Tom Grace was part of an Army Ranger unit that liberated more than 500 prisoners from Cabanatuan, Philippines. (Photo by Patrick Dennis, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
By George Morris
When Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur made good on his promise to return to the Philippines during World War II, Tom Grace’s initial role in the invasions turned out to be uneventful. But it didn’t stay that way.
Grace, a New Orleans native and long-time Baton Rouge resident, was part of a dramatic 1945 raid behind Japanese lines that freed more than 500 Allied prisoners to prevent their being massacred by their captors. A force of just 121 Army Rangers and two groups of Filipino guerrillas marched 30 miles behind enemy lines, where they were vastly outnumbered by the Japanese military.
“What we were going into, we were either going two ways or only one way, because we’re not going to come back until we get them out,” Grace said. “That’s what we went in with on our mind.”
Strategically, the Cabanatuan prisoner of war camp was insignificant in the battle to take Luzon, the largest Philippine island. However, an incident on another island caused American commanders to rethink priorities.
For months, as U.S. forces moved westward across the Pacific Ocean, healthy prisoners were shipped to Japan as slave labor. On the western Philippine island of Palawan three weeks before the American invasion of Luzon, POWs were massacred. A handful escaped the slaughter and told their story.
After establishing a beachhead in northern Luzon, the U.S. Army moved south, a drive that would take them near Cabanatuan. In the previous 33 months, an estimated 9,000 American prisoners had passed through this camp, and about 3,000 died there, according to “Ghost Soldiers,” a 2001 book by Hampton Sides.
Fearing a large-scale assault might trigger a Palawan-type massacre, the 6th Ranger Battalion received the assignment. It had been formed in 1943 in New Guinea under Col. Henri Mucci. The Ranger commando concept was new to the Army and the 6th Battalion was the only Ranger unit in the Pacific.
“I don’t know how they did it in the European theater, but in the Pacific our training was actual combat,” said Grace, a private. “Instead of faking bayonet fights with ourselves, we did it with the Japs, actual combat. They’d bring us in on PT boats and drop us off and leave us in there to go get this ammunition depot, knock it out, destroy it, things like that.
“The 33rd Division was pinned down at Wewak in New Guinea, and the colonel said, ‘Let’s go help these guys out.’ We said, ‘What are we going to do, Colonel? We don’t have boats.’ ‘We don’t need boats. We’re going over the mountain. We’ll go over the mountain, come up from behind and hit the Japanese in the ass.’ … That’s the way he was.”
Mucci chose C Company and a platoon from F Company.
“He told us that if we didn’t want to go, step back, they didn’t have to go,” Grace said. “Nothing would be said about it.”
No one stepped back.
Not only would the small force operate on foot well behind enemy lines, but the mission was so secret, they might be vulnerable to U.S. Air Force pilots who might mistake the armed force for the enemy. The raiders left camp on the morning of Jan. 28, with the goal of liberating the POW camp the next night.
When American forces first hit the Philippines at Leyte three months earlier, the Rangers were assigned to take three small islands that, it turned out, the Japanese had abandoned. On the Cabanatuan mission, thousands of Japanese soldiers patrolled the area, and the raiders had to depend on the loyalty of Filipino civilians not to reveal their presence to the enemy. They marched undetected through that day and night until reaching a barrio about an hour’s march from Cabanatuan, where they rested the next morning.
About 1,000 Japanese soldiers were bivouacked about a mile north of the camp. About 8,000 soldiers were in Cabanatuan City, four miles south of the camp. The land around the prison was clear-cut and flat, making it difficult to approach without being seen. The raid was planned for Jan. 29 but was delayed 24 hours because a Japanese convoy was using the highway in front of the prison camp when the raid was scheduled.
The next day, the attackers broke into four groups. A guerrilla force of 200 took positions to the north to blow up a bridge across the Cabu River and hold off an inevitable Japanese counterattack. Grace was part of a Ranger force that guarded the road from the south. The remaining Rangers split into forces that would attack from behind and the front of the POW camp.
To help the Rangers get close to the camp, Mucci asked the Air Force to provide a distraction. Just before nightfall, a P-61 fighter plane buzzed the camp and performed aerial maneuvers, causing prison guards to look up while Rangers were crawling into position.
When darkness fell, the Rangers attacked and overwhelmed the Japanese force there, then rounded up 513 prisoners, all but a handful of them Americans. Only two Rangers were killed — one possibly by friendly fire, the other by a Japanese mortar shell. The prisoners were taken across a shallow spot in the Pampanga River. The weakest were put onto carts pulled by water buffalo.
“Most of them were just skin and bones,” Grace said. “One guy I carried across that river, he was probably 70 pounds.”
Except for one POW who died of an apparent heart attack, they all were brought back safely.
After the war, Grace began working for the U.S. Post Office and later became a U.S. marshal, first in New Orleans, later in Baton Rouge. In 1957, Grace was assigned to arrest a Ponchatoula man charged with operating a moonshine still.
“Coming back in the automobile, he and I struck up a conversation. I asked him if he was ever in the Philippines during the war, and he said yeah,” Grace said. “He said he was taken prisoner during the war. I said, ‘Were you at Cabanatuan?’ He said, ‘Why? Were you?’ I said, ‘No. Were you rescued by the Rangers?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I was one of the Rangers who rescued you guys.’ So, one of the guys I rescued I put him in jail several years later.”