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Rescue at Cabanatuan

W.J. Rayment / -- There could not be a more perfect story than the rescue of the POWs interned in the Japanese prisoner of war camp in Cabanatuan, Philippines in January of 1945. 121 Army Rangers commanded by Lt Col. Henry Mci and Spearheaded by Captain Robert Prince made a forced march behind Japanese lines to liberate soldiers who had been interned there since the Bataan Death March.

The operation would have been impossible without the aid of Filipino guerrillas (commanded by two charismatic leaders, Eduardo Joson and Juan Pajota) who not only served as guides but fought a major holding action against vastly superior forces that allowed the American Rangers to free the prisoners. "Ghost Soldiers" by Hampton Sides tells this story with verve, honesty and considerable erudition.

The story begins with a Japanese atrocity in a nearby prison camp where Americans were herded into a ditch and then doused with fuel, then set on fire. Anyone running out of the pit was shot down by the guards. Miraculously, several men escaped from this Maelstrom to tell the American command what had happened. Thus, American generals understood that other prison camps were liable to have similar atrocities occur. So, they were in a hurry to liberate Cabanatuan before the Japanese felt threatened enough to destroy the prisoners remaining in the camp.

When the American General in the field, Walter Krueger, heard of the possibility of liberating the camp at Cabanatuan, he immediately set the wheels in motion. The operation had to be conducted on very short notice, there were no rehearsals, no real preparations at all. The Rangers were simply detailed to the task and then sent. The story, then, is one of superb improvisation where Americans used their much vaunted ability to think independently, yet coordinate efforts to accomplish a goal.

The Rangers trooped behind enemy lines for thirty miles. Captain Prince using the recon of the Alamo Scouts as well as the local Filipino guerrillas formulated a plan that split his own force in two and assaulted the POW compound from two sides. Meanwhile, Joson guarded the road to Cabanatuan City with 80 men and Pajota and two hundred men faced the other direction and successfully fought a horrific battle with over 1000 Japanese troops.

The assault went off almost without a hitch. Nearly every POW was extracted and the loss of only two men. Even so, there were many tense moments and there were many fortuitous occurrences that saved the operation from discovery and the Rangers from destruction. "Ghost Soldiers" reads like an adventure story on the scale of Xenophon's Anabasis. It is an inspiring and gritty story that every person interested in the History of World War II should read.

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