The Airshow at Cabanatuan Death Camp, the Philippines, World War II.
As American forces closed in on Japan during World War II, they began to liberate Japanese run POW camps in the Pacific. What was discovered was truly horrific, as the camps were akin to Nazi death camps in Europe. There prisoners faced torture, beatings, starvation, disease, and death. When American forces landed in the Philippines in October of 1944, they faced a dilemma. The Philippines held thousands of American and Filipino prisoners, most of whom were captured after the Battle of Bataan over two years earlier,when almost 80,000 American and Filipino soldiers were captured. It was feared that when the Americans attempted to liberate the Japanese prison camps, the Japanese guards would simply execute their prisoners. Thus, the tactics of liberating the camps involved very fast assaults combined with elements of trickery.
In January of 1945, 133 Army Rangers and Alamo scouts set out to liberate the Japanese prison camp named Cabanatuan, which held around 500 starving and diseased American POW’s. They would later be joined by over 250 Filipino guerrillas. After conducting a reconnaissance of the camp, they developed a plan for liberating the prisoners while quickly eliminating the 220 Japanese guards before they could react and harm any of the POW’s. What resulted was a brilliant act of trickery that would make the Cabanatuan raid one of the most successful prison camp raids of the Pacific.
As the Rangers slowly approached the camp during the night of January 30th, a P-61 Black Widow flew over the prison. Piloted by Capt. Kenneth Schrieber and Lt. Bonnie Rucks, the fighter cut one of its engines and restarted it, causing loud backfires that gained the attention of the whole camp. Schrieber then performed a night airshow, performing various acrobatic maneuvers, buzzing the camp, and at one point even flying within 30 feet of the ground and pretending to crash. The airshow attracted the attention of all the guards, whose eyes all gazed at Schriebers aerobatics. As the Japanese guards watched the sky, the Army Rangers used the distraction to slowly crawl towards the camp. Because of the distraction, Army Rangers were able to sneak to within mere yards of enemy pillboxes and guard towers. As Ranger Capt. Robert Prince put it, ”the idea of an aerial decoy was a little unusual and honestly, I didn’t think it would work, not in a million years. But the pilot’s maneuvers were so skillful and deceptive that the diversion was complete. I don’t know where we would have been without it.”
The airshow lasted 20 minutes. Once in position, the Army Ranger sprang from their positions and sprayed the Japanese with devastating close range gunfire. The ruse worked so well that within 15 seconds all the camp’s guard towers and pillboxes were destroyed and all of the guards were slaughtered. The camp itself was secured within 30 minutes, and 522 prisoners were quickly loaded onto carts and evacuated. After the prisoners were evacuated the Rangers and Filipino guerrilla’s held off counterattacking Japanese forces with the assistance of P-61 Black Widows and P-51 Mustangs. The resulting battle resulted in the loss of 530–1,000 Japanese soldiers and the destruction of 4 Japanese tanks. Incredibly, only 2 American soldiers and 2 prisoners were lost.