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A member of the Angeles City Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2485 stands in front of a wall inscribed with the names of 2,656 POWs and civilians who died in Cabanatuan, Philippines, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

A member of the Angeles City Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2485 stands in front of a wall inscribed with the names of 2,656 POWs and civilians who died in Cabanatuan, Philippines, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A member of the Angeles City Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2485 stands in front of a wall inscribed with the names of 2,656 POWs and civilians who died in Cabanatuan, Philippines, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

A member of the Angeles City Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2485 stands in front of a wall inscribed with the names of 2,656 POWs and civilians who died in Cabanatuan, Philippines, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Air Force Col. Larry Card speaks at a POW/MIA Recognition Day event in Cabanatuan, Philippines, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

Air Force Col. Larry Card speaks at a POW/MIA Recognition Day event in Cabanatuan, Philippines, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A wall inscribed with the names of 2,656 World War II POWs and civilians who died in Cabanatuan, Philippines, is seen on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

A wall inscribed with the names of 2,656 World War II POWs and civilians who died in Cabanatuan, Philippines, is seen on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

CABANATUAN, Philippines — “They sent us out there to die.” That’s how an American veteran recently recalled his time at one of Japan’s most notorious Prisoner of War camps.

The old soldier’s recollection of the Cabanatuan POW camp was retold to former servicemembers and supporters who gathered there Saturday for POW/MIA Recognition Day.

A convoy of motorcycles led two busloads of people from the Angeles City Veterans of Foreign Wars Post near Clark Air Base to Cabanatuan, where the Japanese had kept people too weak or sick to go to forced labor camps.

The treatment there was harsh and many POWs died from sickness and starvation or were executed by their captors. However, the camp was also the site of one of the greatest military rescue operations in history.

The story of the January 1945 raid that saved nearly 500 POWs and civilians from Cabanatuan was told by Angeles VFW Post commander Jim Collins, while standing in front of a wall inscribed with the names of 2,656 POWs and civilians who died at the camp before it was liberated.

Allied forces in the Philippines feared that the Japanese would execute the prisoners once it became clear they were going to be overrun. Gen. Douglas MacArthur authorized a raid involving the 6th Ranger Battalion, Alamo Scouts, the Army Air Corps, Filipino guerrillas and local villagers, Collins told the veterans.

“More than 1,000 people played a role in the raid,” he said.

The troops infiltrated 27 miles behind enemy lines to reach the camp, first traveling in trucks and then marching to assault positions nearby, Collins said.

A P-61 Black Widow night fighter distracted Japanese guards by performing acrobatics and backfiring its engine before the attack, he said. Only two U.S. troops were lost.

Meanwhile, the guerrillas blocked a bridge and attacked nearby Japanese forces, preventing a counter attack, Collins said. The rescued prisoners were carried on carts pulled by water buffalo and reached American lines on Jan. 31, 1945.

Today all that’s left of the camp is the base of its water tower. The remains of POWs who died there were exhumed after the war and reburied at other cemeteries.

John Gilbert, a retired Army first sergeant and past VFW post commander, said veterans are firmly behind efforts to bring fallen troops home.

“A POW from Cabanatuan stayed in the Philippines for two and a half years after the war and retraced the Death March route looking for missing prisoners,” he added.

Air Force Col. Larry Card, an A-10 Thunderbolt pilot serving as a military attaché to the Philippines, told the veterans it’s important not to forget those left behind on the battlefield.

“Cabanatuan really speaks to our desire to come to the aid of our comrades,” he said. “These people came into a Japanese stronghold to rescue 500 prisoners. There was no reason that the mission should have been successful. They all came into it thinking it may be their last few days on Earth, and they all said it was worth it.”

robson.seth@stripes.comTwitter: @SethRobson1

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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