In January 1945 a company of 120 American Rangers and Alamo Scouts sneaked across the Central Luzon plain and slipped behind enemy lines for 48 hours.
They attacked the Cabanatuan prison camp and liberated 511 American prisoners of war. The prisoners were survivors of the Bataan and Corregidor siege in 1942, and had been beaten and starved for 3 years.
Only 2 American Rangers died during the attack. A prisoner died of a heart attack during the rescue. Over 520 Japanese troops were killed or wounded during the raid.
Nothwithstanding the many Stallone and Chuck Norris iterations, the Cabanatuan raid remains the only real successful combat rescue of prisoners of war in American military history.
I won’t detail this story. It was made into a movie. Every Filipino, and anyone interested in WWII in the Philippines, should see this film. The plot takes some literary liberties, but the essential storyline is faithful to history.
The cinematography (filmed in old Shanghai) of Manila during the Japanese occupation, the terrain (filmed in Queensland, Australia), the camp itself, are accurate beyond reasonable expectations.
Cabanatuan is in Central Luzon. Our backyard. It is on the eastern fringe of the plain, at the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains.
The site of the prison camp is now a memorial. You can still see the vague outlines of the camp, from the air.
There are 2 flagpoles, a memorial wall, a monument to the US 6th Ranger Battalion (in the photo surrounded by mats with drying rice), and a somewhat bizarre sundial.
Carlo and I flew over the camp several times during our tour.
During the raid in 1945, a P-61 Black Widow night fighter flew low over the camp at dusk, to distract Japanese guards.
At that moment, over 120 Rangers were crawling through light bush and grass right in front of the camp, towards the camp fence.
There was very little cover, hence the planned distraction.
The Rangers crawled right up to the edge of the Cabanatuan-Cabu road, which passed in front of the camp.
They had to wait there until night fell, before beginning their attack.
Scene from the movie
Carlo and I were not in a twin-engined, radar-equipped night fighter, but we were in an airplane. We flew over the memorial, both of us imagining what it must have been like.
A mile east of the camp is an interesting place. A Filipino guerilla leader, Captain Juan Pajota, was tasked to hold the bridge at Cabu during the raid.
Over 1,000 Japanese soldiers were across the Cabu river. If they rushed to reinforce the camp, they could easily overwhelm the 120-man US Ranger team there.
Juan Pajota and a small band of men held the bridge over the Cabu river. Not one Japanese soldier got across, despite several massed charges across the bridge. The guerillas even destroyed some Japanese tanks.
Pajota was a big success factor in the raid.
Today the bridge is a steel structure built in 1950, on the same site as the original wooden bridge.
It is easy to see how a small guerilla band could hold the bridge against a strong enemy force, including tanks.
There is no other way to get across the steep banks of the Cabu river.
Several accounts describe how Pajota waited for the flare that signaled the successful escape of the prisoners. He then looked with satisfaction on the battle scene at Cabu bridge, and smiled a rare smile.
In the movie, Filipino actor Cesar Montano plays the part of Juan Pajota. He remembers that smile with similar satisfaction. You can see that in the movie.
In 1976, the real Juan Pajota came to the U.S. to file for citizenship. A year later he was still waiting for citizenship. He died a few days before his case was resolved.
There are several books that document this amazing story. Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides, The Great Raid by William Breuer, and Hour of Redemption by Forrest Bryant Johnson. All of them have great photos, maps and diagrams.
As the credits scroll at the end of the movie, continue watching. Real footage taken by combat photographers portray the real POWs right after the raid, as well as the real characters.
At the town of Balincarin, there is a memorial to Capt. James Fisher.
The surgeon for the raiders, Fisher was killed in the raid. When the Rangers passed through Balincarin the day before, Fisher dispensed medical care to the villagers.
The simple memorial is used today for drying rice.
The Great Raid. It really happened, in our backyard — Central Luzon.
POWs from Cabanatuan camp, just hours after the raid