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Cabanatuan Prisoner of War Camp-1942

By Suzanne Stamatov

As General Krueger pursued the fleeing enemy to the north, one of his officers approached him and informed him that the Cabanatuan prison stood in his path. That officer had spoken to an American guerilla leader named Robert Lapham. Lapham said that, once the Japanese believed the invasion to be imminent, they would kill all the prisoners. Krueger knew that this was not an idle thought. On 14 December 1944, Japanese guards at the Puerto Princesa Prison Camp in Palawan, Philippines, had rounded up 150 American prisoners, informing them that there was an air raid. As the men huddled in the makeshift pits, seeking protection from aerial bombs, the guards had splashed them with aviation fuel and ignited them. A few prisoners managed to escape and tell their tale to the U.S. army. General Krueger decided that the prisoners of Cabanatuan must be saved.

Most of the prisoners of war (POWs) who inhabited the prison camp were the survivors of the Death March of the Bataan Peninsula, including a large number of New Mexcians. After the U.S. had surrendered, the Imperial Army was responsible for approximately 100,000 American and Filipino troops. Expecting 40,000 prisoners at the most, the Japanese were woefully unprepared to feed, escort and imprison the multitudes. Moreover, the majority of the prisoners suffered from malnutrition and disease. The Japanese command decided to march the prisoners north to Camp O’Donnell. The march proved catastrophic for the prisoners. The Japanese troops had little sympathy for the men who, they thought, had behaved so dishonorably by surrendering. They also had little direction from their commanders in how they should treat their prisoners. Many of the guards behaved atrociously in myriad ways. From refusing prisoners water to bayoneting them for falling behind, the guards killed hundreds of POWs. Many of those marching north were men from the New Mexican 200th and 515th Coast Artilleries.

Matters for the POWs only grew worse once they reached Camp O’Donnell. A former training installation for the Philippine Army, the camp was intended to house 9,000 people. The arrival of tens of thousands of POWs and Filipinos taxed the infrastructure and led to severe sanitation problems. Dysentery and malaria, coupled together, killed the most men. When the rains came, the men finally had enough to drink and could wash. But it also brought more horrors. The graveyard, located above the camp, flooded. One New Mexican, Lorenzo Banegas, said, “Our camp was below the cemetery, and when it rained the filthy smelly water and the blood washed out, and then the sun would come out and we could hardly breathe. We were living in a nightmare.”

After 1500 POWs died at Camp O’Donnell, the Japanese finally decided that they needed to find new facilities for the prisoners. They chose Cabanatuan, a former Philippine Army installation, far larger than O’Donnell. It was located in the province of Nueva Ecija near the provincial capital, Cabanatuan City. The Japanese used Cabanatuan prison as a holding pen for slave labor. Whenever they needed workers to repair a bridge or an airfield, they sent for the Cabanatuan prisoners. Cabanatuan became the largest American POW camp established on foreign soil. Approximately 9,000 American passed through Cabanatuan, and nearly a third of those prisoners ended up buried there.

The Japanese moved the O’Donnell POWs to Cabanatuan in June, and the death rate of the prisoners continued to soar. For some reason the Japanese refused to supply the prisoners with basic medicines that would have saved hundreds of lives. In their first month at Cabanatuan, 503 men died, and in the following month 786 succumbed to disease and starvation. If the POWs were to survive their ordeal, they would have to take matters into their own hands. POWs with engineering backgrounds took charge, digging irrigation ditches and septic systems and lacing the latrines with chemicals to reduce contagion. They organized fly extermination contests and instituted other measures to cut down on the pests. In regards to the pests that had any meat on them, the prisoners captured them and ate them. By 15 December 1942, their measures had paid off. It was the first “zero-death day.”

In addition to their attempts to improve sanitation, the men organized to keep their minds occupied. They established a camp library and formed a musical group. Men from different regions got together and conversed. They spent time looking at the stars. Their attempts to keep both body and mind healthy proved difficult. The Japanese continued to mistreat and to torture the prisoners. One soldier from New Mexico, Private First Class Aurelio Quintana, remembered how a Japanese guard had beaten him with a stick for getting a drink of water while he was working on a farm. The guard beat him so hard that Quintana’s arm broke. After three days of rest, the guards forced him to return to his farm duties. And even though they tried to improve the sanitation, the POWs’ weakened state made them extremely susceptible to many diseases including the deadly diphtheria. Another New Mexican, Wayne Niemon, recalled his open sores, poor vision, and beriberi resulting from malnutrition. He said that he wrapped his festering sores in rags to keep out the flies. “They’d lay eggs and we’d get maggots in the sores. Our eyes couldn’t stand the light. We made cardboard blinders, like glasses, with a pinhole to see through. And of course we all had beriberi.”

By the time MacArthur and Krueger landed on the Philippines, the number of prisoners in the camp had dwindled to 500 men. Once the tides of the war began to change, the Japanese decided to move all able-bodied prisoners out of the camps and to send them to places where they had labor shortages. The men who remained in Cabanatuan were the sickest and most feeble and those suffering from dysentery.

The mission to rescue the prisoners would be extremely difficult because the camp remained in enemy territory with thousands of Japanese troops stationed at Cabanatuan City. Moreover, the prisoners were in such poor health that the rescuers would have to conceive of a way to transport them out of enemy territory. Krueger knew that a brave and ingenious leader was needed to head the mission so he chose Colonel Henry Andrew Mucci, leader of the Sixth Ranger Battalion.

The U.S. Army had created the Army Rangers at the outset of the war. The army conceptualized the Rangers as surgical-strike specialists who would carry out special missions. Although Mucci had led his troops through rigorous training, the 800 young men of the Sixth Battalion remained untested at this point. Not needing all of the battalion, Mucci selected Company C, led by Captain Prince, and Company F for the mission. He told the 121 men of the companies that their task was to rescue the survivors of Bataan and Corregidor before the Japanese executed them all. “You’re going to bring out every last man even if you have to carry them on your backs.” He also stressed the danger of the mission and asked for volunteers. Every man in the company stepped forward eager to participate in the noble endeavor.

The Rangers left Calasio on 28 January 1945, driving east towards Guimba. There, they stepped off the trucks and began their sixty mile trek to the prison. Except for General Krueger, no one knew about the rescue mission. As the men marched across the country, they realized, not only were they vulnerable to detection by the enemy, but that the U.S. Air Force could also spot them and fire on them at any time. Luckily, they marched without incident. After they crossed the Licab River and arrived at a barrio called Lobong, Mucci stopped his troops and called out, “Captain Joson.” Out from the barrio stepped, Eduardo Joson, leader of a group of Filipino guerrillas.

In addition to the help provided by Captain Joson, the Rangers also received aid from Captain Juan Pajota and his guerillas. The input provided by the Filipino captains proved instrumental to the success of the mission. Both men knew the territory intimately. Natives of the region, they had the support of the people who inhabited the nearby barrios. As the Rangers passed through the local towns, they received food and information from the local villagers. Furthermore, Captain Pajota and his troops asked local Filipinos to lend their carabao (a domesticated type of water buffalo) and carts thus solving the problem of transporting the weakened prisoners. The guerilla leaders also knew the movements of the Japanese troops and their habits. Again, Captain Pajota suggested that the U.S. have some of their planes fly over-head as the Rangers approached the prison camp. He and his guerillas had noticed that the Japanese prison guards appeared agitated and upset by the U.S. show of force. They usually watched the planes as they flew overhead. It would prove to be the perfect decoy.

Although the guerillas had keenly observed the habits of the Japanese, they had little information about the inside of the prison. Mucci and Prince depended on the Alamo Scouts of the U.S. Army to ferret out the needed information. Unfortunately, they had trouble getting close to the prison because the land surrounding Cabanatuan was completely flat. Finally, a scout, Lieutenant Bill Nellist, noticed a little shack on stilts near the prison. He and Private Rufo Vaquilar, dressed in the clothes of the local inhabitants, climbed into the shack. There, they obtained a bird’s eye view of the prison. Nellist took copious notes and sent the information back to Mucci and Prince.

With all of the details available, Captain Prince devised a plan for the rescue. The Rangers and the guerillas left their camp at Platero. Just before they reached the Pampanga River, the two guerilla groups left to carry out their respective missions. Pajota’s 200 guerillas set up a massive roadblock on the highway, about a mile northeast of the camp. They were to blow up the Cabu River bridge and prevent the 1000 Japanese Imperial troops from crossing. During the rescue, they successfully prevented the Japanese troops from crossing the bridge. Joson’s forces set up a roadblock on the other side of the camp. If the 8000 Japanese troops stationed in Cabanatuan City got wind of the prison break, they would come upon Joson and his force composed of eighty men. Knowing that the 8000 might quickly overcome the small contingency of Filipinos, the guerillas wisely cut all of the camp’s telephone wires. Luckily, Joson and his men did not have to fire a shot.

Surprise was a key element of the plan. The Rangers had to approach the prison located on the flat plain without being detected. For the last mile beyond the Pampanga River, the Rangers crawled on their bellies. The aerial decoy helped them tremendously. The guards in the towers watched the antics of the U.S. pilot rather than the land around them. At the highway, Company F skirted around to the back of the prison. Once they were in position they fired on the guard towers and pillboxes, as well as the Japanese barracks. Prince’s Company C had gone to the front of prison. When they heard Company F begin to fire, they opened fire, killing the guards at the front of the prison, and stormed the gate.

Taken completely by surprise, the Japanese did not put up much of a fight although one Ranger was shot and later died. The prisoners, on the other hand, were confused and challenged their rescuers. Many believed that the Japanese were about to kill them all. It took a few moments for their disease-addled brains to grasp the reality that, after three long years, they were finally being rescued. Moreover, the Rangers looked nothing like the soldiers of three years earlier. Ralph Rodriguez of Albuquerque remembered how frightened he was of the Rangers. “This guy looked like a giant. I thought: what kind of a man is this? He had guns everywhere. Big hands. He could have been a man from Mars.” Finally, after kicking a few of the most reluctant prisoners to the front gate, the Rangers managed to round up most of the prisoners (one deaf British prisoner remained behind but was rescued the next day). They carried those who could not walk to the river where the carabao carts awaited.

Although the march back to American-held territory was not without danger, the Rangers escorted the former prisoners to Talavera without incident. Once they arrived there, the American troops welcomed the survivors and their rescuers with much celebration. Trucks arrived, and the weakened men got off the carabao carts and climbed on the trucks. The drivers sped their passengers towards medicines, hot food, clean sheets, fans, and cold beer. On the way, the former prisoners saw an American flag. They all stood at attention and saluted. Then they wept.

Sources Used:

Cave, Dorothy. Beyond Courage: One Regiment Against Japan, 1941-1945. Las Cruces: Yucca Tress Press, 1992.
Rogers, Everett M. and Nancy R. Bartlit. Silent Voices of World War II: When Sons of the Land of Enchantment Met Sons of the Land of the Rising Sun. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2005.
Sides, Hampton. Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.