How a Secret Raid Freed Pows From Cabanatuan During World War II

Key point: The special forces had a clever distraction set up. It worked and they were able to free many prisoners.
On January 30, 1945, a group of U.S. Army Rangers, Alamo Scouts, and Filipino guerrillas set out on a daring nighttime raid on Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines.  Led by Ranger Colonel Henry Mucci, they hoped to rescue over 500 American prisoners, including some held by the Japanese since the Bataan Death March.
One of the great tragedies of war for the United States in the 20th century has been the suffering of American military servicemen seized by the enemy. During World War II, American GIs held captive by the Japanese confronted starvation, disease, despair, brutality, and death. Behind bars and barbed wire, they waited year after year, looking to the skies and praying for release or rescue. Many died waiting.
Four months after Pearl Harbor, in April 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the Philippines where it cornered and captured nearly 80,000 defenders near Mariveles on the Bataan Peninsula of Luzon, some 12,000 of whom were American GIs. They were herded to the National Highway for the 65-mile march to Camp O’Donnell that became known as the Bataan Death March. More than 1,000 Americans died or were savagely murdered on the way.
Roughly half the surviving American POWs were transferred to Cabanatuan, a former Philippine Army recruit training camp 40 miles northeast of O’Donnell. Less than three years later, disease, execution, random murder, and shipments to slave labor districts in Formosa, Manchuria, Japan, and other sites had reduced the inmate population to 600 or less.
In October 1944, General Douglas MacArthur kept his promise to the Filipino people: “I shall return.” General Walter Kreuger’s Sixth Army landed with MacArthur at Leyte. Then, on January 9, 1945, Americans went ashore at Lingayen Gulf on the west-central coast of Luzon and began to press toward Manila.
Among MacArthur’s landing detail was a 19-year-old private of the Sixth Army’s Alamo Scouts who had participated in a successful raid to rescue 66 civilians held as slave labor by the Japanese at Cape Oransbari in northwestern New Guinea. Galen Charles “Kit” Kittleson was the eldest of eight barefooted offspring from an Iowa farm. A closed-mouthed diminutive soldier barely five feet four inches on a tall day, he was the youngest fighter assigned to the elite Alamo Scouts.
“The other day I happened to overhear the longest conversation Kit’s ever had,” went a standing joke. “Kit says to Olsen, ‘Let’s go to chow.’ And Olsen says, ‘Okay.’”
At Luzon, Kittleson was nonetheless bold enough to ask the stern-faced supreme commander when, if ever, they were going to rescue the Bataan Death March survivors. MacArthur fixed his hawk’s gaze on the little private.
“Were you on the Cape Oransbari raid, son?” he asked gruffly.
“Yes, sir.”
“Well, son. Let me tell you this. You be ready when the time comes.”
The Sixth Army had been activated for service in the Southwest Pacific on January 22, 1943, under the command of General Kreuger. Fresh out of airborne parachute training, Kittleson arrived in New Guinea as a Sixth Army replacement in November, just in time to volunteer for the Alamo Scout Training Center established to “train selected volunteers in reconnaissance and raider work.” The Scouts retained 117 enlisted men and 21 officers.
Their reputation would far exceed their small number. It would be built upon two missions to free prisoners of war from the Japanese—the Cape Oransbari rescue and, soon, the raid to free the American POWs at Cabanatuan.
On January 26, 1945, as the Sixth Army pushed inward toward Manila from Calasiao, a thin major in a worn uniform and riding a travel-weary bay horse halted at the edge of the encampment to ask a group of GIs directions to headquarters.
“I wonder who that is,” Private Kittleson mused as the traveler continued to the far side of tent city.
“Don’t you know nothing, private?” Willie Wismer joked. “Don’t you recognize the most famous American guerrilla chief in the South Pacific?”
U.S. Major Bob Lapham, who commanded Filipino guerrillas, had urged his spent horse through 30 miles of Japanese-infested terrain to bring crucial information about the Bataan Death March survivors at Cabanatuan.
“Sir,” he reported to General Krueger’s intelligence chief, Colonel Horton White, “there is imminent danger that the prisoners of Cabanatuan will be massacred out of vengeance when our units start approaching the camp. If we wait much longer, we’ll be able to rescue what’s left in one carabao cart.”
Colonel White nodded. “What’s the enemy situation at the camp?”
“The road in front of the prison camp is heavily traveled by tanks and vehicles withdrawing toward the mountains or establishing defensive positions. There are 5,000 Japs in and around the town of Cabanatuan and a strong enemy force bivouacked along the Cabu River less than a mile from the camp. At any given time there may be between 100 and 300 Japs inside the compound.”
Willie Wismer burst into his team’s tent.
“I know where we’re going next,” he blurted out. “You guys remember the Bataan Death March?”
Only about 530 surviving POWs celebrated Christmas 1944 behind the wire at Cabanatuan. That number dwindled daily. The camp’s most prominent feature was its large makeshift graveyard where fresh mounds appeared daily. Over half the remaining men were so feeble they couldn’t walk across the courtyard without help. Almost all suffered from gangrene and an array of tropical diseases. Many were missing limbs.
“If I was in that camp,” Kittleson said, “I’d sure hope somebody’d come get me.”
Lieutenant William Nellist confirmed Wismer’s revelation. His team and Lieutenant Thomas “Stud” Rounsaville’s were to be tasked with an important mission. They, along with Charley Company from the 6th Ranger Battalion and two companies of Major Lapham’s guerrillas, were “going 25 miles inside Jap lines to rescue 500 GIs held at the Cabanatuan POW camp…. Be ready to move out at 1630 hours to our forward position in Guimba.”
Never before had U.S. soldiers been called upon to rescue such a large number of POWs from so deep inside enemy territory.
By 1930 hours that evening, Scouts, Rangers, and guerrillas were assembling at Guimba, a cluster of nipa huts now under U.S. control. Everything beyond was Indian country.
At 2100 hours, 13 Scouts and about 50 of Major Lapham’s partisans set out under a half moon to establish advance surveillance on the prison camp. Kittleson ran point with two Filipino guerrillas for the 24-mile forced march over dry rice fields and prairies of tall Kunai grasses. Any enemy encounter might well compromise the mission.
Nine miles into the march, they approached the National Highway between Manila and Cabanatuan. Running lights glowed like cats’ eyes on Japanese truck convoys and tank units crossing the highway bridge to defensive positions in the mountains. The entire patrol slithered a few at a time underneath the bridge to the other side while tanks clanked overhead.
Traffic was light on the Rizal Road that came next. Raiders crossed it without incident to arrive at daybreak in Balincarin where they joined additional partisans under guerrilla leader Juan Pajota. After a brief rest and bowls of rice and beans, the Scouts saddled up for their initial appraisal of the POW camp while the partisans prepared for their phase of the operation.
The Alamos descended into the lowlands along the Pampanga River. Grasses growing head tall provided excellent cover. They waded the river and crawled to the top of a knoll where they parted the grasses and peered out.
The camp sat in the open about 700 yards away. Kittleson noted guard towers and roofs of thatched palm fronds or tin behind high wire. Even a lizard would have a tough time scurrying unseen across the turnip and sweet potato fields that surrounded the stockade to reach the camp’s front gate.
In the meantime, Colonel Henry Mucci, overall raid commander, led his 6th Ranger component of 121 soldiers out of Guimba not quite 24 hours behind the lead Scout element. He linked up in the predawn of January 29 with Filipino guerrillas under Captain Eduardo Joson to the west of Balincarin. Now numbering more than 200, the combined force proceeded to the staging area at Platero about a half mile to the Scouts’ rear and a mile and a half from the POW stockade. Lieutenants Nellis and Rounsaville hiked back to report the Scouts’ observations to Colonel Mucci.
“A Jap division was moving past all night until it shut down at dawn to hide out from planes during the day,” Nellist informed the colonel. “Our bacon will be out for frying if we collide with those bastards.”
“Could the prisoners have been moved?” Mucci fretted.
“We haven’t been able to get close enough to look inside the camp,” Rounsaville said.
Colonel Mucci arched his back. “We’ll postpone the raid until tomorrow night to let the Jap division clear out. In the meantime, we’ve got to get someone close to the front gate. The gate is key to the entire operation.”

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