It was 70 years ago when 511 American and Allied prisoners from a Japanese POW compound near Cabanatuan in the Philippines were rescued. It was considered by many as the most complex operation that Rangers conducted during World War II and it was also one of the most successful. The amazing part of this story is three men from the Litchfield area were a part of this mission. Leland “Lee” Provencher was a Private First Class with the 6th Ranger Battalion that rescued the POWs. Bruce Cottington was an Amphibian with the Navy’s USS LCI (G) 462 that backed up the Rangers. The third person, from Darwin, Minn., was Gerold Hatfield who was one of the prisoners held by the Japanese at Cabanatuan. Provencher and Hatfield are deceased but have family living in the Litchfield area. Cottington is currently living in Litchfield and is active with many veterans’ activities.
Van Provencher, son of Lee Provencher, and Paul Hatfield, son of Gerold Hatfield, both said their fathers never wanted to talk about their missions in the Philippines.
Leland Provencher Provencher was born Sept. 26, 1917, in Cedar Mills Township to Zephran and Izella (Beckstrand) Provencher and grew up south of Corvuso. He was a twin and one of 10 boys and two girls in the Provencher family. He farmed most of his life and operated Midway Fertilizer and Chemical until he retired in 2001. He entered the Army Rangers in 1941 at the age of 23 and served about four years. He married Eva Manning in Litchfield on Aug. 25, 1942. They had two sons, Lance and Van, and one daughter, Evalee. They also had nine grandchildren and two step great-grandchildren. He passed away at the age of 90 on Dec. 26, 2007 with interment at the Ripley Cemetery in Litchfield.
Gerold Hatfield Hatfield was born Nov. 5, 1925 in Hutchinson and grew up in Palisade, Minn. His parents were Jess and Blanche Hatfield, and he was one of 10 children. Gerold married Betty Ann Plath, and when she passed away in 1977, he married his second wife, Donna Eckels. Hatfield raised four children, Wendy, Gerold Jr., Paul and Beth. He worked as a truck driver, factory worker and tree trimmer after he retired from the Army. He entered the service when he was 17 years old. Paul said his dad escaped the prison camp but stayed in the Philippines and joined the Guerillas until he was rescued. His dad weighed 78 pounds when he was in the POW camp. He passed away at the VA hospital in Arizona on Dec. 1, 2005, at the age of 80, and his ashes were spread from an airplane over mountains in Arizona. Bruce Cottington Cottington was born on a dairy farm near Forest City, Iowa, on Jan. 22, 1927 and was the 10th child of 13 children of Gertrude and Levi Cottington. Five of their six sons entered the service. Bruce was only 16 years old when he enlisted with the Navy. He was with the 4th Marine Division and trained as a military amphibian — which was the early version of the Marine Seals. He was assigned to a Landing Craft, Infantry (LCI) until October of 1945 and had made three landings in the Philippines. One of the Philippine landings was when this POW rescue took place. He lives in Litchfield and is active with the Litchfield American Legion, VFW, secretary/treasurer and past commander for the Litchfield Military Honor Guard, which provides military rites for deceased veterans, and is the state commander for VUMS (Veterans of Underage Military Service).
Background on the Philippines In late 1941, tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers fought a desperate battle to defend the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines. After a battle lasting nearly three months in the Bataan region of the Philippines, the US garrison surrendered. In March of 1942, President Roosevelt ordered Gen. MacArthur to leave the Philippines for Australia.
On April 9, 1942, Maj. Gen. Edward King, allied commander of the Bataan Peninsula, against higher orders, surrendered to the Japanese. Ten thousand American troops were led on a brutal eight-day march without food or water. When they lost, they were marched to prison camps in sweltering heat through a mosquito-infested jungle with little or no food or water. During the 60-mile Bataan Death March, 70,000 Filipinos and Americans were captured by the Japanese. The entire march was judged later to be a war crime and started with many atrocities, such as the summary execution of some 400 Filipino officers immediately after the surrender. Anyone who fell behind the march was shot or bayoneted to death, their comrades forced to bury them or be executed themselves. There is no accurate total number for the deaths on this march although estimates range from 5,000 to 10,000 Filipinos and 650 U.S. troops. Gerold Hatfield was one of the prisoners but was able to escape.
On June of 1942, American POWs were transferred from Camp O’Donnell to Cabanatuan – the largest POW camp in the Philippines. An estimated 9,000 American soldiers passed through Cabanatuan. In the month of June alone, 503 POWs died in Cabanatuan.
When Gen. MacArthur finally returned to the Philippines in late 1944, the Japanese forces throughout the Pacific were reeling from American pressure and fighting what all concerned knew was a losing battle. In the grand strategic scheme for the Pacific campaign during World War II, recapture of the Philippines was seen by the allies as an anchor to support the end-game: Capture of Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands and the final assault on the Japanese homeland.
Rescue begins A rescue mission was planned that called for 128 Rangers, including Lee Provencher, to march 30 miles through enemy-occupied territory to the camp. Once there, they expected to face up to 250 Japanese defenders. “Anybody who didn’t want to (go on the mission), could leave,” Provencher said (before his death in 2007) of the selection process for the raid. He said he went because it was a challenge.
About 500 men in the Cabanatuan camp had survived the brutality of their captors and epidemics of tropical diseases. Fearing the Japanese would murder their captives before the U.S. Army could liberate the camp, the Americans sent an elite Ranger battalion of eight officers and 120 enlisted men on Jan. 10, 1945, to rescue the prisoners.
The Japanese Gen. staff in Tokyo issued a ‘kill them all’ order to commanders of various POW camps in the Philippines. The idea was to avoid having to deal with prisoners and to cover up what would be seen as war crimes when the end of the war finally came. Gen. Krueger found out about this order from stay-behind guerilla commanders and from Philippine guerilla units when he landed in the islands. Of particular concern was the fate of some 500 allied POWs being held in the Cabanatuan Camp in central Luzon. Philippine scouts reported that the Japanese planned to kill these men just prior to pulling out of the area as U.S. forces advanced. The pressure to rescue these POWs was intense, as Krueger had received reports that POWs on the nearby island of Palawan had been herded into air raid shelters and burned alive. If he didn’t do something in a hurry, the Death March survivors being held at Cabanatuan would surely suffer the same or similar fate.
He turned to the highly-trained and underused 6th Ranger Battalion, which had been serving as his command post security unit and called for Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, commanding officer of the unit, to come up with a plan to rescue the Cabanatuan POWs. Mucci gladly accepted the dangerous mission and turned to the quiet, competent commander of Charlie Company to plan a raid on Cabanatuan. Capt. Bob Prince mustered 121 Rangers from his own Charlie Company and a platoon of Fox Company Rangers to pull off the mission. They would have to penetrate 30 miles behind Japanese lines, make an approach to the camp across a kilometer of open ground and deal with 250 Japanese guards without killing any of the POWs in the effort. It was a daunting task.
Adding to Mucci and Prince’s problems was the threat of some 10,000 Japanese troops who were positioned to reinforce the camp defenders unless they were delayed or blocked in some fashion. Fortunately, they ran across a strong force of Philippine guerillas that volunteered to screen the flanks of the raiding force against Japanese reactions. The guerillas and a force of Krueger’s Alamo Scouts also provided vital information about the Cabanatuan layout and came up with a scheme to transport the POWs back to allied lines via native caribou carts.
The Rangers were arranging to liberate the POWs and arrived two miles north of the Cabanatuan camp on Jan. 28. The next day the Rangers met with USAFFE guerrilla captain five miles north of camp. After receiving reports of heavy Japanese activity in the area, Mucci postponed the raid for 24 hours. On Jan. 30 the Rangers got into position to attack the prison at 1930 (7:30 p.m.) but were delayed by 15 minutes to make sure all the men were in position and ready.
The moonlight was bright, and the Rangers were able to select their targets while waiting for the signal to start. A P-61 US plane buzzes the prison camp at 1850 to distract the Japanese guards. At 1945, 1st Lieutenant John F. Murphy shot his M1 rifle to signal to begin the attack.
When Murphy gave the signal to start the attack, Company F began throwing hand grenades and firing carbines, rifles, automatic weapons, and rifle grenades into the compound from outside the east fence. The Rangers concentrated their fire on pillboxes, guard towers and Japanese who were unfortunate enough to be exposed.
The Rangers then stormed the compound. Staff Sgt. Theodore R. Richardson and Pvirte First Class Leland A. Provencher of Company C charged across the highway to the compound’s main gate. Provencher was one of the first three soldiers to reach the camp’s main gate. “All I seen was dark,” he said. “My squad leader and I and that foxhole buddy of mine were the three that knocked the lock off the gate and opened the main gate.” Richardson pulled his .45 caliber pistol to shoot the lock, but a Japanese in a guard tower shot the pistol out of his hand. Provencher returned fire killing the guard. He then handed the pistol back to Richardson, and he shattered the lock. Provencher shot another guard prior to entering the gate.
Several minutes after the raid began, Provencher liberated the first POW. He was an American generator operator who was temporarily away from his fellow captives. “That sailor came out from the power shed, and he said, ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, I’m an American.’ And, what the hell kept us from shooting him, I don’t know. We knew very well that a lot of Japanese spoke real fluent English,” Provencher said, seemingly still in disbelief that he pull the trigger. The rest of the prisoners would be freed by 2nd Platoon, Company C. At 2015, Capt. Robert Prince fires his flare. The assault is over. Many of the rescued soldiers had to be carried, out, most too weak to walk or too dazed to know what was happening. Their rescuers had candy bars for energy, morphine for pain. Provencher remembers trying to help a pain-wracked prisoner.
The POWs reached the river and the long trek to freedom began. On Jan. 31, at 8 a.m., the POWs crossed American lines and are free.
In the end, the Rangers staged a classic raid that is still studied by Rangers to this day. They low-crawled across dry rice paddies, got themselves into assault positions and conducted a devastating assault, killing all the Japanese guards in the camp and rescuing all the POWs at the cost of only two Rangers killed in action. The only casualty among the POWs — many could not even walk — was one poor soul who died of a heart attack just as he was being carried out the gates of Cabanatuan.
To summarize this historic event the Rangers trekked 30 miles through the Japanese lines and crossed a road teaming with Japanese traffic. They surrounded a prison stockade that was alive with guards. They did it in dead secrecy. Not a man was spotted.
They struck and killed every Japanese guard in the fearsome Cabanatuan prison stockade within 30 minutes. By 8:15 a.m. they had whisked away the first lot of 511 prisoners, carrying a hundred stretcher cases across the road onto a field of retreat. Not many minutes later the Rangers were as gone as though they had never been there.
A book titled Ghost Soldiers was written by Hampton Sides and a movie was produced, that is titled The Great Raid and captioned as “An Amazing True Story . . . What Real Heroism is All About.” This is an amazing rescue and even more amazing that three men from the Litchfield area were involved, one way or another.