
Upon landing, the headquarters element cleared the southwest guard tower, broadcast messages to the POWs, blew a four-foot-by-four-foot hole in the west wall with a twenty-pound satchel charge, and established radio contact with the ground force commander (Sydnor) and all the action elements.
Action Element 1 moved to building 5A where it was believed the prisoners were being held. All the cell blocks were searched by a two-man search team while other members of the element provided security. Members of the element continued to clear their assigned areas including the northwest tower and the areas along the west and north walls. Part of the element proceeded to the holding cells in building 5C and another part to 5D. As the element moved into 5D, three to five NVA (Vietnamese Army troops) rushed from the building and were killed by Action Elements 2 and 3. Outside the building, NVA guards began to initiate a large volume of ineffective automatic-weapons fire. Action Element 2 quickly moved into buildings 5E and 4, clearing the spaces as they went. Inside 5E, two NVA guards were killed. The locks on the cells were cut and all blocks searched as planned. Action Element 3 moved to secure the gate and clear building 5B. Element 3 killed three NVA just inside and north of the gate while two enemy were killed outside near building 7A.
At H hour + 10 minutes the headquarters element received an all-clear from the action elements and was notified that no prisoners had been found. Meadows subsequently ordered all elements to move to the southwest wall and stand by for extraction. He then radioed the command group leader that “zero items” were found in the compound. At H+15 the action elements (minus headquarters) moved to the marshaling position outside the compound. The headquarters element remained behind to destroy the HH-3. At H+18, Meadows initiated the demolition charge and a firefight simulator to replicate the sound of gunfire. Then he proceeded out the southwest wall and linked up with Sydnor.
As the assault group was executing its controlled crash inside the Son Tay compound, Apple 2, with Sydnor and the command element, was landing just outside the south wall. The pilot of Apple 2, realizing that Apple 1 had inadvertently landed at the wrong compound, implemented Plan Green, which provided for the loss of one helicopter. With Plan Green in effect, the door gunners from Apple 2 engaged the prescribed buildings outside the compound while the pilot landed the helicopter a hundred yards from the south wall. Inside the helo, Sydnor was advised “by the pilot of Apple 2 that Apple 1 was not present.” Sydnor immediately “took hold of Redwine’s [Captain Daniel Turner—command group leader] equipment harness [they were seated side by side in the aircraft] and advised him that Plan Green was in effect.” Then he directed his radio operator to notify all elements that the alternate plan was being executed. All of the command elements (known as security elements) were redirected except for Security Element 2, which had not established radio contact and was too far away to be visually alerted.
As soon as the new orders were transmitted, all the elements responded accordingly. They had practiced the alternate plan so often “all [Turner] had to do was say ‘Plan Green in effect’ and they reacted.”
“The mission of the Command Group was to secure the south wall, act as reserve for Assault and Support Groups, and act as control for evacuating prisoners to helicopters.”30 However, with Plan Green in effect that mission was expanded to include securing the east wall and all buildings close by as well as destroying the vehicle bridge to the north. The command element came under small-arms and rifle-grenade fire from building 7B as they exited the helo and began to direct the security elements. This threat was quickly subdued but not eliminated. The helo immediately departed the area for its holding spot. Within minutes Sydnor contacted the circling A-1s and directed them to attack the footbridge to the southeast. The A-1s dropped four white phosphorous one-hundred-pound bombs on the bridge and then expended six Rockeyes on isolated targets on the road southwest of the camp.
The NVA, now fully alerted, began to return fire and move to secure areas. Three or four NVA were killed running between buildings 11 and 12, and several more were killed as they were caught between the command element (still situated at the LZ) and Security Element 1 moving toward the south wall. Security Element 1, executing Plan Green, moved to its objectives at buildings 8E, 8D, and 4A. In the process small-arms fire from building 7B was suppressed and two NVA killed. Upon arriving at building 8D, Element 1 came under heavy fire. Three members of the element assaulted the building and cleared it with a hand grenade. The number of killed is unknown. Five NVA were spotted to the east of 8D and were engaged by fire. At the same time, one NVA engaged Element 1 from the west end of the building, and two NVA fired from the east end of 8D. Element 1 engaged and killed the two NVA at the east end and suppressed the remaining fire. The portion of Element 1 assigned to clear buildings 8E and 4A was engaged by four NVA. The element returned fire, but the results are unknown. They continued clearing the buildings and subsequently linked up with members of the assault group exiting the compound through the hole in the west wall.
Security Element 2 did not receive word about the change in plan and consequently proceeded to execute their basic mission. They disabled the power station with an M72 light antitank weapon (LAW) and then assaulted and cleared it. Immediately following this action, the element began receiving small-arms fire from the southwest and from a position south of the canal. Both enemy threats were subdued with two NVA killed in the process.
Security Element 3 had moved to a position south of the small canal when they received word about the change in plan. Unfortunately, enemy fire and the thick foliage prevented a hasty retreat to their new objective. However, by H+5 the element was in position to engage building 7B. The grenadier and M60 man attacked the building with heavy fire. The element was delayed in assaulting the building owing to a deep drainage ditch and the thick concertina wire that surrounded the target. As they approached the building two NVA were killed. Another ten were killed once they entered the building.
The pathfinder element, which was to set up the primary LZ, cleared the pump station with a concussion grenade and thirty rounds of ammunition and then blew down the nearby power poles to clear the LZ. As this was happening, the support group, which had been delayed at the false compound, arrived at Son Tay. The ground force commander alerted all his security elements that the support group had landed and would take up their original positions. The security elements were ordered to remain in their positions until the support group elements relieved them. At that point they were to return to the ground force commander’s location and await extraction.
The support group, which had been aboard Apple 1, was mistakenly inserted at a compound (initially named the secondary school) four hundred meters southeast of the POW compound. The mistake was not immediately obvious, and the helo departed, leaving the support group at the secondary school. The elements were quickly engaged by the enemy. Reacting to the situation the support group headquarters element assaulted the secondary school and penetrated the complex at the south wall. Once inside the school compound, they assaulted the building located at the south end (building 1) with grenades and rifle fire. This accounted for ten NVA dead. The support group commander, Colonel Simons, notified all elements that a withdrawal was imminent. Element 1 cleared a LZ and provided zone security while Element 2, under heavy fire, moved to the road east of the compound and established a blocking force.
The support group headquarters element continued to clear the compound. Significant automatic-weapons fire was coming from the two-story building (building 4) in the center of the compound. A grenadier fired 40mm rounds through both the windows and doors eliminating the threat. By H+3 this building was secure. As the headquarters element began to clear building 2, four NVA, who were attempting to reach the two-story building (which was later reported to have housed the armory), were killed.
Element 2 continued to receive isolated fire from the enemy and at H+4 was ordered to close the LZ and help establish perimeter security. By H+6 all elements began moving toward the LZ. Apple 1, who by now realized his mistake, was inbound to extract the force. As the support group began to load the helo, Element 1 laid down suppressive machine-gun fire and all personnel reembarked without any casualties being sustained.
Nine minutes after mistakenly landing at the wrong compound, the support group arrived at Son Tay. Simons was advised that Plan Green had been implemented, but with the support group’s arrival, the force would return to the basic plan. Elements from the support group passed through the lines and linked up with command elements. Support Group Element 1 established a secure position near building 7A, from which a steady volume of fire had been received. The grenadier launched several 40mm grenades and the firing ceased. Element 2 headed toward building 13E, suppressing the enemy with M60, M79, and M16 fire. The building was subsequently assaulted and two NVA killed.
By the time the support group and command group elements were in position, the word had been passed from Meadows that there were no POWs in the Son Tay compound. Sydnor gave the order for all elements to withdraw to the vicinity of the extraction site. This occurred at approximately H+17. Soon thereafter, the A-1s were ordered to attack the vehicle bridge to the north to prevent any reinforcement from the NVA. Four strafing runs using 20mm were conducted by two different aircraft. At H+23 the helos landed, and by H+27 all elements were extracted with only one minor casualty. The return trip to Udorn, Thailand, was punctuated by several SAM sightings, which required evasive action on the part of all the air force elements. However, after the aircraft refueled over Laos, the remaining trip was relatively uneventful.
As the ground engagement was in progress, the aviation support forces (F-4Ds and F-105s) were busy avoiding and suppressing SAMs. Approximately sixteen SAMs were fired, and the F-105s responded with eight Shrikes. While flying at thirteen thousand feet, one of the F-105s (Firebird 03) was damaged by a SAM that exploded under its left wing and apparently ruptured the fuel tank. The crew was forced to eject at eight thousand feet over the Plaine des Jarres. They were eventually picked up by the assault formation HH-53s (Apples 4 and 5).
The navy diversionary raid proceeded as planned. It is estimated that twenty SAMs were fired at the force, but no casualties were sustained. It was later reported that “the density of the Navy operations in the Gulf of Tonkin [during the Son Tay raid] was the most extensive Navy night operation of the SEA [Southeast Asia] conflict.”
Throughout the entire operation, Manor monitored radio communication between all the participants, and he had a direct link with Admiral McCain (CINCPAC) and Admiral Moorer (Chairman, JCS). Additionally he received continuous real-time intelligence on the enemy activity. He said later, “I had information on what they [NVA integrated air defense personnel] were seeing almost as quickly as … their decision makers were getting it.”
Manor knew that the operation had failed to recover any POWs. He flew to Udorn to meet the returning raid force. “They were a very disappointed group of people. My immediate goal was to have a meeting of some of the key people and get some information from them that I needed right away to put together a top secret message to Admiral Moorer telling him what the status was … Later that morning I got a call from Admiral Moorer telling me and Simons to get back to Washington as soon as we could.” Within two days the force was returned to CONUS and Operation Kingpin was officially completed.
The failure of the Son Tay raid to recover any POWs created a political fallout of incredible proportions. The media immediately blasted the intelligence community for its inability to verify the existence of POWs prior to the operation, and the administration was vilified for escalating the war. What was overlooked was the exceptional performance of the raiding force and their support elements. The fact that there were no POWs in the compound does not detract from the success of the tactical portion of the raid. The mission was planned, rehearsed, and executed exactly the same as if there had been POWs. The disposition of the enemy force at Son Tay was as expected. The fact that there were no POWs to guard may have relaxed the enemy’s posture, but relaxed or not, the raid force executed the mission with such surprise and speed that only substantial opposition could have prevented a successful outcome. Brigadier General Manor stated in his report on the raid on Son Tay that “it should be noted that we were successful not only in what was done, but what could have been done if necessary.” The raid on Son Tay is the best modern-day example of a successful special operation and should be considered textbook material for future missions.
Were the objectives worth the risk? The taking of prisoners of war has always generated a call for action. As stated earlier during the case on Cabanatuan, prisoners constitute a direct affront to national and military honor. In Vietnam, this concern may have been more pronounced owing to the perceived failure of the war effort. By 1970 the war claimed an average of five hundred deaths a month, and more than 470 Americans were believed held captive in North Vietnam. All previous efforts to rescue American prisoners had been futile. All of these issues were compounded by the reluctance of the North Vietnamese government to negotiate with President Nixon concerning de-escalation and the release of POWs. Nixon, who was faced with dwindling political alternatives, clearly saw the rescue as a viable option to restore national dignity and recover American soldiers, many of whom had been held prisoner for years. Any time a nation attempts to rescue prisoners behind enemy lines, they face the risk of having the rescue force captured and thereby adding to the number of POWs. For most nations, however, attempting to rescue prisoners, regardless of the outcome, is generally perceived as a worthwhile endeavor and well worth the risks.
Was the plan developed to maximize superiority over the enemy and minimize the risk to the assault force? Of the eight cases presented in this book, the raid on Son Tay eclipses all others in the level of national support it received. By having the assets of CIA, DIA, NSA, SAC, and military intelligence, the planners and operators were able to identify all the critical nodes in the North Vietnamese air defense system and have enough information to construct a detailed model of the POW camp. As Blackburn described it, this flawless operational intelligence, coupled with four months of mission preparation, allowed the assault force to plan around the North Vietnamese defenses and minimize the risk to the raiders. Additionally, the small raid force was augmented by over one hundred aircraft that provided MiG CAP, air defense suppression, and operational deception, all of which contributed to maximizing superiority over the enemy.
Was the mission executed according to plan, and if not what unforeseen circumstances dictated the outcome? From the raid force’s perspective the mission was conducted by the numbers, with the exception of Simons’s misadventure into the secondary school. But this eventuality was planned for, and Simons’s failure to arrive at the POW camp on time did not unduly affect the conduct of the operation. Obviously the failure to rescue any POWs was demoralizing to the raid force, but from a purely operational standpoint, that was beyond the control of the planners and operators. As the secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, said later during a congressional hearing, “We have not been able to develop a camera that sees through the roofs of buildings.” Had the planners risked placing a CAS in the vicinity of the camp, they might have been able to determine conclusively whether there were POWs. But this option was weighed carefully, and the risks were considered too high. Consequently, the unforeseen circumstances that affected the outcome of the mission were not a result of faulty planning, preparation, or execution and can only be attributed to the frictions of war.
What modifications could have improved the outcome of the mission? Disregarding the failure to rescue any POWs, the mission was almost flawless. Not one soldier or airman was killed or seriously injured on the raid. This includes the navy and air force airmen who supported the deception and cover operations. Considering the difficulty of penetrating a sophisticated air defense system and then conducting combat operations in unfamiliar surroundings, the raid on Son Tay should stand as a tribute to the tremendous preparation and professionalism of the assault force. It is doubtful that any modifications to the plan could have improved the performance of the raiders.
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.
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.
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.