PFC Kittleson need not have worried about betrayal. The Japanese were caught totally by surprise. Panicked enemy darted about the compound as frantically as defenseless chickens caught by foxes on a hen house raid. Here and there individuals resisted, but, demoralized and caught off guard, few of the 250 Japanese troops inside the camp managed to rally anything like an effective defense. Lieutenant O’Connell’s men on the Jap side of the road were stacking up bodies against the anvil provided by Murphy’s Rangers pouring through the back gate.
Sergeant Richardson, hand still half-numb from having had his pistol shot from it, led two fighters running through the front door of a Japanese officers’ quarters. Two officers caught in their underwear in a common area, a kind of day room, stared in shock at the blackened-faced combat GIs, who took advantage of their hesitation to stitch them with bullets.
There was a long hallway down the middle of the building with doors on either side. Shouting and roaring with adrenaline and excitement, the Rangers kicked in doors and sprayed the tiny rooms with lead. Japs screamed. Windows shattered. Tracers punched through thin walls and blazed through the night like souped-up fireflies gone berserk.
In the front door, shoot up the place, then out the back door and toward the next barracks.
A darkened figure leaped to its feet and thrust arms in the air. PFC Provencher swung his Tommy gun and was already on a trigger squeeze.
“Don’t shoot! I’m an American.”
This wasn’t the POW area. Japs often spoke English in combat to confuse the Americans. Provencher hesitated.
“Hold it!” Sergeant Richardson shouted.
“Look! Look at me! I’m an American!” the ragged figure shrieked.
He really was a Bataan Death March survivor. He was in the Jap area tending a generator providing electricity to the officers’ quarters.
“Get to the front gate as fast as you can,” Richardson instructed.
The scarecrow shambled off toward the gate. “God bless you. God bless you. Thank God you’ve come.”
In another part of the Jap side of the camp, bazooka man Sergeant Stewart and his ammo bearer/loader trotted toward the corrugated tin shed that housed tanks and trucks. He dropped to one knee and hoisted the tube to his shoulder. His loader slapped a rocket into the rear of the tube and tapped Stewart on the head. Ready to fire. He aimed at the shed to take it out.
At that moment, two trucks packed with Jap infantrymen roared into sight on a feeder road beyond the tank shed, apparently headed for the main gate in an escape attempt.
Stewart shifted his aim. The rocket streaked through the night. The lead truck exploded in a bright orange blast of flame.
The loader quickly slapped a fresh rocket into the tube. Stewart destroyed the second truck as it skewed sideways to avoid colliding with the first. Streaks of burning gasoline tentacled from the explosions, setting nearby buildings on fire. Amid screams of terror and anguish, minibonfires tumbled from the blazing trucks—human torches. It was a Danteesque scene of horror. Some of the torches mindlessly stampeded in all directions, shrieking and fanning their flames. Others staggered around screaming until they collapsed to burn on the ground.
Stewart blew up the tank building. Then he and his loader threw carbines to their shoulders and started picking off the torches, blasting them out of their panicked misery.
On the left side of the road in the POW section, Lieutenant Mel Schmidt and his men veered toward the prisoner quarters. Tommy gunfire silenced a terrified enemy soldier cowering on a rooftop and screaming uncontrollably. He tumbled to the ground. Rangers filled him with bullets as he spasmed.
A Jap roared “Banzai!” from the shadows and charged. A wall of Thompson .45 slugs cut him nearly in half.
The attack caught Allied POWs as much by surprise as it did their Japanese keepers. Thinking the Japanese were starting to execute them, the prisoners were either too petrified from fear or too physically weakened to resist. A few, like Sergeant Seckinger, attempted to either hide or recover hidden weapons for a last-ditch fight, but the majority, clad in their underwear, pressed themselves against split bamboo floors and waited in mute stupor for the end of their long torture.
POW Lieutenant Merle Musselman, a company surgeon captured when Japs overran his field hospital during the final days of Bataan, was sitting on the steps of the camp dispensary when violent gunfire erupted. He feared the Japs were slaughtering inmates. Thinking he might save some of them, disregarding his own safety, he ran on weakened legs toward the camp surgical ward that housed one hundred patients. To his consternation, he discovered all the beds empty. He staggered outside, bewildered, where a huge man in green with a blackened face startled him.
“Get the hell to the front gate,” the invader ordered. “You’re being rescued.”
Airman George Steiner fled his barracks to hide just as an attacker demolished a guard tower with a long pipe that shot flame. Steiner had never seen a bazooka before. His bladder let loose. He tumbled into a drainage ditch from the latrine and began crawling in the muck toward the fence. He didn’t see the man until a strong hand grabbed him and jerked him up. To his surprise, the apparition spoke English with a deep Southern drawl.
“Y’all get to the front gate,” the voice commanded. “It’s a prison break. We come to get y’all out.”
Steiner needed no further encouragement. Although gangrene had nearly crippled him, he was one of the first to reach freedom.
Sergeant Bill Seckinger hit the floor as bullets shrieked and punched holes through the walls of his billets. Thoughts of how he could fire the .45 bullets he had hoarded raced through his mind. How could he resist?
“It looks like they’re killing us all!” someone yelled.
“Tear the legs off your bunks,” Seckinger snapped. “Get anything you can. Some of them are going to die when they come in.”
The man was so debilitated he could hardly walk, but he wasn’t going down without a fight.
Then came a drawling, “Y’all are free. Head for the front gate.”
POW Robert Body was less than a half-hour away from making his escape attempt when the attack started. He collided with a GI as he ran out the door of his barracks. He thought the intruder was a Jap. He jumped back, ready to fight.
“Go to the front gate!” the Ranger commanded.
“You don’t have to tell me again. I want outta here.”
Such was Body’s haste to escape that he didn’t bother with the gate. He barged completely through two rows of barbed wire fence, ripping off what remained of his clothing and cutting a deep gash in his nose.
A POW named Jackson didn’t let the inconvenience of having only one leg slow him down. He jumped into a drainage ditch and actually reached the front gate on one leg and the stub of the other.
A number of prisoners were too weak and debilitated to get out of their beds. They struggled feebly as GIs stormed in to rescue them. One Ranger gently lifted a man in his arms and started toward the door. The skeleton thrashed about and attempted to stand on his feet.
“I gotta go back inside,” he protested.
“We have to keep moving,” the Ranger said.
“No. I have to get some documents I hid.”
The man seemed demented from the torture of his long captivity.
“Documents are not important now,” the Ranger insisted.
“You don’t understand. I need those documents to courtmartial the man who ate my cat. He ate my cat.”
“It don’t matter now,” the Ranger consoled him. “I’ll personally get you another cat.”
“Somebody’ll eat it.”
“Nobody will eat it. I promise.”
Ranger Corporal Jim Herrick came across a POW who had fallen out of his bed and couldn’t get up.
“Come on, pal,” he said to the pitiful figure. “We’ve gotta get out of here.”
“I’m a goner,” the POW croaked. “Don’t bother with me. Help get the other fellas out.”
Herrick hoisted the naked bag of bones into his arms and started for the gate. Halfway there, he heard a faint gasp. The prisoner went limp in his arms, dead of a heart attack. The excitement was simply too much for him. Only one hundred feet from freedom and he’d died. Tears in his eyes, Herrick continued with his lightweight burden. None of these poor bastards was going to be left behind, not even if they were dead.
Backlighted by burning buildings, tattered skeletons and scarecrows began emerging from the inferno. Staggering and hobbling and crawling, like zombies emerging from catacombs and graves into unexpected light. Blinking, weeping, laughing, thanking God and their liberators in a repetitive heartfelt litany. All hollows and angles and stench and running sores and lost limbs . . . Like the gates of hell had been cast open. Dead men returned to life.
The sight broke PFC Kittleson’s heart.
Excerpted from Raider: The True Story Of The Legendary Soldier Who Preformed More POW Raids Than Any Other American In History by Charles W. Sasser.
Copyright © 2002 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Matin’s Griffin, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.