Rank, duty position and unit at time of action:
Lieutenant Colonel, Commanding Officer, 6th Ranger Battalion, 6th Army
World War II
Place and date of action:
Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, Philippines, 28-31 January 1945
In the film:
As the postscript in the end credits of The Great Raid points out, the January 1945 raid to rescue American Prisoners of War, being held 30 miles inside Japanese-held territory in imminent danger of being massacred by their captors at the POW camp at Cabanatuan, is considered the most successful rescue mission in US military history.
More than 70,000 American and Filipino troops at the Bataan peninsula and on Corregidor Island, under the command of Major General Jonathan M. Wainwright, were forced to surrender in April and May of 1942. This had followed five months of bitter fighting during the initial Japanese invasion of the Philippines which began concurrently with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Wainwright's force had been reduced to eating cavalry horses (including the general's own personal mount) and was almost out of ammunition after what few reinforcements and supplies that had been intended for the Philippines were diverted to Australia in the face of an overwhelming Japanese naval blockade. In what became known as the Bataan Death March, the surrendering American and Filipino troops were forced by the Japanese to march over sixty miles with practically no food or water; tens of thousands of them died enroute, either from starvation, dehydration, illness, or being summarily shot, bayoneted or beheaded by the Japanese when unable to continue walking. (Filipino civilians trying to give aid to the prisoners en route were likewise summarily killed.) Thousands more died during the three years of captivity at Cabanatuan and at Camp O'Donnell, both of which were originally hastily built training camps for Filipino troops. As more prisoners died and the relatively healthier ones were shipped to slave labor camps elsewhere in the Philippines or in Japan or Manchuria, Camp O'Donnell was closed down and its remaining prisoners moved to Cabanatuan.
By the time General Douglas MacArthur (who had been ordered personally by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to leave the Philippines in the middle of the Bataan campaign) fulfilled his legendary promise of "I shall return" with his landing on Leyte island in October 1944, the POW population at Cabanatuan had diminished to a little over 500, but it was still the most populated POW camp. As the liberating American forces advanced from their initial landing on Leyte to Mindoro island in December, and then to Lingayen Gulf on Luzon (the largest and most populous island) northwest of Cabanatuan, a pattern had emerged of Japanese troops massacring American POWs rather than letting them be liberated by their countrymen. (The Great Raid begins with a depiction of the worst of these massacres, on Palawan island southwest of Luzon and Mindoro, in which approximately 150 POWs were forced into dugout bomb shelters and then burned alive with gasoline.) As the US 6th Army under Lieutenant General Walter Krueger (played in the film by Dale Dye) began its breakout from Lingayen Gulf and began its drive past Cabanatuan southward to liberate the Philippine capital of Manila, it became obvious that the POWs at Cabanatuan would almost certainly be massacred by their captors before the main body of Krueger's army could reach them. Krueger then assigned the 6th Ranger Battalion, under the command of Lt Col Henry A. Mucci, the primary task of infiltrating 30 miles into the Japanese lines, rescuing the POWs at Cabanatuan and bringing them back to the American lines.
The 6th Ranger Battalion began life as the 98th Field Artillery Battalion, whose initial mission was to provide the 6th Army with artillery support, transported by mules and horses across the mountains of New Guinea. The battalion's conversion from Field Artillery to Rangers in 1943 was the result, ironically enough, of the mission of another Ranger unit, when the 98th FA Battalion's mules were shipped out of theater to the 5307th Composite Unit (provisional), better known as "Merrill's Marauders", for its operations in the China-Burma-India Theater. The 98th FA Battalion was withdrawn to Hawaii, at which time Mucci assumed command and began an intense retraining as rangers. Rejoining the 6th Army as the 6th Ranger Battalion in time for the Leyte landings, they had so far in the Philippines Campaign been given supporting roles in clearing and securing smaller islands that overlooked the main beachheads. This mission placed Mucci and his battalion at center stage.
Mucci assigned the primary mission of actually breaking into the camp, killing the Japanese troops and evacuating the POWs, to Company C of the 6th Rangers under the command of Captain Robert W. Prince (played in the film by James Franco), reinforced by two platoons of Company F, and fourteen members of the Alamo Scouts, Krueger's headquarters reconnaissance unit. After planning the raid with the available intelligence, Mucci and Prince departed on 28 January 1945 with the strike force, which marched thirty miles inside Japanese-held territory to rendezvous with the reminder of the task force: two companies of Filipino guerrillas led by Captains Juan Pajota (played by Cesar Montano) and Eduardo Joson (played by Richard "Ebong" Joson, his own grandson), veterans of Bataan who had evaded capture and recruited the guerrilla force. The guerrillas had had Cabanatuan under surveillance since the arrival of the POWs, and had considered raiding the camp themselves several times over the years, but up until that point had no safe place to evacuate the POWs. The guerrillas, aided by the local civilian populace, had a wealth of intelligence about the camp and the surrounding area (down to such details as the type of locks on the camp gates and the direction the gates swung), which Mucci and Prince quickly incorporated into the plan. Because the guerrilla intelligence indicated that an entire Japanese division was withdrawing in a column along the main highway through Cabanatuan, Mucci postponed the raid for 24 hours. The task force struck shortly after dark on the night of 30 January.
While the film inevitably exercises dramatic license in much of the surrounding story, the raid itself is depicted fairly accurately. The guerrilla companies set up ambushes along bridges on the highway in both directions from the camp. Prince's reinforced company and the Alamo Scouts crawled nearly a half mile across an open field to get from the woods into a ditch right outside the camp fence, while an Army Air Force night fighter distracted the Japanese by buzzing the camp in a carefully coordinated and timed maneuver. This was not a last-minute afterthought as depicted; also, the aircraft used in real-life was a P-61 Black Widow, but as there are no longer any flyable P-61s in existence, the filmmakers decided to substitute a Lockheed Ventura (Army designation B-34, Navy designation PV-1) rather than attempting to use computer-generated imagery. Also, as common sense would dictate, in real life this took place after sunset so that the maneuver took place in twilight rather than in broad daylight as in the film. The P-61s of the 547th Night Fighter Squadron also provided night interdiction along the highway beyond the guerrilla ambush sites, strafing a number of Japanese tanks and troop trucks attempting to counterattack the Rangers. No Japanese vehicles or troops got past the P-61s and the guerrillas.
The raid on the camp itself had achieved such surprise that the fight was overwhelmingly one-sided and lasted a little over a half hour. All but one of the 513 POWs were evacuated. (One British Commonwealth civilian prisoner, identified in different sources as either English or Canadian, who had gone deaf and partially blind during his imprisonment, was alone in a latrine during the raid and did not notice until the next morning that he was the only living person left in the camp; he walked out of the camp by himself and was found by the guerrillas and brought to safety. This was not depicted in the film.) Over 500 Japanese troops-- the camp guards, withdrawing troops in transit who had billeted in the camp, and other troops in the neighboring towns who attempted to launch counterattacks-- were killed or wounded. Two Rangers were killed during the raid; one of them was the battalion surgeon, Captain James C. Fisher (played in the film by Robert Mammone) who had elected to go on the raid rather than wait at the guerrilla base camp in the nearby town of Platero, as he felt that the POWs' medical needs would be more immediate. The Filipino guerrillas sustained 21 wounded. One of the American POWs suffering from malignant malaria died during the evacuation, and in the film he became the basis for the fictionalized character of Major Daniel Gibson (played by Joseph Fiennes).
The task force was able to evacuate rapidly largely due to two factors: although many of the POWs were unable to walk, they had become so underweight from three years of starvation that the Rangers, scouts and guerrillas were able to carry those, sometimes two at a time; and the guerrillas beforehand had commandeered every available carabao (water buffalo) drawn cart in the region-- over a hundred-- and assembled them at their base camp in Platero, and they were used to carry the POWs the thirty miles back to the American main lines.
With Captain Fisher mortally wounded (from a Japanese mortar fragment), the task of providing medical aid to him and the other casualties fell to a husband and wife doctor team from Platero and to Fisher's four medics. After the war, Fisher's mother, the noted author and educator Dorothy Canfield Fisher, arranged for the couple to do post-graduate studies at Harvard Medical School, her son's alma mater. (Again, this was not mentioned in the film.)
Mucci was recommended for the Medal of Honor for the raid (according to the book The Great Raid on Cabanatuan by William B. Breuer, one of the two source books for the film), but the award was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross. Mucci readily credited Captain Prince, in both his planning and his tactical leadership in the execution of the raid, for the success of the mission, and Prince received the DSC as well. (Upon Prince's death at the age of 88 on New Year's Day 2009, a few days before the authors began work on this page, a few online obituaries incorrectly stated that he had actually received the MoH.)
Mucci also credited much of the success to the guerrillas and, contrary to the film, wholeheartedly welcomed their support and intelligence from the start, and was not hesitant at all in integrating them into the attack plan.
Overall, The Great Raid did well (with one glaring exception to be addressed below) in depicting the raid and the players involved, within the time constraints of a theatrical film. This included relatively good portrayal of the perils faced by the Philippine underground organizations aiding the American POWs and the guerrillas during the Japanese occupation, specifically the network run by Mrs. Margaret Utinsky (played by Connie Nielsen). "Miss U" was the widow of a US Army officer who had died in captivity at Cabanatuan; she managed to elude captivity herself by obtaining forged documents altering her identity to that of a Lithuanian citizen. Her experiences and those of her organization members which were depicted-- including imprisonment, torture and/or summary execution by the Kempei Tai, the Japanese equivalent of the German Gestapo-- actually took place over the three years of Japanese occupation, but were compressed in the film to the few days prior to the raid.
The one glaring problem in the film lies in the creation of the fictional character of Major Daniel Gibson, and the characterization of Jack Utinsky, Margaret's late husband. Margaret Doolin of Missouri came to the Philippines on a visit and met and fell in love with Jack Utinsky, a civilian engineer from Virginia employed by the US Army garrison at Corregidor, and married him in 1934. They had a happy marriage and an active social life in the Manila area until Jack, a captain in the Army Reserve, was activated at the outbreak of the war and sent to fight at Bataan. He survived the battle and the Death March but died of typhus and starvation at Cabanatuan a few months later; out of resolve and loyalty to his memory, Margaret organized an underground network of civilians, both Filipinos and citizens of neutral foreign countries, whose primary operation was to smuggle food, medicine and other supplies into Cabanatuan and the other POW camps. The great risks that they undertook were depicted with reasonable accuracy except, again for time compression, for example, that Margaret Utinsky was actually held and tortured at the Kempei Tai headquarters at Fort Santiago in Manila for forty days rather than one night as implied in the film.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided to concoct a romantic interest between Mrs. Utinsky and the fictional Major Gibson. True, it was a chaste relationship with the saintly Major Gibson respecting the prewar marriage of his true love to a fellow officer (supposedly his superior officer, although in real life he would have outranked Captain Jack Utinsky), and then writing a letter to her on his deathbed lamenting his unrequited love. The most disturbing and unforgivable aspect of the entire film was the characterization of Jack Utinsky and his marriage, with two of the other POW officers commenting that Gibson should have taken Margaret up on her advances because her husband "didn't give a damn about her" anyway.
Quite frankly, since time was compressed and other dramatic license was taken throughout the film anyway, it would not have taken much of a rewrite to have made Joseph Fiennes' character the actual Jack Utinsky, who actually did die of illness and starvation at Cabanatuan. We see no reason they couldn't have done that instead.
Our ostensible reason for the creation this particular webpage may have been with regard to Lt Col Henry Mucci, but one of the main themes of the film and the story of Cabanatuan was the sacrifice of so many heroes who received so little recognition; Captain Jack Utinsky was one of them. The man was literally dragged through the mud for sixty miles at Bataan, and died among thousands of other anonymous heroes, and we find it repugnant to have his name dragged through the mud over sixty years after his death, adding insult to injury for no good reason.
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