In A Nutshell
The Cabanatuan POW camp was where up to 8,000 soldiers, mostly American, were kept by the Japanese. By 1945, there were less than 1,000 left, with most being shipped to slave labor camps and others being murdered. On January 30, a group of 120 US Army Rangers and 300 Filipino guerrilla fighters raided the camp, rescuing all of the 512 prisoners who still remained in the camp.
The Whole Bushel
After the end of the Battle of Bataan, where 72,000 Americans and Filipinos surrendered to the Japanese, the prisoners of war (POWs) were taken on the Bataan Death March, during which over 20,000 of them died. Around 8,000 were taken to the Cabanatuan POW camp, which was the largest POW camp in the Philippines. Over time, that number was dwindled down to 512 because most of the able-bodied soldiers were taken to various slave camps to do manual labor for the Japanese. (A large number of prisoners were killed or died of disease as well.) Various escape attempts were made, but they all ended in disaster, with Japanese retribution deterring future actions.
After the Japanese slaughtered almost 150 Americans in a POW camp on the island of Palawan by burning them alive, the decision was made to rescue those still in the Cabanatuan POW camp before they were massacred as well. Estimates of the Japanese military presence in the area were as follows: 200 in the camp, 1,000 just across the river and maybe 5,000 in nearby Cabanatuan City. Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, the leader of the 6th Ranger Battalion, elite infantry soldiers, was designated to be the leader of the rescue attempt. He also stressed the importance of saving all of the prisoners, telling his men: “You’re going to bring out every last man even if you have to carry them on your backs.”
On January 28, 1945, 121 Rangers left their base and drove until they were within 95 kilometers (60 mi) of the camp, where they disembarked and prepared to walk the rest of the way. About five miles out, on January 29, they met up with Captain Juan Pajota and his 300 Filipino guerrilla fighters, who provided crucial assistance and intelligence about the surrounding area. Pajota also convinced Mucci to wait another day because many of the Japanese would be leaving the area that night.
Unfortunately for the rescue attempt, no one knew much about the details of the camp’s interior, so on the morning of January 30, Lieutenant Bill Nellist and Private Rufo Vaquilar dressed as civilians and scouted out the camp from a nearby building. With the information now available, the specific details were finalized and the plan to rescue the prisoners was put into action. At 5:00 PM, the group left for the camp and split up to set up their ambushes. When they were within 640 meters (2,100 ft) of the camp, a P-61 Black Widow plane flew above the camp, pretending to crash to distract the Japanese, allowing the rescuers to get closer to the camp.
The phone lines were cut and, at 7:40 PM, the raid commenced. By 8:15, the camp was secured, with only two Rangers dying and only a few wounded in the fighting. (Over 500 Japanese soldiers were killed or wounded.) Most of the POWs welcomed their rescuers with open arms but a few had to be literally carried out because they refused to listen, believing it to be a trick by the Japanese. (One soldier, Ralph Rodriguez, later recalled his thoughts about 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.”) All 512 of the POWs were rescued, taken back to safety on carts pulled by water buffaloes.