This Day in History: A raid at Cabanatuan frees American POWs

On this day in 1945, more than 500 American and Allied POWs are liberated from a camp in the Philippines. They’d been held by the Japanese for years and were the last surviving members of what had once been a much larger group.

Indeed, this camp just outside Cabanatuan City was the largest American POW camp ever established on foreign soil. How surprising that its story isn’t better known.

Trouble began soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese invaded the Philippines, working to seize more and more land in the Pacific. The intensely fought Battle of Bataan followed, ending with an American surrender in April 1942.

What followed was horrific. As many as 80,000 Filipinos and Americans were forcibly marched about 60 miles to a distant enemy camp. Barbaric and inhumane treatment during the “Bataan Death March” ensured that many never made it. But several thousands of our soldiers later ended up at a camp just outside Cabanatuan City.

These POWs were Japanese captives for years. Hard labor, disease, starvation, and beatings were common, but matters really came to a head during the so-called Palawan massacre. Japanese lured American POWs into a trench, poured gasoline on them, and set them afire.

The Japanese government didn’t want American witnesses who could testify to their war crimes.

By January 1945, the American Army was liberating the Philippines, advancing closer and closer to the men still being held near Cabanatuan. Would they be executed as those at Palawan had? An immediate rescue effort was needed.

Colonel Henry Mucci of the 6th Ranger Battalion was selected to lead the mission, which would travel nearly 30 miles into enemy territory. He had 120 men, along with 10 Alamo Scouts and several hundred Filipino guerrillas. Captain Robert Prince would lead the rescue effort into the camp itself.

Americans then had limited information about the POW camp and would rely on last-minute reconnaissance from the Alamo Scouts to devise a strategy. The mission was dangerous, to say the least.

“We couldn’t rehearse this,” Prince later explained. “Anything of this nature, you’d ordinarily want to practice it over and over for weeks in advance. Get more information, build models, and discuss all of the contingencies. Work out all of the kinks. We didn’t have time for any of that. It was now, or not.”

One big problem was the wide open fields around the POW camp. How could the Rangers get across without being spotted? The answer came in the form of an American P-61 Black Widow, which would provide an aerial distraction just as the Rangers moved across the field. Its pilot pretended to be hit, mimicking a crash landing.

“[T]he pilot’s maneuvers were so skillful and deceptive,” Prince said, “that the diversion was complete. I don’t know where we would have been without it.”

The Rangers launched a multi-pronged attack, quickly overwhelming the Japanese guards. Surprisingly, their biggest challenge proved to be the POWs themselves. Our soldiers had been so badly mistreated that they didn’t believe help had really come. Was it a trick? Would they be shot as soon as they attempted to leave? Many POWs were literally pushed, kicked, or carried out of the camp.

They still had a long, dangerous trek back to friendly territory—but they were free!

“People everywhere thank me,” Prince later said. “I think the thanks should go the other way. . . . Nothing for me can ever compare with the satisfaction I got from freeing those men.”

P.S. The collage shows a memorial for the camp, a P-61 Black Widow, and the POWs celebrating after they’d been freed.

Primary Sources & Further Reading: