POWs Not Quite Ready for Liberation, 1945

[Robert J.] Body finally got the picture—his planned escape had been trumped by a full-scale rescue. The American Army had beaten him to the draw by no more than a half hour. Yet like many of the other prisoners, Body wasn’t sure where he was supposed to go. Some Rangers were yelling, “Head for the cut fence!” while others were saying, “Head for the main gate!” Not only that, the prisoners were thoroughly confused about what the Rangers meant by the “main gate.” It was a basic orientation problem. For the past three years, the main gate had always meant the gate to the American compound, not the central exit of the entire prison. This ultimate portal to the outside world was generally viewed as a forbidden concept, something one didn’t talk about because it was depressing and futile and could all too easily lead to subversive thoughts that might get a prisoner shot. The area around the main gate was strictly out of bounds, a dangerous piece of real estate, a dangerous idea….

As the precious minutes ticked by, the Rangers became more and more irritated by the strange stubbornness of the POWs. They didn’t seem to understand the urgency of the situation. “I was getting annoyed,” recalled Alvie Robbins. “I’d say to them, ‘Listen, I’ve got a job to do here. I can’t spend a lot of time arguing with you. There’s thousands of Japanese just up the road. We gotta get out of here in a hurry.’ ” In some cases, the Rangers actually had to use physical force. “We just turned them around and booted ’em,” said Lester Malone. “We couldn’t fool around and explain nothing. They just didn’t want to believe we were Americans.” One of the prisoners Malone “booted” was Herbert Ott, the camp veterinarian. “I told him, get the hell out of here. I just turned him toward the gate and kicked him on out.”

Dr. Ralph Hibbs was another prisoner who needed a little physical convincing. “What the hell is going on?” Hibbs shouted at three Rangers who came bounding down the path toward him “with their tommy guns blazing” from their hips. “Where’d you come from? Are you guerrillas?”

“We’re Rangers—General Krueger’s boys.”

“What are Rangers?” Hibbs demanded. He was taxing their patience. Finally, one of them picked up the doctor, muscled him around, and gave him “a ten-foot kick squarely in the ass.”

The most recalcitrant prisoner of all was Hibbs’s immediate superior, Colonel Duckworth, the American commander of Cabanatuan. Duckworth was digging in his heels, refusing to go, even refusing to let the Rangers escort others out. The colonel, who’d been suddenly awakened by the shooting and still seemed perplexed by the whole fracas, was strutting through the compound buttonholing Rangers and shouting in their faces. He seemed unwilling to surrender authority to people whose identities and motives had been inadequately explained to him. Alvie Robbins was almost shocked by Duckworth’s belligerence. “He says, ‘I’m Colonel Duckworth, and I’m in charge here! Who the hell are you!’ I said, ‘We’re Americans. We’ve come for you.’ He said, ‘You can’t do this! You’re going to get us killed. The Japanese told us no escapes! No one leaves here until I say they do.’ I said, ‘You go see Captain Prince,’ and I went on about my business.” Duckworth continued storming about the camp, demanding explanations, imploring the raiders to cease and desist. Finally, another Ranger grabbed him by the arm and said, “With all due respect, you are not in charge here, General MacArthur is. Now I suggest you head to the main gate before we kick your ass there. I’ll apologize in the morning.'” Still grousing about the situation, Duckworth shambled out the American gate. Plagued by night blindness like so many others, he promptly fell into a ditch and fractured his right arm.

SOURCE: Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission, by Hampton Sides (Anchor Books, 2002), pp. 276-278

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Filed under Japan, Philippines, U.S., war

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