Rescue at Cabanatuan
On 6 May 1942, Lieutenant General (LTG) Jonathan M. ‘Skinny’ Wainwright IV surrendered the last American forces in the Philippines to the Imperial Japanese Army. With that capitulation more than 23,000 American servicemen and women, along with 12,000 Filipino Scouts, and 21,000 soldiers of the Philippine Commonwealth Army became prisoners of war (POWs).1 To add to the misfortune, about 20,000 American citizens, many of them wives and children of the soldiers posted to the Philippines, were also detained and placed in internment camps where they were subjected to hardship for years. Tragically, of all the American prisoners in World War II, the POWs in the Philippines suffered one of the highest mortality rates at 40 percent. About 13,000 American soldiers captured in the Philippines died, and many thousands of them were shipped throughout the Japanese Empire as slave laborers.2
1 Considered by many military historians to be the greatest defeat of U.S. forces in any conflict, the chaotic conditions following the fall of the Philippines make it difficult to accurately account for all American and Allied persons that became captives of the Japanese Army. The problem of accountability was compounded by incidents such as the ‘Bataan Death March,’ and similar acts of mistreatment, as well as the later Japanese policy of relocating prisoners throughout the Japanese Empire to perform slave labor tasks in support of its war effort. Moreover, few records of the early days of the Philippine Campaign survived the war. All these factors combined to make accurate personnel accounting of prisoners and detainees difficult. In addition to the figure of 23,000 American soldiers, sailors, and Marines taken captive in the Philippines, tens of thousands of American citizens, many of them dependent wives and children of the soldiers, were also detained and subjected to the same harsh conditions as prisoners of war. The figures cited are from: Office of the Provost Marshal General, “Report on American Prisoners of War Interned by the Japanese in the Philippine Islands,” 19 November 1945, copy on Internet at: , accessed on 27 February 2017. See also: Louis Morton, The Fall of the Philippines, The War in the Pacific (Washington, DC: GPO, 1953), 454-55, 579-83.
2 Although accurate numbers are difficult to ascertain due to lack of documentation on the part of the Japanese, there have been some studies made comparing pre-war records with wartime and post-war accounting of survivors. The cited 40 percent mortality rate comes from: William P. Skelton III, “American Ex-Prisoners of War,” Independent Study Course, Released: April 2002, Department of Veteran Affairs, Employee Education System, on Internet at: , accessed on 22 March 2017, 11. Robert E. Klein, et al, “Former American Prisoners of War (POWs),” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, April 2005, on Internet at: , accessed on 22 March 2017, 4.The U.S. Army alone counted 25,580 soldiers captured or interned in the Philippines. Of that number, 10,650 died while a POW. Those figures do not include U.S. Navy or Marine Corps personnel, nor civilian detainees. The same source also soberly notes that 30 percent of the captives died in their first year of captivity.
The fate of the Americans left behind in the Philippines weighed heavily on the senior leaders who escaped. General of the Army (GEN) Douglas A. MacArthur’s staff closely tracked the status of Allied POWs on the islands. Headquarters, Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) (MacArthur’s Headquarters in Australia) asked several guerrilla units to pinpoint the locations of POWs and internees in the Philippines. They were to establish contact with them and report. This information would be used to develop rescue plans.3
3 A number of period documents highlighted the need to task guerrilla forces to gain information regarding American prisoners of war (POWs) and details on prison camps. For example, see Staff Study for the Chief of Staff, “Subject: Development of Contact with American POW in Japanese Camps,” 11 December 1943, reprinted in Charles A. Willoughby, Editor-in-Chief, Intelligence Activities in the Philippines during the Japanese Occupation, Documentary Appendices (II), Volume II, Intelligence Series (Washington, DC: GPO, 1948), 2-6.
In late 1944, reports of the Palawan POW Camp Massacre traveled quickly to SWPA (see article). The initial information came from the guerrillas who assisted survivors after escaping. The horrific details prompted SWPA to dispatch amphibian aircraft to recover the escapees. Once in Australia, eyewitness accounts of the mass execution caused military leaders to swear to prevent other atrocities. Thousands of other prisoners were still held by the Japanese, including the thousand or so still believed held at Cabanatuan, on Luzon Island.4
4 For more information on the Palawan Massacre and its influence on increasing the need for rescuing POWs from similar fates, see the preceding article (Michael E. Krivdo, “Catalyst for Action: The Palawan Massacre,” Veritas: Journal of Army Special Operations History (14:1) in this issue. For good secondary source accounts from the survivors’ perspective, see: Stephen L. Moore, As Good as Dead: The Daring Escape of American POWs from a Japanese Death Camp (New York: Caliber, 2016); and Bob Wilbanks, Last Man Out: Glenn McDole, USMC, Survivor of the Palawan Massacre in World War II (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Publishers, 2004).
This article incorporates reports and accounts from the 6th Ranger Battalion, Sixth U.S. Army, Alamo Scouts, and various guerrilla units that supported the rescue of 516 POWs from Cabanatuan. It chronologically merges these accounts into a single narrative history and concludes with an operational analysis. The reader is immersed at the tactical level to appreciate the detailed planning and coordination behind this textbook raid. One will see events as they unfold. Having the participants speak makes the history personal. Although the mission was well-executed, the article reveals weaknesses as well. The outcome of this operation influenced similar ones afterward in which more allied lives were saved.
After MacArthur’s forces landed at Lingayen Bay, Luzon, on 9 January 1945 and fought towards Cabanatuan, Major (MAJ) Robert B. Lapham, leader of the Luzon Guerrilla Armed Forces (LGAF), had renewed hope for of freeing the Cabanatuan prisoners.5 In light of what had recently happened on Palawan, a prison rescue merited reconsideration.
5 Robert Lapham and Bernard Norling, Lapham’s Raiders: Guerrillas in the Philippines, 1942-1945 (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1996),