Today, the city of Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”. 79 years ago, Cabanatuan became home to one of the worst POW camps of World War 2.
1942 was a dreadful year for the allied war effort 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 ten to twenty-five thousand.
20,000 died from sickness, hunger or murder at the hands of Japanese guards on the “death march” from Bataan into captivity at Cabanatuan prison and others.
Cabanatuan held 8,000 prisoners at its peak though that number dropped considerably as the able-bodied were shipped out to work in Japanese slave labor camps.
Two rice rations a 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”, nothing more than 2’x6′ patches of floor, where prisoners waited to die.
One Master Sergeant Gaston saw one of these wards in July 1942 and described the horror: “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 sick, weak and disabled prisoners. The guards abandoned camp shortly afterward, 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 didn’t dare 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, some fifty to sixty soldiers of the Japanese 14th Area Army in Palawan doused 150 prisoners with gasoline and set them on fire, machine gunning or clubbing any who tried to escape the flames. Some thirty to forty managed to escape the killing zone, only to be hunted down and murdered, one by one. Eleven managed to escape the slaughter, and lived to tell the tale. 139 were burned, clubbed or shot to death.
The atrocity at Palawan sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others. The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, took place at Cabanatuan.
Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci of the US Army’s elite 6th Ranger Battalion selected Captain Robert Prince to plan the rescue. “We couldn’t rehearse this”, Prince said. “Anything of this nature, you’d ordinarily want to practice it over and over for weeks in advance. Get more information, build models, and discuss all of the contingencies. Work out all of the kinks. We didn’t have time for any of that. It was now, or not”.
On the evening of January 27, 1945, a 14-man advance team formed from the 6th Ranger Battalion and a special reconnaissance group called the “Alamo Scouts”, separated into two groups and began the 30-mile march behind enemy lines to liberate Cabanatuan.
The main force of 121 Rangers moved out the following day, meeting up with 200 Filipino guerrillas serving as guides and helping with 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. As many as 7,000 more were deployed, just a few miles away.
On the night of January 30, 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 crawled on their bellies, into position.
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 only hours before to use a bazooka, 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 in the open. They were so emaciated, 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. The long trek to freedom had only begun. Defiant, 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 were killed in the raid. Another 4 Americans and 21 Filipinos were wounded, compared with 500-1,000 Japanese killed and four tanks put out of action. One prisoner died in the arms of a Ranger, before leaving the gate. Another succumbed to illness on the long trip back.
Edwin Rose was a civilian, a purser on a ship plying the Singapore – Hong Kong run, when the war broke out. He was caught in Manila and spent 929 days in captivity. One of the longest-held POWs of the war in the Pacific. Rose awoke the night of the raid, and “heard all the shooting”. He “knew the Americans had arrived” but rolled over and went back to sleep, thinking they were there to stay. On awakening the following morning, Rose found he was alone with “Cabanatuan all my own.”
He dressed and shaved, put on his best clothes and walked out of camp. Passing guerrillas found him and passed him on to a tank destroyer.
Give the man points for style. Edwin Rose strolled into 6th army headquarters a few days later, with a cane tucked under his arm.
The Cabanatuan raid of January 30, 1945 liberated 464 American soldiers along with 22 British and 3 Dutch soldiers, 28 American civilians, 2 Norwegians and one civilian each of British, Canadian and Filipino nationalities.
In 1982, the Cabanatuan American Memorial was erected on the grounds of the former POW camp and dedicated by survivors of the Bataan Death march and the prisoner-of-war camp, at Cabanatuan. A large mural depicts Filipino and American soldiers helping each other, in combat. A marble altar bears the names of 2,656 Americans with this dedication on the back of the Cabanatuan sign:
SITE OF THE JAPANESE PRISONER OF WAR CAMP 1942 TO 1945
THIS MEMORIAL HONORS
THE AMERICAN SERVICEMEN AND THE CIVILIANS
WHO DIED HERE AND GRATEFULLY ACKNOWLEDGES
THE EQUALLY HEROIC SACRIFICES
MADE BY FILIPINO SERVICEMEN AND CIVILIANS
IN A MUTUAL QUEST FOR HONOR, FREEDOM AND PEACE
IT ALSO REMINDS MANKIND OF MAN’S INHUMANITY
TO HIS FELLOWMAN
ERECTED AND DEDICATED 12 APRIL 1982 BY
AMERICAN AND FILIPINO COMRADES, FAMILIES AND FRIENDS.
It is the only place in the province of Nueva Ecija where the Filipino flag stands side-by-side, with the Stars and Stripes.