It's been 70 years since a daring raid freed more than 500 POWs in World War II
Val Lauder: January 30 should be remembered for this moment in history
Editor’s Note: Val Lauder, a former reporter for the Chicago Daily News and lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of “The Back Page: The Personal Face of History.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
It’s not up there with Iwo Jima. Okinawa. Hiroshima.
It doesn’t come to mind as quickly as the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II draws near. September 2, 1945. The day the Japanese formally surrendered in ceremonies aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Many who will mark the various dates preceding that Sunday are old enough to remember the actual events; others will simply pay homage to those who did their part to bring about the Japanese surrender.
The date to mark here: January 30, 1945.
“The Great Raid.”
A raid led by U. S. Army Rangers to rescue American prisoners of war in the Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines before the advance of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces caused the Japanese to move them to Japan or, more probably, kill them.
After MacArthur’s landing October 20, 1944, the Japanese high command sent out instructions on the circumstances under which POWs could be killed to keep them from being liberated. At one camp they were burned alive. World War II magazine’s “American Prisoners of War: Massacre at Palawan,” said, “Japanese soldiers … doused the wooden shelters with buckets of gasoline, and set them afire with flaming torches, followed by hand grenades. … As men engulfed in flames broke out of their fiery deathtraps, the Japanese guards machine gunned, bayoneted and clubbed them to death.”
Only 11 of the 150 survived. The Sixth Army, fearing for POWs in other camps, decided to launch rescue efforts. The first was the raid on the Cabanatuan prison camp.
A group of more than 100 Army Rangers, Alamo Scouts and Filipino guerrillas traveled 30 miles behind Japanese lines to reach the camp. Along the route, other guerrillas in the villages muzzled dogs and put chickens in cages lest they alert the Japanese.
The 30-minute raid liberated 513 POWs.
Some of them weighed so little the Rangers could carry two men on their backs. At a rendezvous point, trucks and 26 carabao carts – local wooden carts – waited to carry them to safety. Villagers along the way contributed more carts because the Americans had little or no clothing and shoes, and it became increasingly difficult for them to walk. By the time they reached American lines, 106 carts were being used.
News of the rescue was released February 2 in the Philippines (because of the international date line), February 1 in the United States.
I remember the day vividly.
I was halfway around the world. In Chicago. An 18-year-old copy girl at the Chicago Daily News. In my sixth week that Thursday morning when I arrived for work.
I was told not to go to my usual spot at the city desk. Instead, Jack Gullickson, the director of copy kids, led me to a square of four dark green metal desks like the others in the city room. The only items on the huge square surface: a stack of copy paper about an inch thick, a pair of scissors, a glue pot and a streamer of Associated Press wire-service copy with the names of the prisoners of war who had been rescued.
In the interest of speed, no attempt was made to put the names in alphabetical order. That, as Gullickson explained, was where I came in. I was to alphabetize them. Another copy kid would pick up the latest list for each edition.
I’d been there long enough to know the edition deadlines and set to work.
When cut apart, the names were quarter-inch wide strips of paper. Names and hometowns spelled out in the distinctive, typewriter-like letters of the AP Teletype machines.
I laid them out, with space for new names, and as the 10:30 deadline approached, I reached for a sheet of copy paper, applied a wide strip of glue down the center and started sticking the strips down.
As I worked, reporters nearby were leafing through their telephone directories in search of local families, to let them know their son or brother or husband was among the rescued. I noticed City Editor Clem Lane, during a break, stroll over to the reporters’ desks.
The reporter nearest me, beckoned him with a nod and, placing his hand over the telephone mouthpiece, said, “His mother wants to know how he is. Is he OK? All right?”
The slow, solemn shake of Lane’s head told me … and the reporter, who removed his hand from the telephone mouthpiece and said, “We don’t have much information on that yet, Ma’am. But he’s been rescued. That’s for certain. He’s one of those who were brought out, brought back to Allied lines. He’s in good hands, now.”
A final, upbeat note. “And I’m sure you’ll be hearing from him soon.”
It was a little thing, and you can say it was basic kindness. But I remember it, along with the narrow strips of paper on the runway-like strip of glue. And how, because I didn’t trim the streamers of AP copy, the paper ends curled up on either side of the names.
The slow, solemn shake of Lane’s head told me it was bad. An AP story told me how bad.
“SIXTH RANGER BATTALION CAMP, LUZON – (AP) – There is a long, dusty, twisting land near here which should become a war monument, for today it bridged two worlds. It leads across the plain toward the death camp where 513 prisoners of war were rescued by American Rangers and Filipino guerrillas.
“… There were also those who limped from beri-beri, legs scored by tropical ulcers and other diseases, and of course, there were those who looked up helplessly from litters. They tried proudly to be soldiers, carrying themselves as erect as possible.
“Many saluted, promptly and stayed at attention when talking to officers. One man who did this crept into a truck and sank back exhausted a minute later.”
And they talked.
That was when the world began to learn about the horrors of the Bataan Death March – when the men who had surrendered at Bataan were force marched to POW camps.
To begin to comprehend, consider this account from Ken Burns’ PBS series “The War” – taken from the companion book by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns:
“Here and there along the road, water gushed from artesian wells. Some guards allowed men to pause long enough for a swallow or two. Others shot or clubbed or bayoneted those who tried. …. For Glenn Frazier, as for most of those who somehow survived, the sights and stench and random cruelty all merged in memory, until it was hard to tell one day’s horrors from the next.
” ‘I saw men buried alive. When a guy was bayoneted or shot, laying in the road, and the convoys were coming along, I saw trucks that would just go out of their way to run over the guy in the middle of the road. And likewise the rest of the trucks, and by the time you have fifteen or twenty trucks run over you, you look like a mashed tomato. … I saw Filipino and Americans beheaded just with one swipe of a saber.’
“Hissing vultures too engorged to fly battled over the blackening corpses sprawled along both sides of the road. … One officer thought it his duty to keep track of the number of cut-off heads he passed. He stopped counting at twenty-seven, afraid that further tallying would drive him mad.”
That is what the 513 rescued men had endured … and three years in a POW camp.
The names on the narrow strips of AP copy, the two ends curling up.
Men who were safe. Cared for. Cared about.
No wonder – 70 years ago or not – I remember “The Great Raid.”
And think everyone should.
January 30, 1945.