The Raid at Cabanatuan was a rescue of Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and civilians from a Japanese camp near Cabanatuan City, in the Philippines. On January 30, 1945, during World War II, United States Army Rangers, Alamo Scouts, and Filipino guerrillas liberated more than 500 from the POW camp.
After the surrender of tens of thousands of American troops during the Battle of Bataan, many were sent to a Cabanatuan prison camp following the Bataan Death March. The Japanese transferred most of the prisoners to other areas, leaving just over 500 American and other Allied POWs and civilians in the prison. Facing brutal conditions including disease, torture, and malnourishment, the prisoners feared they would all be executed as General Douglas MacArthur and his American forces returned to Luzon. In late January 1945, a plan was developed by Sixth Army leaders and Filipino guerrillas to send a small force to rescue the prisoners. A group of over a hundred Rangers and Scouts and several hundred guerrillas traveled 30 miles (48 km) behind Japanese lines to reach the camp.
In a nighttime raid, under the cover of darkness and a distraction by a P-61 Black Widow, the group surprised the Japanese forces in and around the camp. Hundreds of Japanese troops were killed in the 30-minute coordinated attack; the Americans suffered minimal casualties. The Rangers, Scouts, and guerrillas escorted the POWs back to American lines. The rescue allowed the prisoners to tell of the death march and prison camp atrocities, which sparked a new rush of resolve for the war against Japan. The rescuers were awarded commendations by MacArthur, and were also recognized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A memorial now sits on the site of the former camp, and the events of the raid have been depicted in several films.
After the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 by Japanese forces, it entered World War II to join the Allied forces in their fight against the Axis powers. American forces led by General Douglas MacArthur, already stationed in the Philippines as a deterrent against a Japanese invasion of the islands, were attacked by the Japanese hours after Pearl Harbor. On March 12, 1942, General MacArthur and a few select officers, on the orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, left the American forces, promising to return with reinforcements. The 72,000 American and Philipino soldiers, fighting with outdated weapons, lacking supplies, and stricken with disease and malnourishment, eventually surrendered to the Japanese on April 9, 1942.
The Japanese had initially planned for only 10,000–25,000 American and Filipino POWs. Although they had organized two hospitals, ample food, and guards for this estimate, they were overwhelmed with over 72,000 prisoners. By the end of the 60-mile (97-km) march, only 52,000 prisoners (approximately 9,200 American and 42,800 Filipino) reached Camp O’Donnell, with an estimated 20,000 having died from illness, hunger, torture, or murder. Some of the imprisoned soldiers were diverted to the Cabanatuan prison camp to join the POWs from the Battle of Corregidor.
A black-and-white pencil drawing of a man giving another a drink from a canteen. They are located in an enclosure surrounded by barbed wire with guards holding guns patrolling the perimeter. A former POW’s drawing of one prisoner giving a drink to another at the Cabanatuan camp.
The Cabanatuan prison camp was named after the nearby city of 50,000 people (locals also called it Camp Pangatian, after a small nearby village). The camp had first been used as an American Department of Agriculture station and then a training camp for the Filipino army. When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, they used the camp to house American POWs. It was one of three camps in the Cabanatuan area and was designated for holding sick detainees. Occupying more than 25 acres (0.10 km2), the rectangular-shaped camp was 800 yards (730 m) deep by 600 yards (550 m) across, divided by a road that ran through its center. One side of the camp housed Japanese guards, while the other included bamboo barracks for the prisoners as well as a section for a hospital. Nicknamed the “Zero Ward”, the hospital housed the sickliest prisoners as they waited to die from diseases such as dysentery and malaria. Eight-foot (2.4-m) high barbed wire fences surrounded the camp, in addition to multiple pillbox bunkers and four-story guard towers.
At its peak, the camp held 8,000 American soldiers (along with a small number of soldiers and civilians from other nations including the United Kingdom, Norway, and the Netherlands), making it the largest POW camp in the Philippines. This number dropped significantly as able-bodied soldiers were shipped to other areas in the Philippines, Japan, Formosa, and Manchuria to work in slave labor camps. Geneva Convention provisions were ignored as POWs transported out of the camp were forced to work in factories to build Japanese weaponry, unload ships, and repair airfields
The imprisoned soldiers received two meals a day of steamed rice, occasionally accompanied by fruit, soup, or meat. To supplement their diet, prisoners were able to smuggle food and supplies hidden in their underwear into the camp during Japanese-approved trips to Cabanatuan. To prevent extra food, jewelry, diaries, and other valuables from being confiscated, items were hidden in clothing, latrines, or were buried before scheduled inspections. Prisoners collected food using a variety of methods including stealing, bribing guards, planting gardens, and killing animals which entered the camp such as mice, snakes, ducks, and stray dogs. The Filipino underground collected thousands of quinine tablets to smuggle into the camp to treat malaria, saving hundreds of lives. When the Japanese had an American radio technician fix their radios, he would steal parts, allowing the prisoners to have several radios to listen to newscasts of the war efforts outside the camp. One group of Corregidor prisoners, before first entering the camp, had each hidden a piece of a radio under their clothing, to later be reassembled into a working device. The radios were able to pick up a San Francisco-based radio station, allowing the POWs to hear about the status of war outside the gates of the prison. A smuggled camera was used to document the camp’s living conditions. Prisoners also constructed weapons and smuggled ammunition into the camp for the possibility of securing a handgun.
Multiple escape attempts were made throughout the history of the prison camp, but the majority ended in failure. In one attempt, four soldiers were recaptured by the Japanese. The guards forced all prisoners to watch as the four soldiers were beaten, forced to dig their own graves, and then executed.Shortly thereafter, the guards put up signs declaring that if other escape attempts were made, ten prisoners would be executed for every escapee. Prisoners’ living quarters were then divided into groups of ten, which motivated the POWs to keep a close eye on others to prevent them from making escape attempts. One week later, after two Americans attempted to escape, guards collected 18 other soldiers and lined them up against a fence. The 20 men were executed as the other prisoners watched.
The Japanese permitted the POWs to build septic systems and irrigation ditches throughout the prisoner side of the camp. An onsite commissary was available to sell items such as bananas, eggs, coffee, notebooks, and cigarettes. Recreational activities allowed for baseball, horseshoes, and ping pong matches. In addition, a 3,000-book library was allowed (much of which was provided by the Red Cross), and films were shown occasionally. A bulldog was kept by the prisoners, and served as a mascot for the camp. Each year around Christmas, the Japanese guards gave permission for the Red Cross to donate a small box to each of the prisoners, containing items such as corned beef, instant coffee, and tobacco. Prisoners were also able to send postcards to relatives, although they were censored by the guards.
As American forces continued to approach Luzon, the Japanese Imperial High Command ordered that all able-bodied POWs be transported to Japan. From the Cabanatuan camp, over 1,600 soldiers were removed in October 1944, leaving over 500 sick, weak, or disabled POWs. On January 6, 1945, all of the guards withdrew from the Cabanatuan camp, leaving the POWs alone. The guards had previously told prisoner leaders that they should not attempt to escape, else suffer the consequence of being killed. When the guards left, the prisoners heeded the threat, fearing that the Japanese were waiting near the camp and would use the attempted escape as an excuse to execute them all. Instead, the prisoners went to the guards’ side of the camp and ransacked the Japanese buildings for supplies and large amounts of food. Prisoners were alone for several weeks, except when retreating Japanese forces would periodically stay in the camp. The soldiers mainly ignored the POWs, except to ask for food. Although aware of the consequences, the prisoners sent a small group outside the prison’s gates to bring in two carabaos to slaughter. The meat from the animals, along with the food secured from the Japanese side of the camp, helped many of the POWs to regain their strength, weight, and stamina. In mid-January, a large group of Japanese troops entered the camp and returned the prisoners to their side of the camp. The prisoners, fueled by rumors, speculated that they would soon be executed by the Japanese.
Planning and Preparation
On October 20, 1944, General Douglas MacArthur’s forces landed on Leyte, paving the way for the liberation of the Philippines. Several months later, as the Americans consolidated their forces to prepare for the main invasion of Luzon, nearly 150 Americans were executed by their Japanese captors on December 14, 1944 in a POW camp on the island of Palawan. These Americans were herded into air raid shelters, sealed in, doused with gasoline, and burned alive. One of the survivors, PFC Eugene Nielsen, recounted his tale to U.S. Army Intelligence on January 7, 1945. Two days later, MacArthur’s forces landed on Luzon and began a rapid advance towards the capital, Manila.
Major Bob Lapham, the American USAFFE senior guerrilla chief, and another guerrilla leader, Juan Pajota, had considered freeing the prisoners within the camp, but feared logistical issues with hiding and caring for the prisoners. An earlier plan had been proposed by Lieutenant Colonel Bernard Anderson, leader of the guerrillas near the camp. He suggested that the guerrillas would secure the prisoners, escort them 50 miles (80 km) to Debut Bay, and transport them using 30 submarines. The plan was denied approval as MacArthur feared the Japanese would catch up with the fleeing prisoners and kill them all. In addition, the Navy did not have the required submarines, especially with MacArthur’s upcoming invasion of Luzon.
On January 26, 1945, Lapham traveled from his location near the prison camp to Sixth Army headquarters, 30 miles (48 km) away. He proposed to Lieutenant General Walter Krueger’s intelligence chief Colonel Horton White that a rescue attempt be made to liberate the estimated 500 POWs at the Cabanatuan prison camp before the Japanese possibly killed them all. Lapham estimated Japanese forces to include 100–300 soldiers within the camp, 1,000 across the Cabu River northeast of the camp, and possibly around 5,000 within Cabanatuan City. Pictures of the camp were also available, as planes had taken surveillance images as recently as January 19. White estimated that the I Corps would not reach Cabanatuan City until January 31 or February 1, and that if any rescue attempt were to be made, it would have to be on January 29. White reported the details to Krueger, who gave the order for the rescue attempt.
White gathered Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, leader of the 6th Ranger Battalion, and three lieutenants from the Alamo Scouts—the special reconnaissance unit attached to his Sixth Army—for a briefing on the mission to raid Cabanatuan and rescue the POWs. The group developed a plan to rescue the prisoners. Fourteen Scouts, made up of two teams, would leave 24 hours ahead of the main force, to survey the camp. The main force would consist of 90 Rangers from C Company and 30 from F Company who would march 30 miles behind Japanese lines, surround the camp, kill the guards, and rescue and escort the prisoners back to American lines. The Americans would join up with 80 Filipino guerrillas, who would serve as guides and help in the rescue attempt. The initial plan was to attack the camp at 17:30 PST (UTC+8) on January 29.
On the evening of January 27, the Rangers studied air reconnaissance photos and listened to guerrilla intelligence on the prison camp. The two five-man teams of Alamo Scouts, led by 1st Lts. William Nellist and Thomas Rounsaville, left Guimba at 19:00 and infiltrated behind enemy lines for the long trek to attempt a reconnaissance of the prison camp. Each Scout was armed with a .45 pistol, three hand grenades, a rifle or M1 carbine, a knife, and extra ammunition. The next morning, the Scouts linked up with several Filipino guerrilla units at the village of Platero, 2 miles (3.2 km) north of the camp.
The Rangers were armed with assorted Thompson submachine guns, BARs, M1 Garand rifles, pistols, grenades, knives, extra ammunition, as well as a few bazookas. Four combat photographers from a unit of the 832nd Signal Service Battalion volunteered to accompany the Scouts and Rangers to record the rescue after Mucci suggested the idea of documenting the raid. Each photographer was armed with a pistol. Despite Geneva Convention restrictions on armed medical personnel, surgeon Captain Jimmy Fisher and his medics each carried pistols and carbines. To maintain a link between the raiding group and Army Command, a radio outpost was established outside of Guimba. The force had two radios, but their use was only approved in asking for aircraft support if they ran into large Japanese forces or if there were last-minute changes to the raid (as well as calling off friendly fire by American aircraft).
Behind Enemy Lines
Shortly after 05:00 on January 28, Mucci and a reinforced company of 121 Rangers under Capt. Robert Prince drove 60 miles (97 km) to Guimba, before slipping through Japanese lines at just after 14:00. Guided by Filipino guerrillas, the Rangers hiked
through open grasslands to avoid enemy patrols. In villages along the Rangers’ route, other guerrillas assisted in muzzling dogs and putting chickens in cages to prevent the Japanese from hearing the traveling group. At one point, the Rangers narrowly avoided a Japanese tank on the national highway by following a ravine that ran under the road.
The group reached Balincarin, a barrio 5 miles (8.0 km) north of the camp, the following morning. Mucci linked up with Scouts Nellist and Rounsaville to go over the camp reconnaissance from the previous night. The Scouts revealed that the terrain around the camp was flat, which would leave the force exposed before the raid. Mucci also met with USAFFE guerrilla Captain Juan Pajota and his 200 men, whose intimate knowledge of enemy activity, the locals, and the terrain proved crucial. Upon learning that Mucci wanted to push through with the attack that evening, Pajota resisted, insisting that it would be suicide. He revealed that the guerrillas had been watching an estimated 1,000 Japanese soldiers camped out across the Cabu River just a few hundred yards from the prison. Pajota also confirmed reports that as many as 7,000 enemy troops were deployed around Cabanatuan City located several miles away. With the invading American forces from the southwest, a Japanese division was withdrawing to the north on a road close to the camp. He recommended waiting for the division to pass so that the force would face minimal opposition. After consolidating information from Pajota and the Alamo Scouts about heavy enemy activity in the camp area, Mucci agreed to postpone the raid for 24 hours, and alerted the Sixth Army Headquarters to the development by radio. He directed the Scouts to return to the camp and gain additional intelligence, especially on the strength of the guards and the exact location of the captive soldiers. The Rangers withdrew to Platero, a barrio 2.5 miles (4.0 km) south of Balincarin.
At 11:30 on January 30, Scouts Nellist and Pvt. Rufo Vaquilar, disguised as locals, managed to gain access to an abandoned shack 300 yards (270 m) from the camp.Avoiding detection by the Japanese guards, they observed the camp from the shack and prepared a detailed report on the camp’s major features, including the main gate, Japanese troop strength, the location of telephone wires, and the best attack routes. Shortly thereafter they were joined by three other Scouts, whom Nellist tasked to deliver the report to Mucci. Nellist and Vaquilar remained in the shack until the start of the raid.
Mucci had already given Nellist’s January 29 afternoon report and forwarded it to Prince, whom he entrusted to determine how to get the Rangers in and out of the compound quickly, and with as few casualties as possible. Prince developed a plan, which was then modified in light of the new report from the abandoned shack reconnaissance received at 14:30. He proposed that the Rangers would be split into two groups: about 90 Rangers of C Company, led by Prince, would attack the main camp and escort the prisoners out, while 30 Rangers of a platoon from F Company, commanded by Lt. John Murphy, would signal the start of the attack by firing into various Japanese positions at the rear of the camp at 19:30. Prince predicted that the raid would be accomplished in 30 minutes or less. Once Prince had ensured that all of the POWs were safely out of the camp, he would fire a red flare, indicating that all troops should fall back to a meetup at Pampanga River 1.5 miles (2.4 km) north of the camp where 150 guerrillas would be ready with carabao-pulled carts to transport the POWs. This group would help to load the POWs and escort them back to American lines.
One of Prince’s primary concerns was the flatness of the countryside. The Japanese had kept the terrain clear of vegetation to ensure that approaching guerrilla attacks could be seen as well as to spot prisoner escapes. Prince knew his Rangers would have to crawl through a long, open field on their bellies, right under the eyes of the Japanese guards. There would only be just over an hour of full darkness, as the sun set below the horizon and the moon rose. This would still present the possibility of the Japanese guards noticing their movement, especially with a nearly full moon. If the Rangers were discovered, the only planned response was for everyone to immediately stand up and rush the camp. The Rangers were unaware that the Japanese did not have any searchlights that could be used to illuminate the perimeter.Pajota suggested that to distract the guards, a United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) airplane should buzz the camp to divert the guards’ eyes to the sky. Mucci agreed with the idea and a radio request was sent to command to ask for a plane to fly over the camp while the men made their way across the field. In preparation for possible injuries or wounds received during the encounter with the Japanese, the battalion surgeon, Cpt. Jimmy Fisher, developed a makeshift hospital in the Platero schoolhouse.
By dawn on January 30, the road in front of the camp was clear of traveling Japanese troops. Mucci made plans to protect the
POWs once they were freed from the camp. Two groups of guerrillas of the Luzon Guerrilla Armed Forces, one under Pajota and another under Capt. Eduardo Joson, would be sent in opposite directions to hold the main road near the camp. Pajota and 200 guerrillas were to set up a roadblock next to the wooden bridge over the Cabu River. This setup, northeast of the prisoner camp, would be the first line of defense against the Japanese forces camped across the river, which would be within earshot of the assault on the camp. Joson and his 75 guerrillas, along with a Ranger bazooka team, would set up a roadblock 800 yards (730 m) southwest of the prisoner camp to stop any Japanese forces that would arrive from Cabanatuan. Both groups would each place 25 land mines in front of their positions, and one guerrilla from each group was given a bazooka to destroy any armored vehicles. After the POWs and the remainder of the attacking force had reached the Pampanga River meeting point, Prince would fire a second flare to indicate to the ambush sites to pull back (gradually, if they faced opposition) and head to Plateros.
As the POWs had no knowledge of the upcoming assault, they went through their normal routine that night. The previous day, two
Filipino boys had thrown rocks into the prisoner side of the camp with notes attached, “Be ready to go out.” Assuming that the boys were pulling a prank, the POWs disregarded the notes. The POWs were becoming more wary of the Japanese guards, believing that anytime in the next few days they could be massacred for any reason. They figured that the Japanese would not want them to be rescued by advancing American forces, regain their strength, and return to fight the Japanese again. In addition, the Japanese could kill the prisoners to prevent them from telling of the atrocities of the Bataan Death March or the conditions in the camp. With the limited Japanese guard, a small group of prisoners had already decided that they would make an escape attempt at about 20:00.
At 17:00, a few hours after Mucci approved Prince’s plan, the Rangers departed from Platero. White cloths were tied around their left arms to prevent friendly fire. They crossed the Pampanga River and then, at 17:45, Prince and Murphy’s men parted ways to surround the camp. Pajota, Joson, and their guerrilla forces each headed to their ambush sites. The Rangers under Prince made their way to the main gate and stopped about 700 yards (640 m) from the camp to wait for nightfall and the aircraft distraction.
Meanwhile, a P-61 Black Widow from the 547th Night Fighter Squadron had taken off at 18:00, piloted by Capt. Kenneth Schrieber and 1st Lt. Bonnie Rucks. About 45 minutes before the attack, Schrieber cut the power to the left engine at 1,500 feet (460 m) over the camp. He restarted it, creating a loud backfire, and repeated the procedure twice more, losing altitude to 200 feet (61 m). Pretending that his plane was crippled, Schrieber headed toward low hills, clearing them by a mere 30 feet (9.1 m). To the Japanese observers, it seemed the plane had crashed and they watched, waiting for a fiery explosion. Schrieber repeated this several times while also performing various aerobatic maneuvers. The ruse continued for twenty minutes, creating a diversion for the Rangers inching their way toward the camp on their bellies. Prince later commended the pilots’ actions: “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.” As the plane buzzed the camp, Lt. Carlos Tombo and his guerrillas along with a small number of Rangers cut the camp’s telephone lines to prevent communication with the large force stationed in Cabanatuan.
At 19:40, the whole prison compound erupted into small arms fire after Murphy and his men fired on the guard towers and barracks. Within the first fifteen seconds, all of the camp’s guard towers and pillboxes were targeted and destroyed. Sgt. Ted Richardson rushed to shoot a padlock off of the main gate using his .45 pistol. The Rangers at the main gate maneuvered to bring the guard barracks and officer quarters under fire, while the ones at the rear eliminated the enemy near the prisoners’ huts and then proceeded with the evacuation. A bazooka team from F Company ran up the main road to a tin shack which the Scouts had told Mucci held tanks. Although Japanese soldiers attempted to escape with two trucks, the team was able to destroy the trucks and then the shack.
At the beginning of the gunfire, many of the prisoners thought that it was the Japanese beginning to massacre them. One prisoner stated that the attack sounded like “whistling slugs, Roman candles, and flaming meteors sailing over our heads.” Prisoners immediately hid in their shacks, latrines, and irrigation ditches. When the Rangers yelled to the POWs to come out and be rescued, many of the POWs feared that it was the Japanese attempting to trick them into being killed. Also, a substantial number resisted because the Rangers’ weapons and uniforms looked nothing like those of a few years earlier. The Rangers were challenged by the POWs and asked who they were and where they were from. Rangers had to resort to physical force to remove the detainees, throwing or kicking them out. Some of the POWs weighed so little due to illness and malnourishment that several Rangers carried two men on their backs. Once out of the barracks, they were told by the Rangers to proceed to the main, or front gate. Prisoners were disoriented because the “main gate” meant the entrance to the American side of the camp. POWs collided with each other in the confusion but were eventually led out by the Rangers.
A lone Japanese soldier was able to fire off three mortar rounds toward the main gate. Although members of F Company quickly located the soldier and killed him, several Rangers, Scouts, and POWs were wounded in the attack. Battalion surgeon Capt. James Fisher was mortally injured in the stomach and was carried to the nearby village of Balincari. Scout Alfred Alfonso had a shrapnel wound to his abdomen. Scout Lt. Tom Rounsaville and Ranger Pvt. 1st Class Jack Peters were also wounded by the barrage.
A few seconds after Pajota and his men heard Murphy fire the first shot, they fired on the alerted Japanese contingent situated across the Cabu River. Pajota had earlier sent a demolitions expert to set charges on the unguarded bridge to go off at 19:45. The bomb detonated at the designated time, and although it did not destroy the bridge, it formed a large hole over which tanks and other vehicles could not pass. Waves of Japanese troops rushed the bridge, but the V-shaped choke point created by the Filipino guerrillas repulsed each attack. One guerrilla, who had been trained to use the bazooka only a few hours earlier by the Rangers, destroyed or disabled four tanks that were hiding behind a clump of trees. A group of Japanese soldiers made an effort to flank the ambush position by crossing the river away from the bridge, but the guerrillas spotted and eliminated them.
At 20:15, the camp was secured from the Japanese and Prince fired his flare to signal the end of the assault. No gunfire had occurred for the last fifteen minutes. However, as the Rangers headed towards the meetup, Cpl. Roy Sweezy was shot twice by friendly fire, and later died. The Rangers and the weary, frail, and disease-ridden POWs made their way to the appointed Pampanga River rendezvous, where a caravan of 26 carabao carts waited to transport them to Plateros, driven by local villagers organized by Pajota. At 20:40, once Prince determined that everyone had crossed the Pampanga River, he fired his second flare to indicate to Pajota and Joson’s men to withdraw. The Scouts stayed behind at the meetup to survey the area for enemy retaliatory movements. Meanwhile, Pajota’s men continued to resist the attacking enemy until they could finally withdraw at 22:00, when the Japanese forces stopped charging the bridge. Joson and his men met no opposition, and they returned to help escort the POWs.
Although the combat photographers were able to shoot images of the trek to and from the camp, they were unable to use their cameras during the night-time raid, as the flashes would indicate their positions to the Japanese. One of the photographers reflected on the nighttime hindrance: “We felt like an eager soldier who had carried his rifle for long distances into one of the war’s most crucial battles, then never got a chance to fire it.”The Signal Corps photographers instead assisted with escorting the POWs out of the camp.
Trek to American Lines
By 22:00, the Rangers and ex-POWs arrived at Plateros, where they rested for half an hour. A radio message was sent and received by Sixth Army at 23:00 that the mission had been a success, and that they were returning with the rescued prisoners to American lines. After a headcount, it was discovered that POW Edwin Rose, a deaf British soldier, was missing. Mucci dictated that none of the Rangers could be spared to search for him, so he sent several guerrillas to do so in the morning. It was later learned that Rose had fallen asleep in the latrine before the attack. Rose woke early the next morning, and realized the other prisoners were gone and that he was left behind. Nevertheless, he took the time to shave and put on his best clothes that he had been saving for the day he would be rescued. He walked out of the prison camp, thinking that he would soon be found and led to freedom. Sure enough, Rose was found by passing guerrillas.Arrangements were made for a tank destroyer unit to pick him up and transport him to a hospital.
In a makeshift hospital at Plateros, Scout Alfonso and Ranger Fisher were quickly put into surgery. The shrapnel was removed from Alfonso’s abdomen, and he was expected to recover if returned to American lines. Fisher’s shrapnel was also removed, but with limited supplies and widespread damage to both his stomach and intestines, it was decided more extensive surgery would need to be completed in an American hospital. Mucci ordered that an airstrip be built in a field next to Plateros so that a plane could airlift him to American lines. Some Scouts and freed prisoners stayed behind to construct the airstrip.
As the group left Plateros at 22:30 to trek back towards American lines, Pajota and his guerrillas continually sought out local villagers to provide additional carabao carts to transport the weakened prisoners. The majority of the prisoners had little or no clothing and shoes, and it became increasingly difficult for them to walk. When the group reached Balincarin, they had accumulated nearly 50 carts. Despite the convenience of using the carts, the carabao traveled at a sluggish pace, only 2 miles per hour (3.2 km/h), which greatly reduced the speed of the return trip. By the time the group reached American lines, 106 carts were being used.
In addition to the tired former prisoners and civilians, the majority of the Rangers had only slept for five to six hours over the past three days. The soldiers frequently had hallucinations or fell asleep as they marched. Benzedrine was distributed by the medics to keep the Rangers active during the long march. One Ranger commented on the effect of the drug: “It felt like your eyes were popped open. You couldn’t have closed them if you wanted to. One pill was all I ever took—it was all I ever needed.”
P-61 Black Widows again helped the group by patrolling the path they took on its way back to American lines. At 21:00, one of the aircraft destroyed five Japanese trucks and a tank located on a road 14 miles (23 km) from Plateros that the group would later travel on. The group was also met by hovering P-51 Mustangs that guarded them as they neared American lines. The freed prisoner George Steiner stated that they were “jubilant over the appearance of our airplanes, and the sound of their strafing was music to our ears.”