One of the most notorious enemy POW camps in World War II was the Cabanatuan Camp in the Philippine Islands. Many U.S. Army survivors of the infamous 1942 Bataan death march were eventually imprisoned at Cabanatuan. By the end of 1944 some 2,650 Americans had already died at the POW camp. It still housed about 500 POWS in January 1945 when an Allied invasion force under the command of General Douglas MacArthur landed on the main Philippine Island of Luzon.
As the battle line advanced toward the capital city of Manila, the US Sixth Army faced a grave challenge. The Cabanatuan Camp was 30 miles ahead and directly in their path to Manila. US Army Intelligence knew that the Imperial Japanese Army had executed surviving POW’s in other camps as Allied troops approached. Army commanders were convinced POW’s at Cabanatuan would suffer the same fate unless they launched a special rescue mission.
The raiders remained undetected for days in enemy territory even though they criss-crossed a highway heavily traveled by Japanese Army convoys. Upon reaching the outskirts of Cabanatuan, the Rangers discovered they would have to crawl the final half mile to the stockade fence through a flat grassy field surrounding the POW camp, with no hills or other cover to hide their movement. Fortunately, just as they slid into the field the moonlight disappeared plunging them into inky blackness while they crawled to the camp.
Co-ordination had been made with a force of 200-300 local Philippine guerrilla fighters. Captains Eduardo Joson and Juan Pajota commanded the Philippine
guerrilla fighters. These units provided a rear guard action in order to block and delay any attempts by Japanese forces to mount a counter attack. Once the Raiders took control of the compound and gathered the POW’s, they began their egress back toward Allied lines.
Some Filipino civilians, who learned of the raid, donated dozens of ox-drawn carts to help transport the weakest POW’s. The column’s progress was excruciatingly slow. As they moved toward Allied lines, the train encountered a heavily armed pro-Communist rebel force, which threatened to decelerate the evacuation. The Ranger commander was able to call their bluff and they advanced unharmed past the rebel stronghold without any shots being fired. Many POW’s who barely had strength to walk out of the camp found that their strength returned as they got closer to freedom and sensed a growing hope for their survival. Upon passing through American lines, they all received a hero’s welcome.
In short, the raid was a stunning success. Japanese guards were caught by complete surprise. All of the POW’s were rescued from the camp except one who suffered an apparent heart attack. Only two of the raiders were killed – one by a Japanese mortar round at the main gate of the POW camp and another by friendly fire in the confusion of the night-time attack.
Back home the American public was jubilant to learn of this amazing rescue of hundreds of our POW’s. The story made front page news for months after the raid. Conversely, the Japanese high command was enraged over the escape. It broadcast threats that its naval forces would find and destroy the troop ship carrying the Cabanatuan POW’s back to the US. In spite of Japan’s threats, the USS General A. E. Anderson arrived safely at San Francisco 8 March 1945 after a circuitous route to avoid detection at sea. Hundreds of well-wishers greeted the two-hundred and seventy-two survivors, yanked from immediate death.
The lone ship’s ability to avoid the Japanese Navy while steaming across the Pacific toward home was just one miraculous part of the story. Many other incredible events were critical to the mission’s success. In the weeks just before the raid, the underground resistance in Luzon was able to smuggle critical food and medicine into the Cabanatuan Camp – without which many of the starving POW’s would have been too weak to later survive an escape with the Rangers.
All things considered, it’s clear that there was more than just “good luck” behind this amazing story. Much of the mission’s success had to do with the exceptional leadership of the 6th Ranger Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, his faith in his men and their faith in him. When Mucci revealed the mission to his Rangers on 27 January 1945, he warned them of the grave risk to their lives. “You’re going to bring out every last man, even if you have to carry them on your backs.” He then told all of the volunteers to get on their knees and pray. He called for a chapel service to be held in half an hour. Every single volunteer turned up at the service.
Before dawn the next morning, Mucci and his men slipped through Allied lines toward Cabanatuan. Mucci was the right choice to command the mission – a gifted leader, highly respected by his men and the chain of command. He knew that a thousand things could spell disaster for the mission, but he also knew his small band of raiders was the best option to rescue the POW’s. He had provided good training, good planning and good motivation for the mission. He also knew, if they were going to succeed, the Raiders needed the Good Lord!. None of his men dared question his wisdom.
We would likewise do well to take such wisdom to heart in whatever mission or challenge we may face. Faith in the Almighty doesn’t release us from the obligation to do the very best job of planning, training, and executing – plus personal sacrifice, sweat and tears. But after doing all we can do, we need to trust in God.
As I see it, that’s the real lesson to be learned from the amazing rescue of the Cabanatuan POW’s. So, may this story encourage you each to keep the faith and be a blessing!