The Arado Ar 96 left the improvised airstrip on the evening of April 28, under small arms fire from Soviet troops. It was the last plane to leave Berlin. Two days later, Hitler was dead.
O’Hare’s Medal of Honor citation calls it “…one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation…”
We’ve all read the story of “Easy Eddie” O’Hare, the mob lawyer who had everything but a good name, who gave it all up to show his son that personal integrity was more important than all the riches of the underworld. Easy Eddie went on to testify against Al Capone and lost his life for it, Eddie’s son “Butch” going on to become a WWII flying Ace.
The story is true, kind of, but it lays the morality play on a little thick.
Edward Joseph O’Hare, “EJ” to friends and family, passed the Missouri bar exam in 1923 and joined a law firm. Operating dog tracks in Chicago, Boston and Miami, O’Hare made a considerable fortune working for Owen Smith, the high commissioner for the International Greyhound Racing Association, who patented the mechanical rabbit used in dog racing. EJ and Selma Anna (Lauth) O’Hare had three children between 1914 and 1924, – Edward (“Butch”), Patricia, and Marilyn.
EJ developed an interest in flying in the 1920s, once even hitching a ride on Charles Lindbergh’s mail plane. For a time he worked as pilot for Robertson Aircraft, occasionally giving his teenage son a turn at the controls.
One day EJ came home to find 13 year old Butch sprawled on the couch, munching on donuts and banana layer cake. He enrolled the boy in the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois. The kid was getting way too lazy.
EJ and Selma divorced in 1927. He left St. Louis for good, moving to Chicago while Butch attended WMA. It was there that the elder O’Hare met Al Capone, later earning his second fortune working as the gangster’s business manager and lawyer.
In 1930, O’Hare approached John Rogers, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, asking that he arrange a meeting with the Internal Revenue Service, which was then after Capone on grounds of tax evasion. It may have been to restore his good name, or maybe he saw the writing on the wall. Possibly both. The two are not mutually exclusive. Whatever the motivation, an Agent Wilson of the IRS later said “On the inside of the gang I had one of the best undercover men I have ever known: Eddie O’Hare.”
Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion in 1931 and sentenced to Alcatraz, becoming eligible for early release in 1939 due to syphilitic dementia. On November 8 of that year, EJ left his office at Sportsman’s Park racetrack in Cicero in his black ’39 Lincoln Zephyr. Two shotgun wielding gunmen pulled alongside, firing a volley of big game slugs and killing O’Hare, instantly. No arrest was ever made.
Butch had graduated from WMA and the Naval Academy at Annapolis by this time, receiving his duty assignment aboard the USS New Mexico. Shortly after his father’s assassination, the younger O’Hare began flight training at Naval Air Station in Pensacola.
Assigned to the USS Saratoga’s Fighting Squadron, Butch O’Hare made his first carrier landing in 1940, describing it as “just about the most exciting thing a pilot can do in peacetime.”
It was February 20, 1942, when Butch O’Hare became the first American flying Ace of WWII. The carrier Lexington was discovered by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, 450 miles outside of Rabaul. Six Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters and Lexington’s anti-aircraft guns were engaged with an incoming formation of nine Japanese bombers, when nine more bombers were reported incoming.
Six more Wildcats roared off the flight deck of the Lexington, one piloted by Butch O’Hare. He and his wingman Marion William “Duff” Dufilho were the first to spot the V formation, diving to intercept them and leaving the other four fighters too far away to change the outcome. Dufilho’s guns jammed and were unable to fire, leaving Butch O’Hare alone on the unprotected side of his flotilla. One fighter against nine enemy bombers flying in tight V formation, mutually protecting one another with their rear-facing machine guns.
O’Hare’s Wildcat had four 50-caliber guns with 450 rounds apiece, enough to fire for about 34 seconds. What followed was so close to the Lexington, that pilots could hear the carrier’s AA guns. Full throttle and diving from the high side, O’Hare fired short, accurate bursts, the outermost bomber’s right-hand engine literally jumping from its mount. Ducking to the other side and smashing the port engine on another “Betty”, O’Hare’s Wildcat attacked one bomber after another, single handedly taking out five bombers with an average of only 60 rounds apiece.
O’Hare’s Medal of Honor citation calls it “…one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation…”
Butch O’Hare disappeared in a confused night action on November 26, 1943. Some say he was cut down by friendly fire, mistakenly shot down by TBF Avenger gunner Alvin B. Kernan. Others say it was a lucky shot by a gunner aboard his old adversary, a Rikko (Betty) bomber. A third theory is that his Hellcat caught a wingtip on a wave, and cartwheeled into the ocean.
The Orchard Depot Airport in Chicago was renamed O’Hare International Airport in tribute to the fallen Ace, on September 19, 1949. Neither the body, nor the aircraft, were ever recovered.
The “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days, ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean
The impending Nazi invasion of Poland was an open secret in 1939. That August, the first fourteen “Unterseeboots” (U-boats) left their bases, fanning out across the North Atlantic. On the 25th the Polish-British Common Defense Pact was added to the Franco-Polish Military Alliance. Should Poland be invaded by a foreign power, England and France were now committed to intervene.
Hitler’s invasion of Poland began on September 1. Even then, he believed that war with England and France could be avoided, the “Kriegsmarine” under strict orders to follow the “Prize Regulations” of 1936. England and France declared war on Nazi Germany on the 3rd. Hours later, U-30 Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp fired a torpedo into the British liner SS Athenia. Lemp had mistakenly believed it to be an armed merchant vessel and fair game under Prize Regulations, but the damage was done. The longest and most complex naval battle in history, had begun.
As in WWI, both England and Germany were quick to implement blockades on one another. For good reason. By the time that WWII was in full swing, England alone would require over a million tons a week of imported goods, in order to survive and to fight the war.
The “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days, ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean. Winston Churchill would say “The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome”.
Thousands of ships were involved in over a hundred convoy battles, with over 1,000 single ship encounters unfolding across a theater thousands of miles wide. According to www.usmm.org, the United States Merchant Marine suffered the highest percentage of fatalities of any service branch, at 1 in 26 compared to one in 38, 44, 114 and 421 respectively, for the Marine Corps, Army, Navy and Coast Guard.
New weapons and tactics would shift the balance in favor of one side and then to the other. In the end over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships would be sunk to the bottom, compared with the loss of 783 U-boats.
The most unusual confrontation of the war occurred on this day in 1945, in the form of a combat action between two submerged submarines. Submarines operate in 3-dimensional space, but their most effective weapon does not. The torpedo is a surface weapon, operating in two-dimensional space: left, right and forward. Firing at a submerged target requires that the torpedo be converted to neutral buoyancy, introducing near-insurmountable complexity into firing calculations.
The war was going badly for the Axis Powers in 1945, the allies enjoying near-uncontested supremacy over the world’s shipping lanes. At this time, any surface delivery between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was likely to be detected and stopped. The maiden voyage of the 287’, 1,799 ton German submarine U-864 departed on “Operation Caesar” on December 5, delivering Messerschmitt jet engine parts, V-2 missile guidance systems, and 65 tons of mercury to the Imperial Japanese war production industry.
The mission was a failure, U-864 having to retreat to the submarine pens in Bergen, Norway, for repairs after running aground in the Kiel Canal. The sub was able to clear the island of Fedje off the Norway coast undetected on February 6. By this time British MI6 had broken the German Enigma code. They were well aware of Operation Caesar.
The British submarine Venturer, commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, was dispatched from the Shetland Islands, to intercept and destroy U-864.
ASDIC, an early name for sonar, would have been far more helpful in locating U-864, but at a price. That familiar “ping” would have been heard by both sides, alerting the German commander that he was being hunted. Launders opted for hydrophones, a passive listening device which could alert him to external noises. Calculating his adversary’s direction, depth and speed was vastly more complicated without ASDIC, but the need for stealth won out.
Developing an engine noise which he feared might give him away, U-864’s commander, Ralf-Reimar Wolfram decided to return to Bergen for repairs. German submarines of the age were equipped with “snorkels”, heavy tubes which broke the surface, enabling diesel engines and crews to breathe while running submerged. Venturer was on batteries when the first sounds were detected, giving the British sub the stealth advantage but sharply limiting the time frame in which it could act.
A four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible, but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions. Plus, there were unknown factors which could only be approximated.
A fast attack sub, Venturer only carried four torpedo tubes, far fewer than her much larger adversary. Launders calculated his firing solution, ordering all four tubes and firing with a 17½ second delay between each pair. With four incoming at different depths, the German sub didn’t have time to react. Wolfram was only just retrieving his snorkel and converting to electric, when the #4 torpedo struck. U-864 imploded and sank, instantly killing all 73 aboard.
Surface actions were common enough between all manner of vessels, but a fully submerged submarine to submarine kill occurred only once in WWI, on October 18, 1914, when the German U-27 torpedoed and sank the British sub HMS E3 with the loss of all 28 aboard. To my knowledge, such an action occurred only this one time, in all of WWII.
With arms linked and leaning against the slanting deck, their voices offered prayers and sang hymns for the dead and for those about to die
The Troop Transport USAT Dorchester sailed out of New York Harbor on January 23, 1943, carrying 902 service members, merchant seamen and civilian workers. They were headed for the Army Command Base in southern Greenland, part of a six-ship convoy designated SG-19, together with two merchant ships and escorted by the Coast Guard Cutters Comanche, Escanaba and Tampa.
Built in 1926 as a coastal liner, Dorchester was anything but graceful, bouncing and shuddering its way through the rough seas of the North Atlantic. Several ships had already been sunk by German U-Boats in these waters. One of the Cutters detected a sub late on February 2, flashing the light signal “we’re being followed”. Dorchester Captain Hans Danielson ordered his ship on high alert that night. Men were ordered to sleep in their clothes with their life jackets on. Many disregarded the order. It was too hot down there in the holds, and those life jackets were anything but comfortable.
Some of those off-duty tried to sleep that night, while others played cards or threw dice, well into the night. Nerves were understandably on edge, especially among new recruits, as four Army chaplains passed among them with words of encouragement. They were the Jewish Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, the Catholic priest John P. Washington, the Dutch Reformed Church Minister Clark V. Poling and the Methodist Minister George L. Fox.
At 12:55am on February 3rd, the German submarine U-223 fired a spread of three torpedoes. One struck Dorchester amidships, deep below the water line. A hundred or more were killed in the blast, or in the clouds of steam and ammonia vapor pouring from ruptured boilers. Suddenly pitched into darkness, untold numbers were trapped below decks. With boiler power lost, there was no longer enough steam to blow the full 6 whistle signal to abandon ship, while loss of power prevented a radio distress signal. For whatever reason, there never were any signal flares.
Those who could escape scrambled onto the deck, injured, disoriented, many still in their underwear as they emerged into the sub-arctic cold.
The four chaplains must have been a welcome sight that night, guiding the disoriented and the wounded, offering prayers and words of courage. They opened a storage locker, and handed out life preservers until there were no more. “Padre,” said one young soldier, “I’ve lost my life jacket and I can’t swim!” Witnesses differ as to which of the four it was who gave this man his life jacket, but they all followed suit. One survivor, John Ladd, said “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” Rabbi Goode gave his gloves to Petty Officer John Mahoney, saying “Never mind. I have two pairs”. It was only later that Mahoney realized, Rabbi Goode intended to stay with the ship.
Dorchester was listing hard to starboard and taking on water fast, with only 20 minutes to live. Port side lifeboats were inoperable due to the ship’s angle. Men jumped across the void into those on the starboard side, overcrowding them to the point of capsize. Only two of fourteen lifeboats launched successfully.
Private William Bednar found himself floating in 34° water, surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” he recalled. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
As the ship upended and went down by the bow, survivors floating nearby could see the four chaplains. With arms linked and leaning against the slanting deck, their voices offered prayers and sang hymns for the dead and for those about to die.
Rushing back to the scene, coast guard cutters found themselves in a sea of bobbing red lights, the water-activated emergency strobe lights of individual life jackets. Most marked the locations of corpses. Of the 902 on board, the Coast Guard plucked 230 from the water, alive.
The United States Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on the four chaplains for their selfless act of courage, but strict requirements for “heroism under fire” prevented them from doing so. Congress authorized a one time, posthumous “Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism”, awarded to the next of kin by Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker at Fort Myer, Virginia on January 18, 1961.
John 15:13 says “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew when he gave away his only hope for survival, Father Washington did not ask for a Catholic. Neither minister Fox nor Poling asked for a Protestant, they gave their life jackets to the nearest man.
Carl Sandburg once said that “Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.” If I were ever so tested, I hope that I would prove myself half the man, as those four chaplains.
“I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I’d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE. — Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415”
When he was little, his neighbors must have considered him a bad kid. His first arrest came at the age of 12, when he and some friends were caught stealing brass from a foundry. There were other episodes between 1932 and ’37: petty theft, breaking & entering, and disturbing the peace. In 1939 he was sent to prison, for stealing a car.
Edward Donald “Eddie” Slovik was paroled in 1942, his criminal record making him 4F. “Registrant not acceptable for military service”. He took a job at the Montella Plumbing and Heating company in Dearborn, Michigan, where he met bookkeeper Antoinette Wisniewski, the woman who would later become his wife.
There they might have ridden out WWII, but the war was consuming manpower at a rate unprecedented in history. Shortly after the couple’s first anniversary, Slovik was re-classified 1A, fit for service, and drafted into the Army. Arriving in France on August 20, 1944, he was part of a 12-man replacement detachment, assigned to Company G of the 109th Infantry Regiment, US 28th Infantry Division.
Slovik and a buddy from basic training, Private John Tankey, became separated from their detachment during an artillery attack, and spent the next six weeks with Canadian MPs. It was around this time that Private Slovik decided he “wasn’t cut out for combat”.
The rapid movement of the army during this period caused many replacements difficulty in finding their units. Edward Slovik and John Tankey finally caught up with the 109th on October 7. The following day, Slovik asked his company commander Captain Ralph Grotte for reassignment to a rear unit, saying he was “too scared” to be part of a rifle company. Grotte refused, confirming that, were he to run away, such an act would constitute desertion.
That, he did. Eddie Slovik deserted his unit on October 9, despite Private Tankey’s protestations that he should stay. “My mind is made up”, he said. Slovik walked several miles until he found an enlisted cook, to whom he presented the following note.
“I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time of my desertion we were in Albuff [Elbeuf] in France. I came to Albuff as a replacement. They were shelling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The following morning they were shelling us again. I was so scared, nerves and trembling, that at the time the other replacements moved out, I couldn’t move. I stayed there in my fox hole till it was quiet and I was able to move. I then walked into town. Not seeing any of our troops, so I stayed over night at a French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me loose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I’d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE. — Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415”.
Slovik was repeatedly ordered to tear up the note and rejoin his unit, and there would be no consequences. Each time, he refused. The stockade didn’t scare him. He’d been in prison before, and it was better than the front lines. Beside that, he was already an ex-con. A dishonorable discharge was hardly going to change anything, in a life he expected to be filled with manual labor. Finally, instructed to write a second note on the back of the first acknowledging the legal consequences of his actions, Eddie Slovik was taken into custody.
1.7 million courts-martial were held during WWII, 1/3rd of all the criminal cases tried in the United States during the same period. The death penalty was rarely imposed. When it was, it was almost always in cases of rape or murder.
2,864 US Army personnel were tried for desertion between January 1942 and June 1948. Courts-martial handed down death sentences to 49 of them, including Eddie Slovik. Division commander Major General Norman Cota approved the sentence. “Given the situation as I knew it in November, 1944,” he said, “I thought it was my duty to this country to approve that sentence. If I hadn’t approved it–if I had let Slovik accomplish his purpose–I don’t know how I could have gone up to the line and looked a good soldier in the face.”
On December 9, Slovik wrote to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, pleading for clemency. Desertion was a systemic problem at this time. Particularly after the surprise German offensive coming out of the frozen Ardennes Forest on December 16, an action that went into history as the Battle of the Bulge. Eisenhower approved the execution order on December 23, believing it to be the only way to discourage further desertions.
His uniform stripped of all insignia with an army blanket draped over his shoulders, Slovik was brought to the place of execution near the Vosges Mountains of France. “They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army”, he said, “thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con. I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that’s what they are shooting me for. They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.”
Army Chaplain Father Carl Patrick Cummings said, “Eddie, when you get up there, say a little prayer for me.” Slovik said, “Okay, Father. I’ll pray that you don’t follow me too soon”. Those were his last words. A soldier placed the black hood over his head. The execution was carried out by firing squad. It was 10:04am local time, January 31, 1945.
Edward Donald Slovik was buried in Plot E of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, his marker bearing a number instead of his name. Antoinette Slovik received a telegram informing her that her husband had died in the European Theater of war, and a letter instructing her to return a $55 allotment check. She would not learn about the execution for nine years.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan ordered the repatriation of Slovik’s remains. He was re-interred at Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery next to Antoinette, who had gone to her final rest eight years earlier.
In all theaters of WWII, the United States military executed 102 of its own, almost always for the unprovoked rape and/or murder of civilians. From the Civil War to this day, Eddie Slovik’s death sentence remains the only one ever carried out for the crime of desertion. At least one member of the tribunal which condemned him to death, would come to see it as a miscarriage of justice.
Nick Gozik of Pittsburg passed away in 2015, at the age of 95. He was there in 1945, a fellow soldier called to witness the execution. “Justice or legal murder”, he said, “I don’t know, but I want you to know I think he was the bravest man in that courtyard that day…All I could see was a young soldier, blond-haired, walking as straight as a soldier ever walked. I thought he was the bravest soldier I ever saw.”
“Consider yourself dead. Some of you won’t come back from this. Some of you will, but you’ll be the lucky ones.” – Briefing officer, 97th BG, 15th AAF, Foggia Italy, to B-17 Navigator Lt. Mike Scorcio and crew before a mission to Germany
Under the terms of the tripartite pact with Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany was obliged to render aid in the event that either ally was attacked. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ambassador Hiroshi Ōshima came to Joachim von Ribbentrop, looking for a commitment of support from the German Foreign Minister.
Ribbentrop balked. Germany was under no obligation to intervene with their ally having been the aggressor. Adolf Hitler thought otherwise. He couldn’t stand Roosevelt, and thought it was just a matter of time before the two countries were at war. He might as well beat the American President to the punch.
It was 9:30am Washington time on December 11, when German Chargé d’Affaires Hans Thomsen handed the note to American Secretary of State Cordell Hull. For the second time in the diplomatic history of the United States and Germany, the two nations were in a state of war.
48 days later, at Hunter Field in Savannah, the Eighth Bomber Command was activated as part of the United States Army Air Forces. It was January 28, 1942.
The 8th was intended to support operation “Super Gymnast”, the invasion of what was then French North Africa. Super Gymnast was canceled in April. By May, the 8th Bomber Command had moved its headquarters to a former girls’ school in High Wycombe, England, from where it conducted the strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany.
Re-designated the Eighth Air Force on February 22, 1944, at its peak the “Mighty Eighth” could dispatch over 2,000 four engine bombers and more than 1,000 fighters on a single mission. 350,000 people served in the 8th AF during the war in Europe, with 200,000 at its peak in 1944.
By 1945, the Wehrmacht had a new joke to tell itself: “When we see a silver plane, it’s American. A black plane, it’s British. When we see no plane, it’s German”. American aviation paid a heavy price for it.
Half of the US Army Air Force casualties in World War II were suffered by the 8th, over 47,000 casualties, with more than 26,000 killed. By war’s end, 8th Air Force personnel were awarded 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 442,000 Air Medals. There were 261 fighter aces in the 8th, 31 of them with 15 or more kills apiece. Another 305 gunners were also recognized as aces.
After victory in Europe, 8th AF Headquarters was reassigned to Sakugawa (Kadena Airfield), Okinawa, under the command of Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle. Tasked with organizing and training new bomber groups for the planned invasion of Japan, the 8th received its first B-29 Superfortress on August 8. Seven days later, the war in the pacific had come to an end..
With the onset of the jet age, the 8th Air Force moved to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts on June 13, 1955, the second of three Numbered Air Forces of the newly constituted Strategic Air Command (SAC).
Since then, the Mighty 8th has been called on to perform combat missions from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, flying out of its current headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.
If you’re ever in Savannah, do yourself a favor and pay a visit to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force (http://www.mightyeighth.org/). Not only will you experience an incredible story well told, but you will meet some 90+ year old veterans who walk as straight and tall today as they did, 75 years ago. Happy Birthday, Mighty Eighth.
Today, Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with about 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”. 72 years ago, it was home to one of the worst POW camps of WWII
Today, Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with about 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”. 72 years ago, it was home to one of the worst POW camps of WWII.
1942 was a bad year for the allied war in the Pacific. The Battle of Bataan alone resulted in 72,000 prisoners being taken by the Japanese, marched off to POW camps designed for 10,000 to 25,000.
20,000 of them died from sickness or hunger, or were murdered by Japanese guards on the 60 mile “death march” from Bataan, into captivity at Cabanatuan prison and others.
Cabanatuan held 8,000 prisoners at its peak, though the number dropped considerably as the able-bodied were shipped out to work in Japanese slave labor camps.
Two rice rations per day, fewer than 800 calories, were supplemented by the occasional animal or insect caught and killed inside camp walls, or by the rare food items smuggled in by civilian visitors. 2,400 died in the first eight months at Cabanatuan, animated skeletons brought to “hospital wards”, which were nothing more than 2’x6′ patches of floor where prisoners waited to die. A Master Sergeant Gaston saw one of these wards in July 1942, saying: “The men in the ward were practically nothing but skin and bones and they had open ulcers on their hips, on their knees and on their shoulders…maggots were eating on the open wounds. There were blow flies…by the millions…men were unable to get off the floor to go to the latrine and their bowels moved as they lay there”.
The war was going badly for the Japanese by October 1944, as Imperial Japanese High Command ordered able bodied POWs removed to Japan. 1,600 were taken from Cabanatuan, leaving 500 weak and disabled prisoners. The guards abandoned camp shortly after, though Japanese soldiers continued to pass through. POWs were able to steal food from abandoned Japanese quarters; some even captured two water buffalo called “Carabao”, which were killed and eaten. Many feared a trick and never dared to leave the camp. Most were too sick and weak to leave in any case, though the extra rations would help them through what was to come.
On December 14, units of the Japanese Fourteenth Area Army in Palawan doused 150 prisoners with gasoline and burned them alive, machine gunning any who tried to escape the flames. The atrocity sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others. The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, was Cabanatuan.
On the evening of January 27, 1945, 14 individuals separated into two teams, beginning the 30 mile march behind enemy lines to liberate Cabanatuan. They were an advance team, formed from the 6th Ranger Battalion and a special reconnaissance group called the Alamo Scouts. The main force of 121 Rangers moved out the following day, meeting up with 200 Filipino guerrillas, who served as guides and helped in the rescue.
Other guerrillas assisted along the way, muzzling dogs and corralling chickens so that Japanese occupiers would hear nothing of their approach. Japanese soldiers once again occupied the camp, with 1,000 more camped across the Cabo River outside the prison and as many as 7,000 deployed just a few miles away.
On the night of the 30th, a P-61 Black Widow piloted by Captain Kenneth Schrieber and 1st Lt. Bonnie Rucks staged a ruse. For 45 minutes, the pair conducted a series of aerial acrobatics, cutting and restarting engines with loud backfires while seeming to struggle to maintain altitude. Thousands of Japanese soldiers watched the show, as Rangers belly crawled into positions around the camp.
Guard towers and pillboxes were wiped out in the first fifteen seconds of the assault. Filipino guerrillas blew the bridge and ambushed the large force across the river while one, trained to use a bazooka only hours earlier, took out four Japanese tanks.
In the camp, all was pandemonium as some prisoners came out and others hid, suspecting some trick to bring them out into the open. They were so emaciated that Rangers carried them out two at a time.
The raid was over in 35 minutes, POWs brought to pre-arranged meet-up places with dozens of carabao carts. A long trek yet remained, one POW said “I made the Death March from Bataan, so I can certainly make this one!” Over three days, up to 106 carts joined the procession, their plodding 2 MPH progress covered by strafing American aircraft.
Two American Rangers and two prisoners were killed, another 4 Americans and 21 Filipinos wounded, compared with 500-1,000 Japanese killed and four tanks put out of action. 464 American military personnel were liberated, along with 22 British and 3 Dutch soldiers, 28 American civilians, 2 Norwegians and one civilian each of British, Canadian and Filipino nationalities.
One POW was left behind, a British soldier named Edwin Rose. Rose heard the firing and thought the Americans were there to stay, so he went back to sleep. When he woke the next morning and realized he had “Cabanatuan all my own”, he shaved, put on his best clothes, and walked out of camp. Passing guerrillas found him and passed him to a tank destroyer. Give the man points for style. A few days later, Rose strolled into 6th army headquarters, a cane tucked under his arm.
The Cabanatuan raid of January 30, 1945 liberated over 500 allied prisoners, from virtually every state in the Union. Begging pardon for any mistakes in rank and/or spelling, the following represents those from my home state of Massachusetts:
- Lieutenant Commander Robert Strong, Jr., Arlington
- Captain John Dugan, Milton
- 2nd Lieutenant John Temple, Pittsfield
- Sergeant Richard Neault, Adams
- Sergeant Stanislaus Malor, Salem
- Private, 1st Class Joseph Thibeault, Lawrence
- Private Edward Searkey, Lynn
- USN C/QM Martin Seliga, Fitchburg
- USN 1/C PO J.E.A. Morin,Danvers
- USN AC MM Carl Silverman, Wareham
I hope I didn’t leave anyone out. These guys have earned the right to be remembered.