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Battle Analysis-the Great Raid at Cabanatuan

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    The raid at Cabanatuan was the product of a failed campaign to protect the Philippines from Japanese control in 1941-42, which resulted in the capture of over 550 American and allied POWs. The capture of the Philippines was essential to Japan, who would be able to use it as a resupply point, as well as eliminating the natural barrier that existed between them and China. The raid was organized three years later in an effort to release the POWS and further the mission of the Allies reclaiming the Philippines from Japanese control.

    On December 7th 1941, Japanese air forces attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying ships and claiming more than 2,400 lives. This attack is most noted for being one of the single most important events leading to the entrance of the United States into WWII. However, it was also detrimental to American forces in the Pacific southeast, which were unable to receive support from the damaged American harbor. Ten hours following the attacks on Pearl Harbor the Japanese attacked the main island of the Philippines, Luzon.

    This island and the defense of it were under the command of Major General MacArthur, who assumed command while the Philippines were still under WPO (War Plan Orange). The key point behind WPO was that the most effective way of defending the island was by focusing all of its protective forces around Bataan. This plan wasn’t so much a means of defense as a delaying measure which would allow the U. S. ample time to send reinforcements.

    When MacArthur assumed control in July of 1941, he was able to convince the commanding Generals and Admirals that the defense of the island would be more successful if they assumed a more active defense of the Philippines. The Japanese focused their preliminary attack on Clark Field and IBA Field, crippling the U. S. ’s air forces on the island. Following the attack on the air fields, the Japanese switched their attention onto the Cavite Naval base, causing a retreat to other Philippine islands, and Australia.

    The attack on the airfields and the subsequent attack on Cavite gave the Japanese free reign of the beaches on the island of Luzon, allowing for them to make preparations for future landings and forces to complete the occupation of the island of Luzon. The main force of the Japanese accusation of Luzon came on December 22nd 1941, with Japanese Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma. Over 40,000 Japanese troops, to include armor and artillery, began running through the major cities of Luzon as they moved towards the capital of the Philippines, Manila.

    The following day, General MacArthur ordered a retreat of his forces to the Bataan peninsula, in an attempt to save lives, returning to the original WPO. While the U. S. and other forces were moving to Bataan, the Japanese were able to occupy Manila on December 26th, giving them decisive control of the island. By January 6th, General MacArthur had successfully moved all of his troops to Bataan and his command to the island of Corregidor. The initial attack on Bataan took place on January 9th 1941 when the Japanese began the attack with artillery and continued with a ground assault.

    The terrain of the Bataan peninsula allowed for the American forces to defend strongly initially with limited defeats and casualties. The American line spanned from the western coast to the eastern coast, which was bolstered by a rocky coast to the south which helped defer amphibious assaults. This terrain advantage allowed for the American forces to defend the peninsula from January 6th until February 8th, which resulted in a tactical retreat of Gen. Homma’s forces until the arrival of reinforcements in March.

    Extended supply lines began to play a critical role in the American defense effort, which were losing soldiers to starvation and disease as the effort continued. The defense began to weaken, and General MacArthur was force to retreat to Australia for his own safety on March 12th 1942. With the lack of food, medicine, and other equipment, the American forces lost control of the Bataan Peninsula on April 9th and the island of Corregidor by May 6th. The result of the American defeat in Bataan was the Bataan Death March.

    The transfer of POWs from Bataan to camp O’Donnell in the northern part of the island spanned 61 miles, 40 of which were traveled by foot. Along the way, the lack of Japanese supplies left very little for the POWs. The ones who fell out of the march were killed, with countless others dying of disease and starvation. By the time they troops had reached their destination of Camp O’Donnell, the American forces had lost endured nearly 10,000 casualties as well as 18,000 which died within the first six weeks of the troops being in Camp O’Donnell.

    POW’s were moved from Camp O’Donnell Cabanatuan, where they remained until January of 1945. The camp at Cabanatuan was used mainly for sick POWs, while the able bodied ones were sent back to Japan in order to occupy the hard labor camps. The POWs who stay in Cabanatuan were starved, beaten, and suffered from Malaria. The Japanese were instructed to treat POWs nicely, however due to cultural differences; the POWs who surrendered were seen as dishonorable and unworthy of support. The standing order for a man attempting to escape or seen smuggling food/medicine, was for that man to have to watch as 10 other POWs were executed.

    The POWs endured the mistreatment and torturous conditions for over two years before the American and Allied forces were able to battle back in order to reoccupy the Philippines. The Allied forces began to work their way back to the Philippines in the August of 1944, with the intention of claiming it once more to use as a strategic point to attack the Japanese on their home soil. After a decisive victory at sea of the coast of the island of Leyte, the U. S. began preparation to take Luzon, which they began on December 15th 1994 The actual raid on Cabanatuan was ordered Lieutenant General Walter Krueger who was commander of the Sixth Army.

    He had received the information from Major Bob Lapham, who was the senior guerrilla chief of the USAFFE. The need for such a rescue operation was hastened by the news of the December 14th massacre at the Palawan POW camp. The Army was afraid that with its advances towards Manila, that the Japanese would execute the prisoners to prevent their rescue. Cabanatuan itself presented a lot of challenges to the U. S. forces. Its location was right along supply lines which had been seeing an influx of traffic due to American victories in the southern part of the Island.

    This created a problem in the form of reinforcements for the impending raid, which could both eliminate the forces that the Sixth Army would send for the mission, as well as the fleeing POWs. The camp itself only contained about a company’s worth of Japanese soldiers, however across the Cabu River to the north, there were about a thousand soldiers and an estimated five times that in the actual city of Cabanatuan. The mission for the Raid was given to Lt. Col. Henry Mucci. LTC Mucci was a West Point Graduate and the commanding officer of the Sixth Ranger Battalion within the Sixth army.

    The Sixth Ranger Battalion had originally been the 98th Field Artillery Battalion, but under the training of LTC Mucci, they transitioned into a Ranger battalion. In addition to the Sixth Ranger Battalion, LTC Mucci assumed the command of three platoons of Alamo Scouts, who were an experimental reconnaissance unit being developed by the Army. The scouts main mission was to perform recon missions in the unforgiving the terrain of the pacific south east, sometimes having to conduct amphibious operations in order to accomplish their mission.

    In addition, a small group of Filipino guerrillas were used for their knowledge of the terrain, as well as escorts for the POWs. After the decision was made to give the mission to LTC Mucci, he began preparation for the raid. The first action taken was to perform a proper recon of the prison camp in order to develop a plan of action. This act occurred on the night of the 27th of January and was performed by the Alamo Scouts. The two teams that performed the recon were led by 1LT William Nellist as well as 1LT Rounsaville.

    The scouts used the knowledge of the Filipino guerrillas to their advantage when performing the recon. They moved to the headquarters of the guerillas, located at Guimba, where they waited till nightfall to conduct their recon. They collected information on the size of the Japanese element, the location of guard towers, as well as the shifts and routines for the guards. The scouts would then hold position at Guimba and wait for the Ranger battalion to arrive where they would relay the information that they had acquired. On the 28th of January the Rangers began their movement towards Guimba (See Image 01).

    The size of the element was C Company and 2nd platoon from F Company. They were told not to wear any form of insignia or rank on their uniform. In addition to the uniform, the Rangers wore soft caps to eliminate the noise and clutter associated with helmets. Every soldier was equipped with an M1 rifle or carbine, as well as extra ammo and a trench knife. The weapons sections were equipped with Browning automatic rifles and Bazookas. The element only brought two radios, and aimed to keep the radio silence a priority as to not ruin the element of surprise.

    The drive from base camp in central Luzon to Guimba spanned about 60 miles and was led by Captain Robert Prince. They traveled through the thick terrain of the Philippine jungles, in an attempt to avoid detection by the Japanese patrols moving through the area. After roughly nine hours of travel, the Rangers made it to Guimba, where they travelled an additional five miles in order to meet up with guerrillas in a separate camp. The village of Balincarin was the link up spot for the Ranger Battalion and the Alamo Scouts. Once the forces were combined again, the plan for the raid began to formulate.

    With the use of map, ground, and air recon the U. S. and guerrilla forces were able to deduct that it would be best to postpone the raid for an additional 24 hours, due to the fact that there was a Japanese armored division moving through which would greatly affect the success of the mission. LTC Mucci and Capt. Price instructed guerrilla Captain Juan Pajota to secure a cattle car large enough to transport 200 POWs, as well as enough food to feed 650 men as they returned home. Another large part of the operation was civilian considerations.

    The majority of the population of the island of Luzon feared the Japanese, since all attempts at uprising resulted in the punishment of death. However, the American presence gave the Filipino’s some form of comfort, which allowed for civilians to cooperate with the Guerrilla’s in preparation for the raid. People who lived north of Cabanatuan were instructed to stay in the city and to go on their day to day business without interruption. They were instructed to discourage outsiders from entering the city and if they did, they were to remain there until after the POWs were released.

    Capt. Pajota also had them muzzle dogs and pen all chickens in order to eliminate the chance that the noisy animals would alert the Japanese of the movement from the Ranger element. People who lived within the city limits of Cabanatuan were instructed to leave for their own safety. However, they were asked to leave in a tactful and organized manner in order to avoid suspicion from the Japanese guards. Once all the civilians were briefed and after all the intelligence was collected through a myriad of recons, LTC Mucci and Capt.

    Prince began to make a plan according to the layout of the camp for the raid, which was to occur on the 30th of January. The POW camp was divided into three sections. One section, which accounted for about half of the camp itself, was dedicated to the POWs, with the northwest containing the highest concentration of people. Adjacent to that were two sections containing both a POW hospital and the Japanese barracks. All these sections were separated by barbed wire that ranged anywhere from 6 to 8 feet high. The main gate, located in the north, was eight feet high and equipped with a heavy lock.

    It always had one armed sentry who was located in a well-protected shelter adjacent to it. Also around the camp were three guard towers, one pillbox, and one building contained four tanks and two trucks. LTC Mucci decided that the raid would take place at dusk, in order to sustain the element of surprise as the mission took place. He split up the Filipino Guerrilla forces into two sections, one led by Captain Pajota, and the other lead by Captain Eduardo Joson. Their responsibility outside of provide transportation and food for the escaping POWs was to provide all around security for the operation at their respective positions.

    Captain Joson’s forces were used to set up a road block to the north of the camp towards Cabanatuan city. He was given an attachment of one bazooka squad from F Company in order to eliminate any threat of armor coming from the north, where they was expected to be a division sized element waiting in reserve. Capt. Pajota’s element was used to provide a block along the Cabu River, and had the main responsibility of stopping any Japanese forces that would attempt to flank the U. S. forces during the process of the raid.

    On either side of the camp, guerrillas were instructed to cut any incoming phone lines to the camp in an attempt to limit the capabilities the Japanese had for calling in reinforcements. The Alamo Scouts were positioned all around the objective, and were tasked out to provide minor support for the units carrying out the actions on the objective. Their main responsibility however was to relay information back to the radio crew left at Platero in order to signal higher about the battle, and any decisive changes that would lead to a change in tactics.

    The main mode of communication was Filipino runners, who were constantly moving back and forth from the objective. LTC Mucci ordered radio silence on the objective throughout the entire operation unless there was a need for retreat, they had to call off raid before it started, or they had to call friendly aerial fire. Once the guerilla units and the Alamo Scouts were set, LTC Mucci arranged for a P-61 Black Widow to fly overheard during C Company’s movement to their position and at the beginning of the raid in order to provide a distraction for the Japanese guards.

    At the beginning of the raid, it would be the responsibility of the remainder of 2nd platoon, F Company to eliminate the guards at the rear entrance of the camp, as well as destroying the pillbox at the northwest of the camp. C company was the main effort in the attack, led by Captain Prince. The responsibility of the 1st Platoon, led by 1LT O’Connell was to attack the area in order to make it safe for 2nd platoon to enter.

    The 1st section of the platoon was ordered to attack from across the highway in front of the camp, ensuring that the sentries at the front gate as well as any guards at the entrance of the compound were eliminated. The 2nd section of 1st platoon was to wait until they were sure all of the initial guards at the front of the compound were eliminated, at which point they would move up to the fence line and begin firing through in order to eliminate and Japanese soldiers that the 1st section was unable to engage from their position across the highway.

    Once 2nd section of 1st platoon had secured the gate, 1st section was to break through the front gate and proceed to eliminate any Japanese soldiers they encountered on their movement to the right side of the camp, where they were to the right side of the camp to catch any of the Japanese who were being pushed through due to the overwhelming fire power of the 2nd section. Following the 1st section would be the weapons section of 1st platoon. The main responsibility of the weapons section, equipped with bazookas, would be to locate and destroy the building containing the four tanks and two trucks that the Japanese had in reserve.

    Once the weapons section entered the camp, the 2nd section of 1st platoon would lift fire until the tanks and trucks were destroyed, at which point they would join the 1st section of 1st platoon in their efforts to eliminate Japanese soldiers escaping through the right side of the camp. The 2nd platoon of C Company, led by 1LT Schmidt was responsible for freeing and evacuating the prisoners from the camp. The 1st sections main responsibility was to enter and destroy any remaining pillboxes on their way to the entrance to prisoners section of the compound. Once there they were break through the gate and begin freeing the POWs.

    The 2nd section of 2nd platoon was to provide security of the 1st section as they moved through the camp. Once the 1st section of 2nd platoon was in place and freeing POWs they were to move to the right flank of the prisoners section and provide security from any incoming Japanese soldiers from the rear of the camp. The weapons section of 2nd platoon was to remain just outside of the gates of the compound providing reserve support, and once prisoners began to exit they were instructed to guide them to the POW collection point. The last person that was instructed to leave the compound was Captain Prince.

    He would search the entire compound as prisoners were being escorted out, making sure that all the buildings were clear as the 1st section of 2nd platoon cleared them. He was to signal to 1LT Schmidt once he had inspected that all the buildings were clear, after which 2nd platoon would move off the objective, escorting POWs as they moved. Once 2nd platoon had moved off the objective, Captain Prince would then meet up with 1LT O’Connell and have him lead his platoon off the objective. After which he would perform a final sweep of the area and then fire a red flare at the rear of the column in order to signal that the raid was complete.

    He would then follow after the Ranger Element, and after the element had traveled a distance of 1 mile away from the compound, Captain Prince would fire a second flare that would signal for the guerrilla units located at the north highway and the Cabu River to break away from their positions and provide rear security for the Ranger element. The commander’s intent for the mission was that the Ranger Element along with its attachments would successfully rescue all of the POWs while sustaining no casualties and defeating all enemies.

    The key tasks were that the units would move into their positions undetected, all units would arrive on time, the start of the raid would be initiated at 1930, the raid would last a total of 30 minutes, and by 2000 all American troops and POWs would be off the objective. The end states was that the American POW camp out of Cabanatuan would be successfully raided and the U. S. and Filipino troops could continue their campaign towards Manila. With the plan set and the units ready, on the 30th of January at 1700. The combined forces of the Rangers, Filipino, and Alamo Scouts number nearly 375.

    The radio crew that had been brought stayed at Platero to receive information from runners to report to higher. During movement, the element travelled together for about a distance of half a mile, where it met the Pampanga River, where the unit split into threes. The Ranger Elements moved slowly through the tall grass and swamps that spanned two miles on the way to the objective, while the guerrilla units broke off to their own positions to set up their blocks. Capt. Pajota moved his forces to the Cabu River, and positioned his troops along the river bed as well as near the bridge that crossed the river.

    What Capt. Pajota had not told LTC Mucci was that he had brought an additional 400 troops with him on the raid. He had sent half up ahead to meet up with Capt. Joson and his northern road block, and the other half who were equipped with four watercooled . 30caliber machine guns were set to meet Capt. Pajota at the Cabu River when he got there. He position the machine gun teams in concealed positions behind the enemy line in order to attack any Japanese troops from behind that would attempt to cross the bridge. He had not told LTC Mucci about this decision, because he wished to prove imself as a leader of his own troops and wished to do that without any American intervention. In addition to these additional troops, Capt. Pajota placed a bomb underneath the bridge crossing the Cabu that was set to detonate at 1945. This was 15 minutes after the raid was supposed to begin, and was intended to destroy any Japanese troops that may have broken through the line and made it to the bridge as they were crossing. Once all of the movement and was completed, the machine guns were in place, and the bomb was set, the guerrilla units were in place at approximately 1900.

    Once the Ranger element had traveled a distance of 1 mile at a low and slow pace, at which point the swampy cover which they had been concealed by began to open up allowing for a higher level of visibility for the enemy. At this point under the dark of night, the Ranger element began slowed their pace and spread their formation for another half mile towards the objective. At the half mile mark, 2nd platoon of F Company broke off and began to crawl along a creek that went along the east side of the compound.

    This creak ran all the way around the objective into the rear section of the compound, where they could carry out their part of the raid. After traveling an additional 400 meters, Captain Prince had C Company low crawl the remainder of the distance to their positions. They were aided by the P61 Black Widow that was ordered to fly overhead to provide a distraction during movement. They were in position at approximately 1900. The 2nd Platoon of F Company who had broken off at the half way mark from the objective traveled along the creek adjacent and 50 meters out from the objectives fences.

    While arousing some minor suspicion, the unit moved undetected to their position. They arrived had arrived and were in position at the scheduled start time of 1930, but they delayed the start of the raid by 15 minutes. The cause of the delay was 1LT Murphy who sent small scouting parties back along the route that the company had travelled in order to confirm that the Japanese had not be alerted by their movement and were still unsuspecting. At 1945, 1LT Murphy fired the first shot which began the great raid.

    As according to plan, F Company concentrated all their fire power on the rear of the compound. They focused the majority of their heavy fire on the guard towers and the pillboxes, as well as laying small arms fire down on any Japanese personnel. C Company began their assault on the front of the compound, laying waste to all the Japanese personnel who left their barracks, alerted by F Company’s attack on the rear of the compound. In about thirty seconds fire superiority was gained allowing the 1st section of 1st platoon to move up and break through the gate.

    The man leading the charge, SSG Jensen, broke the lock on the main gate with his . 45 caliber pistol, allowing the 1st section of 1st platoon to push through, eliminating any Japanese resistance. The 2nd section quickly then moved to the gate to provide cover fire for the 1st section and weapons section of 1st platoon. While the 1st section positioned themselves along the right side of the compound, the weapons platooned moved into position to fire upon the building containing the tanks and trucks.

    They quickly fired on and destroyed the building, eliminating the armor capabilities of the Japanese within the compound. Once 1st platoon had successfully destroyed the armor capabilities and established security within the first section of the compound, 2nd platoon moved in through the gate. The 2nd section ran to its position, firing down towards the rear of the compound, providing cover for the 1st section to break the gate leading towards the prisoners section of the compound. Once 1st section broke through the gate, the actual extraction of POWs went smoothly.

    The 2nd section of 2st platoon moved in and provided cover for the 1st section as they extracted the POWs, and the weapons section provided and over watch as well as assisting in the movement of the POWs. Despite the smoothness of the operation, the U. S. forces did suffer two casualties during the extraction. A mortar attack on the fleeing POWs resulted in the injury of six Rangers from 2nd platoon, as well as the mortal wounding of Captain James C. Fisher. Captain Fisher died in the transport back to friendly territory.

    Simultaneously while the Rangers were carrying out their mission, Capt. Pajota had also made contact with the Japanese. When the Ranger forces initiated the Raid, a Japanese Battalion in reserve behind the Cabu River reacted quickly making their way towards the compound. Despite meeting the resistance of the Guerilla forces led by Capt. Pajota, the superior Japanese fighting force fought through to reach the bridge. While crossing the bridge however, the Japanese got caught in the explosion of the time bomb set by Capt. Pajota’s men.

    This allowed the guerrilla forces a chance to gain fire superiority in the form of the machine guns they had in reserve as well as the section equipped with bazookas from 2nd platoon F Company. With the bridge disabled, the armor that the Japanese battalion had sent towards the compound was halted and quickly disabled by the bazookas of the attached section. The Japanese continued to attack the Cabu position, however without armor or a means of transportation over the river they were unable to inflict any real damage. The road block to the north, commanded by Capt.

    Joson, received no contact. The only possible threat that arose was an enemy caravan that was destroyed by the P61 Black Widow that was sent as a distraction. At approximately 2015, Capt. Prince had finished his second sweep of the camp, making sure that no soldiers or POWs were left behind. He fired the flare signaling the end of the raid and began to move back towards the element. While they were leaving the objective, a scatter of rifle shots killed Corporal Roy Sweezy, who was the second casualty of the raid. Once the element had moved one mile away from the objective, Capt.

    Prince fired the second signaling for the guerilla units to break away from their blacks and provide rear security. Capt. Joson’s men were met with no resistance and found one POW who was hiding in the latrine during their march back through the objective. Capt. Pajota however had to wait for the fire fight with Japanese to subside before he could continue his mission and regroup with the Ranger element. When the U. S. and Filipino forces reached Platero, they were able to organize their men and equipment, as well as get in contact with higher in order to confirm that the raid was a success.

    They unsuccessfully sent transmissions back to Guimba, but were not concerned because they still had not completed the mission. During the evacuation plan, POWs who could walk were assisted by the Ranger element back to Balincarin at approximately 2100. From there, with use of the cattle cars provided by the Filipino guerrillas, the POWs who were incapable of walking began the long trip home back to Guimba. The element was forced to stop Matoas Na Kahey for resupply and medical aid, and from their moved back along the road to Guimba.

    Security along the highways was provided by 1st platoon C company, but luckily they didn’t make any enemy contact during the march home. At approximately 1100 on the 31st of January, the first of the Ranger element met up with the 6th Army, signaling the end of the mission. The success of the raid provided many lessons to be learned as well as mistakes to be avoided. The reconnaissance job that the Alamo Scouts did, as well as the map and aerial recon performed by the 6th Ranger Battalion was essential to the success of the mission and allowed for the U. S. troops to continue the campaign towards Manila.

    By identifying terrain features that could be advantageous to the mission, LTC Mucci was able to develop a plan that allowed for a quick extraction as well as minimal casualties. In addition to the excellent reconnaissance job, the use of distraction from air support allowed for security for the movement of the troops into position. Despite the overarching success of the mission, there were some points that could have poised and issue. The added variable of the extra Filipino troops could have proved advantageous to another part of the operation; however Capt.

    Pajuda’s pride didn’t allow him to ask for input from the American commanders. While the hidden troops did provide extra support for the Cabu River team, it could have been useful in the initial attack on the compound. Also, the fact that 2nd platoon F Company was late in initiating the attack could have been detrimental to the operation. While the idea of double checking to make sure that they had not been detected was good, with the lack of radio communication there could have been some problems with the coordinating units.

    If they had a contingency plan that involved attacking, and the platoon wasn’t in position at the start of the raid, it could have been disastrous for the back line that would not have been at full strength. The raid at Cabanatuan is often referred to as “The Great Raid”, for its success through the text book use of reconnaissance, terrain analysis, and coordination of movement. The success at Cabanatuan led to future success throughout the Pacific campaign, as well as provided lessons that are still implemented today.

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